Something eerily quiet has taken over the streets of Miami: missing are the sounds of timbales, strings, horns and vocals, which have been silenced by the coronavirus outbreak.
The closure of restaurants, clubs and other venues goes deeper than the loss of income for local musicians who take part in the live performances that provide that special sazón that gives this city its unique flavor.
“The other day I passed by Calle Ocho at 7 p.m. and it made me sad because everything was closed and there were only two or three people walking. That is one of the most bustling neighborhoods in Miami,” said Luis Bofill, a popular singer, musician and band leader in the Spanish music scene.
“This year started so well, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I had a full calendar until October. Suddenly everything fell through. The clubs canceled the shows until further notice,” said Bofill whose most recent public performance was on March 8 at the Carnival on the Mile event in Coral Gables.
For two decades, Bofill has animated evenings in practically every Miami club where Cuban music is played. Lately he was playing at Neme Gastro Bar in the Shenandoah neighborhood and Ball & Chain in Little Havana. At Neme, a more intimate space, he was accompanied by a smaller group of musicians but at Ball & Chain he went on stage with an orchestra.
Now all those artists are unemployed.
“At first many called me and I said I don’t have a job either,” said Bofill, adding that this inability to perform is the most serious since he arrived in Miami in the mid-1990s.
“The smallest clubs will not survive if they do not receive federal aid. Many of these musicians have family, and the truth is that musicians, in general, do not have many savings. They usually live day by day,” he said.
Longtime singer Carlos Oliva — whose work alongside his Los Sobrinos del Juez band offers what has come to be called “the Miami sound” — faces a similar situation.
His calendar was packed with big events like the Calle Ocho Carnival and The Youth Fair, which were canceled in March, and Cuba Nostalgia, which probably won’t be held in May. He also had been booked for the Full Moon Party at Islamorada and several private galas, which will not take place for now.
Oliva pointed out that each canceled gig not only affected the eight musicians tied to the band but also the sound engineer and two other people who are responsible for collecting the equipment when they come off the stage.
Oliva, who is listed as the owner of the corporation for the band, can apply for help for the loss of income as a small business owner. However, because the musicians are self-employed, financial aid for them would be on an individual basis.
“A musician who works the four weekends of the month, would earn approximately $1,500, at a rate of $300 or so per job,” Oliva said, estimating the loss of income.
Martino Succetti, a guitarist in Willy Chirino’s orchestra and also the artist’s personal assistant, pointed out that monthly income losses can fluctuate from $2,000 to $200,000, depending on the popularity of the artist and the size of the bookings.
In the case of bookings with Willy Chirino’s band, they were left without performing a concert at the Roca Theater at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School; several appearances at the Flamingo Theater Bar in the Brickell neighborhood and a concert in California.
Succetti is also concerned about the chain of people who are affected when artistic performances are canceled.
“The cash can go, but the debts remain,” said Succetti, who also plays with the Manolo Puerto orchestra, which usually appears at numerous private parties that also have been canceled.
AN IMPACT THAT IS NOT REFLECTED IN FIGURES
Laura Hernández, a Miami singer who spent more than a decade trying to establish herself in the music industry, had finally achieved stability in her career over the past two years as a member of the Higher Ground band.
Higher Ground regularly performed in clubs like Blue Martini and at many weddings. Hernández also sang at nursing homes, which she said was emotionally rewarding.
Now she is part of the growing pool of unemployed. Applications for unemployment benefits have reached a new record of 6.6 million as the coronavirus pandemic forced companies across the nation to close.
“There are days when I get up and say ‘what’s to come?’ I don’t know how long this will last,” said Hernández, who shares responsibility for renting her apartment with an artist who performs at children’s parties and who has also lost her job.
“The artistic community is in shock,” she said, adding that the most difficult thing is the uncertainty of the recovery of this sector because “the first thing that is canceled and the last thing that is revived is entertainment.“
“I feel like after this I will have to start from scratch,” said Hernández, who is beginning to accept that she will have to reinvent herself in another occupation for a while.
Hernández also expressed concern beyond the economic impact, which she shares with other musicians.
“It is painful because we love what we do, we express ourselves in that way, and in my case, what most fulfills me is singing and bringing joy to people,” she said.
Oliva, meanwhile, described as “a very important detail” the fact that the musicians’ creativity feeds off of the contact they have with the public. Social distancing deprives them of that.
“In the case of musicians, it’s not just about making money. My personal satisfaction is to play for an audience, to feel the applause, and if I don’t have the audience, what good is it to play,” he said. “It would seem like a rehearsal.”
THEY REMAIN OPTIMISTIC
During this time away from the public, most musicians plan to take advantage of it to start or resume projects that they had been postponing for a long time because they were busy with concerts and live events.
“I will not waste this precious time. We are going to turn it into a creative moment,” said Bofill, who already has worked on four songs for a future album.
Hernández expressed that she stays “positive” because she lives in a country that offers many opportunities. “We have to rebuild the economy and also take care of the planet,” she said.
Oliva imagined a future scenario in which people will be eager for entertainment when the confinement ends.
“I feel that when this ends and they can say, ‘We are going to return to normality,’ all this that has been canceled is going to resurface,” Oliva said. “Maybe there are going to be more parties, more events, the restaurants are going to have an avalanche of work.”
Emilio Estefan also shared an optimistic point of view based on his own exile experience since music helped him overcome difficult moments when he was separated from his family when he fled Cuba to Spain following Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959.
“Music, when it is good, triumphs everywhere,” said Estefan, noting that “as immigrants we have had to start many times.”
The businessman and producer suggested that musicians take advantage of the opportunity to write songs and make contacts outside the United States, offering their services to record from their homes, counting on the popularity and prestige of music made in Miami.
“The music will always be there, so you have to have faith,” Estefan said. ”I hope this (health crisis) is over soon, and that so many people who are suffering in the world know that we send them a message of love and hope.”
DONATIONS TO HELP ART
Measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and the crisis caused by the closure of businesses have affected all fields of the arts.
Miami developer Jorge Pérez recently announced the donation of $350,000 to help local coronavirus recovery efforts. Of this sum, $200,000 will be allocated to support arts and cultural organizations that have been hit hard by the cancellations of events, concerts and the closure of entertainment centers.
Belissa Alvarez, director of the Jorge M. Pérez Family Foundation, said that they intend to help arts organizations from all disciplines, which are now in a vulnerable situation because they have had to close public spaces and make “very difficult decisions for their employees.”
“The idea is that organizations can continue to operate and pay employees,” she said of the relief efforts that the Jorge M. Pérez Family Foundation will carry out by donating to the relief fund set up with The Miami Foundation.
“During this time we are going to create funds to directly help artists,” said Alvarez. She also urged entertainers to continue to use online platforms to bring their art to the public.