I spent the first 24 years of my life in Miami, the U.S.-born son of Cuban immigrants. Life was two cultures, all the time. The culture my parents and the hundreds of thousands of other Cubans exiles created in Miami and the American culture that was so cool and different and ours to us first generation kids. Life was bilingual, by default. Spanish and English. It was the norm until I moved away and realized it wasn't.
Nil Lara has always sounded like my Miami. Cuban, American. Spanish, English. Pinar del Río, Coral Gables. Congas, Alternative. Willy Chirino, The Grateful Dead. WQBA, WVUM. Unique, ours.
A piece of music called "Rumba Caliente" shouldn't begin with a reflective two-minute solo piano arrangement, but this one does and it's a perfect set-up. Until hand meets conga for the first time you're not even sure you put the right record on. But that piano seduces you, staggering your senses, rocking your composure. When the rest of the band kicks in, horns and all, you know you're in the right place.
Never judge a record by its cover or a band by its pedigree, right? But you know this band had a wild streak. Hell, they left Barretto's band at the height of its popularity because he wasn't experimental enough. Crazy. By the time that violin on wah wah meds kicks in you're off the charts. So is the band. It's hot, it's different, it's just the kind of adventure you were looking for and didn't even know it.
Nil Lara's music has always been the perfect combination of American rock and traditional Cuban music. The music of first-generation Americans, like myself, born of exiled Cuban parents. The music of first-generation Americans, like myself, growing up listening to rock and punk during the day and then going to a party with mami y papi at tío y tía's house where salsa and son play late into the night. So what do you do when you want to play rock music but can't shake the rhythm in your blood? You do what Nil does.
The rhythm on "agua e manatial" starts at you full on with every instrument: the percussion, the chanting voices, the amplified cuatro. The notes from the cuatro sound traditional, son-like, but filtered through fuzz, the day's grittiness edging into the night's groove. The bass line is the blood of your ancestors, stopping and starting its way in and out of your heart. Like spring water from its source, agua de manantial. Modernity drenched in tradition from 90 miles away.
Nil sings of indecisiveness and a sensitivity to the world around us that is sometimes hard to cope with. His voice struggles to rise above the cacophony of instruments and distortion. He speaks to the voices in his own head and those around him, reasoning with them and calling them out. As the song pushes forward the sounds and voices get hazier, more distorted, blended.
Words begin to fade, trail off, but they're relentless. Just like the music is. Just like Nil is to the very end. It's in his blood.