It's midnight at a hole-in-the-wall club in the heart of Little Havana, Miami. The place is pumpin', the dance floor jammed with a multicultural mass of bodies writhing and grooving and ducking and swaying and shaking asses to the pulsing beats. The music is a breathing, heaving, horn-saturated slice of Miami fusion, the native flavors of Cuba — salsa, charanga, rumba and the like — mixed with '70s-style funk, hip-hop turntablism, free jazz, dub reggae, Afro-beat and electronica.
The band responsible, Spam Allstars, calls its Pan-American dance music "electronic descarga" and the man in charge is DJ Le Spam, though he's not a frontman in the traditional sense. The youthful Miami musician/producer (real name: Andrew Yeomanson) doesn't sing or play instruments or tell his bandmates what to play. But he crafts the foundation of the band's music, shaping the mood with basslines and electronic beats. The resulting samplers are triggered throughout the band's live performances, and Yeomanson uses turntables to add improvised sounds, words and textures to what his all-star group of musicians produce, all while mixing the entire thing via his post behind the soundboard at the back of the stage.
"We don't rehearse," Yeomanson told me a few weeks ago via a phone interview between shows, "so mostly when a new song is born, I bring it to the gig and explain it to the guitar players, and the horn players usually pick it up real quick." He says the band may develop a song that way for years before bringing it to the studio, where it flowers into a full-fledged track.
Yeomanson has been working the Miami music scene since he landed there in 1993 as an aspiring guitarist. He played with Haitian roots protest group Lavalas Band until 1994, recorded and toured with Miami-based Cuban-American singer/songwriter Nil Lara from 1995 to 1998, and expanded upon his vinyl collection for solo DJ-ing gigs.
He started experimenting with music software as his time with Lara drew to a close and applied his newfangled knowledge to DJ sets that evolved into collaborations with live musicians. By the time he recorded the first Spam Allstars album, 1999's Pork Scratchings, he was creating samples and using them to construct audio collages. By then, he'd pretty much abandoned the guitar and had enlisted a revolving lineup of musicians that included guitarist Adam Zimmon and Miami native funk R&B saxophonist/vocalist AJ Hill.
Yeomansen currently works with nine musicians, though his core lineup of five always includes at least three horn players (Hill, singer/flutist Mercedes Abal, and whomever else is available), a guitarist (Zimmon or Jose Elias, who also plays tres), and Cuba-born percussionist Tomas Diaz on vocals and timbales.
"Being that I use lots of loops and patterns and pre-recorded drum tracks, a percussionist brings a human quality to the rhythms and gives my looped drum beats a really organic feel." Abal sings and plays the distinctive, high octave-hitting Cuban flute, and pairs her classical techniques with a talent for improvising and a vibrant stage presence.
But Yeomansen doesn't simply rely on the players to make his music appealing. He says he's always striving to produce samples he can play in a different way so the music doesn't get too repetitive. "I am painfully aware of times we're on the stage when things become static. I don't want the audience to feel like they're experiencing something mechanical, so I've always tried to make this group have a very human feel."
Apparently he's doing something right; in the 10 years since Pork Scratchings, Spam has enjoyed a slow but successful rise, playing residencies at clubs across the country beginning with weekly "Fuacata" hometown dance parties in 2001 at Hoy Como Ayer (a tradition that continues today), and spreading to NYC, Gainesville, Atlanta, New Orleans and even here in Tampa. All throughout, Spam has managed to maintain its independence, and has released five albums under its own Spamusica Records label, including 2002's Latin Grammy-nominated Fuacata Live.
"I'm pretty happy with our way of doing things," Yeomansen admits. He says the band has made the most of their limited resources and reach, and because they work within these limitations, Spam is a profitable endeavor. "You can't walk into Target or Best Buy and find any Spam Allstars. But we're making a living, we're selling all our stuff, we can license music, and we don't have to go through anybody."
The band did sign with World Music Network for 2008's "best of" compilation, Introducing Spam Allstars, but it was a straightforward licensing deal that allowed the band to release their music to international audiences while not requiring them to give up any of their rights. "It was a deal that made sense. We're an eclectic band and your average major label won't get it and won't figure it out."
Spam has worked with big name acts like electro power trio Vida Blue featuring Phish keyboardist Page McConnell, Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge, and Russell Batiste of The Meters. That union produced 2003's The Illustrated Band, a loose, freeform "Miles Davis Bitches Brew way of putting together an album" according to Yeomansen. Spam also jammed with saxophonist, composer and arranger Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, an integral member of James Brown's band in the 1960s. Playing a set with the legend was a dream come true but it left Yeomansen thirsting for more. "He's been involved in so many great recordings that I just thought, 'Wow, I gotta see if he will arrange some music for us.'" Ellis consented and collaborated with the band on two tracks from their 2007 album, electrodomésticos.
When I asked Yeomansen if he thinks his band has gotten good enough to overcome their awful mystery-meat moniker, he tells me he initially chose "Spam Allstars" because he was anti-major labels and he thought none would touch a band with an already-trademarked name. "I don't know what the hell I was thinking," he admits. "I didn't know I'd be making my living off it 15 years down the road, I didn't foresee that it would grow the way it has and that I'd have the type of opportunities I've had. I was just trying to have a little fun and create an outlet for my little experiment — the idea of it being more than a fun thing was never in my mind."