Spam Allstars define Miami’s new sound machine

[27 April 2007]

By Evelyn McDonnell

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI—The women’s feet move in quick, syncopated kicks, like they’re break-dancers about to dive to the floor and spin into a headstand. Then suddenly their hips dip and swirl to the clave beat laid down by the band onstage—martial moves morph into carnal.

It’s Thursday night at the Little Havana nightclub Hoy Como Ayer, and the weekly ritual that has defined the sonic and sociological mix of 21st century Miami is in full swing. The Spam Allstars are onstage jamming their way through another Latin funk groove, and the fans are matching the fusion sounds by busting some seriously dope moves.

“We still get the people who really love to dance,” says Andrew Yeomanson, aka DJ Le Spam, bandleader and beat maker. “Unless people are moving, we feel like we’re not doing our job right.”

More than any other act, the Spam Allstars have created the soundscape of contemporary Miami and popularized it internationally. In a town full of transplants and transients, where even successful acts and venues have the life expectancy of fragile exotic orchids, they’ve also stayed the course, lasting—in various incarnations and despite one extended break—some 13 years.

Last week, the eclectic, constantly gigging group released its first album in three years. “Electrodomesticos” documents the maturation of the pick-up project into a skilled ensemble, one equally at home in Little Havana, at a jam-band festival in Tennessee, or playing with one of the founding figures of funk.

“They’ve got their finger on the pulse,” says Pee Wee Ellis, a seminal member of James Brown’s 1960s group, who blows sax on two “electrodomesticos” tracks. “It feels like it’s always going somewhere.”

Yeomanson is amazed where it’s already gone. `I asked the universe, `Please, I’d be happy if I could make a living doing this,’” the bald, lanky 37-year-old says over ginger tea and a veggie wrap in Miami. “The music grew in a way that I wasn’t planning. None of it was ever planned out. I didn’t think we would ever have a crowd for this stuff.”

Yeomanson was born in Montreal; his mother’s Venezuelan, his father, English. He lived in England, Bogota, Tampa and Toronto before landing in Miami. He started the Allstars in `94 as an improvisational outlet for the many talented local musicians he knew. Yeomanson spent a few years playing guitar for Miami singer and songwriter Nil Lara. When that gig ended, he reactivated the Allstars.

In the meantime, turntables and samplers had become increasingly popular musical instruments, especially in dance-music-oriented South Florida. Drawing on his massive collection of bass, funk, jazz, house and Latin records, DJ Le Spam became Miami’s coolest party king. Playing drum loops on samplers and scratching old Cuban son records, he was the Allstars’ one-man rhythm section. He created a whole new style—electronic descarga, he calls it—documented on four Allstars records, “Pork Scratchings,” “Pigs In Space,” “Fuacata Live!” (which was nominated for a Latin Grammy) and “Spam Allstars Contra Los Roboticos Mutantes.”

The Spam sound became the engine of perhaps the coolest party Miami has ever known, the much-missed Fuacata!, a Thursday night gathering of the city’s increasingly international hipster community at Hoy Como Ayer. Fuacata! marked the emergence of a new Miami scene, peopled by second-generation Latin-American and Caribbean immigrants—along with plenty of disaffected South Beach pioneers—who liked hip-hop as well as salsa, rock and cumbia.

After numerous write-ups in national magazines and getting copied by a cruise line, Fuacata! imploded. The Allstars decamped to other venues for a time; they returned to Hoy Como Ayer two years ago.

“More than any gig we do in Miami, that’s the one I want to see do good,” Yeomanson says. “It’s so close to my heart. That’s the venue where most people saw us for the first time. I still consider it to be our home base. I want it to always be vital.”

The Allstars picked up other fans along the way. Page McConnell, keyboardist for godhead jam band Phish, fell in love with the band and asked them to collaborate with him on his side project, Vida Blue. The Illustrated Band, as they called themselves, recorded, toured nationally and played the prestigious, sprawling Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2003.

The hookup with the jam-band scene was fortuitous—Phish fans are a devoted group, and summer festivals offer lucrative gigs—and in some ways logical: The Spam Allstars are first and foremost a live band, who compose their music improvisationally.

But the Allstars prefer the tight, rhythmic workout of funk and salsa to the loose, hippie grooves and extended solos of Grateful Dead followers.

“We have the ability to stretch something out; we have the ability to have people take extended solos,” says Yeomanson. “But personally I like the funk approach to playing, where you have people who are really focused on their parts, and you’re really trying to just really nail down that groove. Once you’ve done that, you could do anything over the top of it.”

With Ellis, they got to work with a funk pioneer. The sax player was in town when club owner Loren Gallo introduced him to the Allstars. Ellis, who lived in Miami in the early `60s, sat in at Hoy Como Ayer. The collaboration went so well, they recorded two tracks.

“I never worked with a DJ like that before,” Ellis says over the phone from England, where he currently lives (he’s planning to move to Oakland). “It was great. It was comforting to feel that he was stable and steady, that he was going to be there. Andrew knows his stuff.”

The Allstars recorded all 10 tracks at City of Progress, the studio in Yeomanson’s North Miami house. He says the CD took three years to complete because the band plays more than 200 shows a year, including regular gigs at SOB’s in New York and tours of the West Coast and Europe.

The Allstars also take recording more seriously than they used to. Their first three records were essentially live albums in which Spam relied heavily on samples of other artists’ work for his parts. For the past two CDs, all the sounds are their own. The Allstars also worked hard on the arrangements for “electrodomesticos.” The songs were still all initially created live, but Yeomanson asked each player to write the parts for various songs. So flutist Mercedes Abal, who used to play with Albita, arranged “Charanga E-350.” Sax player and vocalist AJ Hill, former leader of a Miami funk band, and guitarist Adam Zimmon, a veteran session man who has toured with Shakira, cowrote the title track. Timbales player Tomas Diaz and trombonist Chad Bernstein helped Yeomanson craft the rhythmic chant of “Afrika.” And sax player Steve Welsh contributed to “Oracion Acere.” (Conga player Lazaro Alfonso completes the Allstar lineup.)

“The new record and the last record, we were able to develop the material, so that creates a new process,” says Yeomanson. “We were able to think about our arrangements more and come up with a little bit more intricate stuff, but hopefully not over-complicate what we’re doing.”

The Allstars lineup, a mix of Cuban-, African- and Anglo-Americans, reflects the diversity of their hometown. On “electrodomesticos” they’re joined by a number of other musicians, including McConnell, Martin Perna of Antibalas and such veteran Miami players as Jose Elias, Brendan Buckley and Sammy Figueroa. Players’ ages range from 22 to 67.

Yeomanson could have long ago succumbed to the cult of the DJ and put the Allstars on the back burner. It would certainly be easier to just spin records than try to run and financially support a collective of diverse personalities. But he believes in the band.

“Maybe one day I’ll record a record where it’s just me playing everything and writing every part, but that’s not what I enjoy. What I enjoy is everybody bringing their personality and inspiration to it. It’s an exciting group of people to work with. It’s a continuation of what we’re doing live, where it’s great when we’re surprising each other.”

The old-fashioned musician in the ironically named DJ is coming out. Someday, he says, Spam might drop the electronic instruments and play his old friend, the guitar.

“I’d like to one day be able to segue to doing things that are more like the live rhythm section. I don’t want to feel like I’m locked into performing in one way. I like to feel like it doesn’t have a lot of boundaries.”

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