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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Sounds Of Caribbean And The Americas Will Liven Calle Ocho

by David Cazares

February 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

Latin music fans are ready to pour into Miami for the annual Calle Ocho street party, a cultural celebration that brings dozens of bands to Little Havana.

When Miami closes 27 city blocks for the party on March 9, festival organizers will be marking the event's 25th anniversary and commemorating the huge growth of Calle Ocho, which has become the largest Hispanic festival in the United States.

When the Kiwanis of Little Havana decided to hold an "Open House" in 1978 on 15 city blocks, it was primarily intended to share the then mostly Cuban-American community's customs with others who might be resentful of their growing numbers.

It wasn't long before the annual party became so successful that the Kiwanis made it the conclusion to the 10-day Carnaval Miami event that raises money for charitable causes. As migrations of Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and other Hispanics moved into Little Havana, the festival changed to embrace their tastes, and its stages now include a variety of sounds from the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge in Little Havana for the festival, which includes a number of notable performers. One of my favorites is salsa singer Tito Nieves, one of a growing number of veteran bandleaders who are adapting their sound to appeal to younger audiences.

But while the 43-year-old Nieves is including elements of r&b and pop to lure young people, he remains faithful enough to the call-and-response roots of salsa to keep older fans.

Nieves, who has been in the business for 27 years, accomplished that delicate feat last year on En Otra Onda, a pop-salsa album produced by Sergio George that experimented with modern pop and r&b. The album was a success with both groups of fans because Nieves made sure to include tracks with traditional rhythms and to collaborate with such salsa greats as Ruben Blades and Dominican singer Sergio Vargas.

"I'm like an analyst," Nieves said. "I like to figure out what's going on. I listen to all kinds of music, from rap to rock."

Nieves, a Puerto Rican born on the island who now lives in New Jersey, has long taken such chances in English and Spanish.

His hits include De Mi Enamorate (Fall in Love With Me), Barry White's I'm Going to Love You Just a Little More, Baby, I Like It Like

That and a remake of the Joe Cuba classic Bang Bang.

As much as he likes experimenting, Nieves promises to make more traditional salsa records soon, because that's the kind of music many of his longtime fans like best.

"I love what I do," he said. "There's nothing better than going on stage and seeing the people clapping."

Another performer to watch at Calle Ocho is Manolin, el medico de la salsa (the Salsa Doctor), the popular Cuban singer and bandleader who is now trying to build a career in the United States.

Manolin, whose real name is Manuel Gonzalez Hernandez, was discovered in 1993 by Jose Luis Cortes, the leader of NG La Banda, one of Cuba's top contemporary dance bands.

Since then, the singer, who gets his nickname from the medical degree he earned before deciding to pursue a career in music, has masterfully used catchy rhymes and phrases to call for change. For example, his album of a few years ago, De Buena Fe (In Good Faith) urged listeners to be open to foreign points of view.

It included the song Que Le Llegue Mi Mano (Let My Hand Reach Him), a song that was not heard on the radio in Cuba or in Miami, in which Manolin sang about the fading animosity between Cubans on the island and in South Florida.

His ability to weave catchy phrases into a salsa music blended with hip-hop has made him a star on the island. The big question is whether the dapper performer, long backed by one of the island's most powerful young bands, can sell his fiery brand of music in Miami -- or if he'll start leaning towards pop.

Also scheduled to perform at Calle Ocho are La India, Willy Chirino, Victor Manuelle, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Elvis Crespo, Oscar D' Leon, Jerry Rivera, Hansel, Area Code 305, Los Profesionales, Nayobe, La Caribbean Band, Conjunto Tropicana, Bachata Trio, Sonora Carruseles and Don Dinero.

The free event starts at 11 a.m. and runs all day. Organizers recommend that attendees take Metrorail to the Brickell Avenue station. From there, a round-trip shuttle is available to Eighth Street. Parking is available at the Orange Bowl. For information, call 305-644-8888.

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