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Straight outta’ LA: Colin Hay, Cecilia Noel and San Miguel

(Los Angeles) It was a magic night. People standing elbow to elbow on the dance floor, people crammed 6 or 7 into a 5-person booth, people filling every chair, barstool and inch of floor space all singing the Beatles classic “When I’m 64” to Colin Hay of the Australian band Men at Work. Only they weren’t in Australia, they were at The Mint, the oldest rock venue in Los Angeles, at a birthday party thrown for Hay by his singer/songwriter/producer wife Cecilia Noël and their friend and protégé Cuban tresero and guitarist, San Miguel Perez. They were celebrating not only Hay’s birthday, but the birth of the San Miguel band, which looks to become one of the most successful bands emerging from the creative soup of LA’s sprawling Latin fusion music laboratory.

San Miguel Perez is known as the next generation of the Buena Vista Social Club, the musical phenomenon brought to life in a 1997 recording made by Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder, and later a documentary film. A second generation of Cuban artists (and some originals) are recording and touring worldwide today under the umbrella of the Buena Vista Social Club, and Perez, a native of Cuba, Perez, is one of them. He has played with Adalberto Alvarez y Su Son, (the “gentleman of Cuba’s signature son music”), as well as for Jóvenes Clásicos del Son, and The New Generation of the Buena Vista Social Club, becoming known as  “El Tresero Moderno” – one of Cuba’s finest tres and guitar players. 

But like many Cubano musicians, San Miguel moved to the States for the bigger audiences, more diverse collaborations, and more numerous studios in the US than Cuba could offer, despite the island’s obsession with music and its own network of labels , studios and producers. Unlike most Cubanos, San Miquel did not go to Miami or New York where there are strong Cuban music communities; he went to LA, a city drenched in Latino music from Mexico and South America, rather than the Afro-Cuban beats he grew  up with. The connection to LA was Cecilia Nöel, a Peruvian singer/songwriter/producer and band leader who lived in LA with her husband Colin Hay but who has a long and strong to connection to Cuba herself.

Nöel is a force of nature and has been since childhood. She appeared weekly on a musical TV show in Lima from the age of 8, telling the resident band what songs to play, while she studied all genres of music with encouragement from her musical mother.

“We were a very happy musical household with people singing and dancing all the time,” she said. “So it was easy to fall in love with many kinds of music.”

One of the genres she fell in love with was jazz, which was why she was singing in a small hotel bar in Lima when Stan Getz and his family walked in.  Six months later she was in New York at Getz’s invitation, recording and singing under the mentorship of band leaders like Getz and Carlo Berscia, which launched her career in the US.

That career also involved Cuba, where she teamed up with renowned Cuban artists like Carlos Alphonso, recorded at the famous EGREM studios, was the first American to play at the 1995 Cuban music festival with her band The Wild Clams, and in 2015 was the first American to win the Cubadisco International Award. Crossing paths with San Miguel was inevitable.

San Miguel was not the first Cuban musician to come to LA to work with Nöel and her sprawling Wild Clams band that had been rocking clubs in LA for two decades. But the musical chemistry between the two, catalyzed by deep involvement of Noel’s husband Colin Hay, took off in a way that is accelerating both his career and the LA  music revolution. Hay, founder of the Australian band Men at Work in 1978 and whose song “Down Under” became an international hit, moved to LA in 1989 after the earlier breakup of Men at Work. Becoming a US citizen, he recorded solo albums, founded his own label, Lazy Eye Records, toured and developed an acting career in films and TV series like Scrubs. The combination of San Miguel’s modern Cuban music, Nöel’s wide-ranging musical talent and production chops, and Colin’s rock and roll was something LA has never seen before: absolutely wild Afro-Cuban-Latino-classic rock and roll with up- to- the minute  rap.

The first product of this combination/collaboration is San Miguel’s band, which appears with Nöel and often with Colin Hay, and  its first album, Un Poquito de Amor Everyday. The album is a Spanish-language (with a bit of English woven into song lyrics) celebration and modernization of classic Buena Vista Social Club music; it is full of heartfelt lyrics and complex beats  that are addictive.

However, it is the band’s live performances that are writing a new chapter in California musica fusion. It incorporates the congas, cowbells, clave’s, tres  and bongos of Cuba along with slide trombone, saxophone, electric guitar, bass, and full drum kit. Angelinos currently hear  elements of this mixture in Latino cumbia-rock bands like Buyepongo and son jarocho artists like Las Cafeteras, but San Miguel does it with a Cuban flavor mixed with the Latino spice plus the unrestrained energy of Nöel. The band plays in English and Spanish and ranges across mambo, Latino salsa, son, rap and classic rock and roll. The dance floor is never not crowded at a San Miguel performance.

San Miguel first previewed his band and unique mix of Cuban, rock and Latino music at a private concert at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Beverly Hills in May. He officially launched last week at the birthday party at The Mint, and is going on the road rolling out the San Miguel sound in a 10-city tour throughout the state. I suspect the subsequent tour will be national and we won’t have to wait for  Hay’s next birthday. But if there is one, it will be a magic night and maybe it will be Charlotte.

Patrick O’Heffernan.  Host, Music FridayLive!, Co-Host MúsicaFusionLA

San Miguel.  http://sanmiguelofficial.com

Cecilia Noel  http://www.cecilianoel.com

Colin Hay  http://www.colinhay.com/

Un Poquito de Amor Everyday available on iTunes, CD Baby and Spotify.

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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