Before the Spam Allstars and Locos Por Juana, before Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, before all the hybrids of Latin and North American music that have been called the Miami Sound, there was Willy Chirino, a Cuban country boy who loved the Beatles and Celia Cruz with equal passion, and Carlos Oliva, who packed a Miami Beach club by playing Guantanamera with a rock backbeat.
“We started to mix these things and it satisfied the hunger of the people,” says Oliva, who with his group Los Sobrinos del Juez (The Judge’s Nephews — from the popular ’60s catchphrase “Here comes the judge!”) pioneered a blend of Latin and American pop in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “We had no intention of creating any sound, of coming up with this or that. It just happened, just playing the songs, liking them, mixing them.”
“It was actually breaking the rules of music,” says Chirino, the exile Cuban musical hero who was Oliva’s younger compatriot. “But when you’re a new artist and you have ideas in your head and you’re not affected by record labels and people in the industry that say you must do this or that — you do whatever is on your mind.”
The former musical rebels, now godfathers of the Miami sound, perform Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center in the final show of the Cuba Beat concert series. They’ll be joined by Frankie Marcos, former leader of Clouds, another seminal early Miami Latin band; and Palo!, a contemporary hybrid Cuban group led by Steve Roitstein, an American who started a successful Latin music career producing and arranging for Chirino and Oliva.
The two men’s music was part of the soundtrack of Miami for the earliest generations of Cuban exiles, including series producer Nelson Albareda, who is 39.
“I grew up with this music,” Albareda says. “I used to love to dance and I saw all these bands live. It was a golden era of Miami, all those guys fusing rock and Cuban music together.”
Chirino in particular, with his seamless blend of pop and Latin, his exuberant energy, his playful use of Spanglish and Cuban catchphrases, captured exile Miami in the ’70s and ’80s.
“Willy really embodied everything that had to do with me and my generation,” Albareda says. “It had to do with the Cuban exile experience. .<TH>.<TH>. It really embodied what Miami was.”
Both Chirino and Oliva started out just trying to make it as musicians in a foreign country. They started together: Oliva, 17, just arrived from Cuba, was a counselor to the Cuban kids arriving on the Pedro Pan flights that brought a 14-year-old Chirino to Miami in 1961. By age 16 Chirino had a fake ID and was playing six nights a week in Miami Beach hotels. He and Oliva joined up in 1964 in a quartet that sang Latin songs in a Four Freshman-style harmony, and were scooped up by Julio Gutierrez, a then famous Cuban singer, to back him at a club in New York. Legends like La Lupe and Miguelito Valdés would show up for Monday night jam sessions. Chirino was just 17 — while the other musicians were drinking at the bar on breaks, he’d go out for a chocolate milkshake at the corner café.
Back in Miami, Chirino, who’d expanded from the drums to multiple instruments, traded work on recording sessions for free predawn studio time, writing and recording songs where he’d play all the tracks, which led to his first record deal in 1974. He was packing clubs with his sound. But breaking into the industry was a struggle.
“I was born with Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera, and when I arrived here I encountered The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys,” Chirino says. “I loved Brazilian music. So my music was a combination of all that.”
Radio stations were confused. “They said this is not salsa, it wasn’t a ballad, it wasn’t rock,” Chirino says. “What we did was very risky and hard to get ahead with.”
At Miami Beach club The Forge in the late ’60s, Oliva and his trio catered to a mixed crowd of Anglos and Cubans with covers of the Fifth Dimension’s smoothly psychedelic Up Up and Away with congas and a salsa beat; punching up Guantanamera with a rock ’n’ roll drum kit. Later, Oliva would help shape the sound of the Cuban exile star who launched Miami’s brand of Latin pop into the mainstream, producing early albums by Emilio and Gloria Estefan, who followed their lead in mixing Latin and American pop.
Now the idea of immigrants bringing together the sound of their roots with the styles of their new home has worn a deep groove in Miami’s music. But back then the mix, like the constant arrivals pouring into the city, was new.
“The Latin people that were arriving all the time had feelings for Cuban music, but they were also trying to adjust to American culture,” Oliva says. “They wanted to get into that but without abandoning their roots.”
In bridging that gap, Oliva and Chirino laid the ground for subsequent generations of Miami musicians.
“Historically, that’s important,” Chirino says. “People should know what happened. I think we do deserve a lot of credit for groundbreaking. It was something we did because we loved it.”