Jordan Levin

Two Miami-made films tell stories of the city’s unique music scene

The way we sound is the way we are. At least that’s the case made by two Miami-produced documentaries being released in the next week. Both tell stories of the city’s music scene that show music as a metaphor for the creation of a Miami cultural identity.

The first, Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, screening Friday at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Miami International Film Festival, tells the story of a little known Liberty City-based soul music label in the 1960s that was a crucial link between the vital Overtown music community and Miami disco hit factory TK Records. The movie was funded and produced by public television station WLRN.

Miami Boheme examines Latin fusion bands such as DJ Spam and the Spam All-Stars, Palo!, Suenalo and Locos Por Juana that have been heating up local clubs since the early 2000s with another kind of Miami sound. The film makes its debut at the Design District club The Stage on March 19 and airs on WPBT-PBS 2 on March 27 before it is distributed to PBS stations nationally.

Although they look at different eras and genres, both films showcase how Miami’s unique mix of cultures and musical styles produced a distinctive sound unlike anyplace else. And both sets of filmmakers say they were inspired by a desire not only to document the city’s musical history, but to make the case for the value of that music and what it says about Miami’s culture and identity — even though neither has produced national hits.

“We as a community are starting to tell our stories,” says Dennis Scholl, co-producer and co-director of Deep City with Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle. “This is part of our history, and . . . for too long we have ignored these historical moments. We felt very strongly this was a story we wanted to tell as Miamians, a story that deserved to be told about Miami.”

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Miami Boheme director Joe Cardona, whose previous film, The Day it Snowed in Miami, documents the battle over gay rights here in the ’70s, was inspired by years of going out to hear Miami bands. “We’ve never been thought of as a music town,” says Cardona. “But I think Miami has earned the right to be part of that conversation when people talk about different cities and the sounds that come from there. It’s not something that gets the recognition it should.”

The Deep City label was created in the early ’60s by Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall, who ran their tiny enterprise out of Pearsall’s Liberty City record shop, Johnny’s Records.

Clarke, raised in Overtown and Liberty City, attended Florida A&M University, where he played in the famed Marching 100 marching band and met Pearsall. Back home the pair hooked up with with songwriter Clarence Reid (also known as Blowfly, an obscene rapper with a cult following).

Inspired by the success of Motown, they began making records, combining raw, soulful local singers like Helene Smith, a shy high school student who worked at the shop, with the power and drive of Marching 100 players, and rhythmic flair from Bahamian and Jamaican musicians flavoring Miami’s black music.

Deep City had a number of local hits, but Clarke and Pearsall, who worked as teachers and administrators in the Miami-Dade school system, didn’t have the connections or financing to get national airplay or distribution. “Being black in the South . . . we could not get money from the banks,” says Clarke, 70, who is retired. “They looked at us like, ‘What question you want to ask next so we can say no?’ ”

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But Tingle says their drive was representative of Miami’s black community at the time. “They felt they had a bigger purpose than living in a segregated community. . . . They had this DIY spirit that we can make this better than Motown, we can be just as good.”

Clarke and Reid (and other Deep City musicmakers) would go on to become key parts of Henry Stone’s TK Records, helping produce a string of disco hits in the ’70s, most famously from KC and the Sunshine Band. They brought along their hottest act, singer Betty Wright, whom they discovered at age 12 when she came into the record store to collect a prize from a radio contest.

But the dreams, energy and frustration of the Deep City years linger in their creators. “We were excited about making something, getting our friends together and having fun doing it,” says Clarke. “Then everybody eats the cake up and you don’t get any. The only satisfaction we got is it sounded good for us and a lot of people.”

Scholl discovered Deep City via one of two CDs issued by Chicago label Numero Group, which put out a series of reissues of obscure regional soul labels that flourished before national radio chains and labels homogenized the music landscape.

“I moved to Miami in 1963. I had no idea this was going on,” Scholl says. “This is a moment in time our community has lost . . . we felt an obligation to these great artists, musicians and singers to tell their story and give them their moment.”

Scholl, vice president/arts for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, enlisted filmmakers Johnson and Tingle, and the trio spent several years digging for photos and film, and coaxing interviews from people like Smith, who quit singing and worked as an elementary school teacher for 32 years.

The moment in Deep City when Smith sings along with one of her records is one of the most moving in the film. “It was like the skies opened up,” Scholl says. “It took her back to a period when things were possible.”

The sounds of Miami Boheme have been filling Miami’s clubs since 2002, when DJ LeSpam and the Spam Allstars began playing a Thursday party at Little Havana club Hoy Como Ayer.

The group was created and headed by Andrew Yeomanson, mixing tracks from his vast collection of Cuban, salsa, Miami “booty” bass and other funk and soul records with a group of Cuban and American musicians to create an irresistibly danceable, only-in-Miami mix. The Spam Allstars would inspire other bands to create their own blend of Miami sounds, becoming a distinctive, regular presence at clubs and music festivals ever since.

They range from Locos Por Juana, led by Colombian immigrant Itagui Correa and heavy on cumbia, ska and reggae, to the mostly Cuban-inflected Palo! That group was started by Steve Roitstein, whose Jewish family came to Miami in the ’60s, and who has produced records for Cuban exile idol Willy Chirino and a host of other Latin artists — a grandchild of European Jewish immigrants shaped by a new generation of Latin American immigrants.

Wherever they come from, they are shaped by the city they now call home. In one interview, Correa recounts the reaction in Colombia to Locos Por Juana’s first tour there. “They let us know that’s not cumbia, that’s something you created, that’s American . . . which we love. It’s just the Miami sound.”

Cardona, 46, says he thinks the music shows how the city is maturing into its mixed identity. “The older I get the more I feel like a Miamian,” he says. “Yes, I’m Cuban-American, but I’m really Miamian. More of us now, whether we’re born here are not, are feeling more comfortable with that. This sound represents that.”

A key figure in both films is Yeomanson, whose passion for and knowledge of Miami music (he has been collecting Deep City records for years) make him a unique advocate for the sounds of the city he loves, whether now or half a century ago.

“We’ve built an audience in Miami tuned to what we do because we share a certain background and taste . . . whether it’s bass or old Cuban music,” Yeomanson says.

Though he and his Miami Boheme compatriots, like their Deep City predecessors, haven’t made a big national splash or had a major hit, Yeomanson thinks Miami’s rich, distinctive sound is more valuable than ever, a throwback to times when cities from New Orleans to New York to Nashville to Detroit to Los Angeles created their own music.

“Regional music is a good thing,” Yeomanson says. “That’s how you get away from the homogenization of pop music, all this crap that sounds the same.

“All that’s been important to me is that people look at this and say it’s not like anything else.”

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