20 years of Spam Allstars: A look back at one of Miami’s best bands

Andrew Yeomanson, aka DJ Le Spam, welcomes us into the kitchen of his home.  There is a decorative collection of vintage cans of Spam. Yellow walls. But most important is the coffee corner.  Yeomanson has coffee down to an art: he buys and imports the seeds, grinds/roasts them, and then brews it in an old machine like those used at La Carreta, a Miami institution about as storied as the guy sipping perfect coffee in the yellow kitchen.

We spoke with Yeomanson about the twenty-year trajectory of his band, leading up to its anniversary concert Wednesday night. For Miami, a city of perpetual reinvention, this is a big deal. The Spam Allstars have been playing on the scene since 1995, blending classic Latin and Caribbean influences with fresh electronic experimentation in a distinctly Miami mélange that has made them popular the world over and defined them as our city’s quintessential local band.

Le Spam is born

DJ Le Spam, Andrew Yeomanson, and his prodigious record collection are the backbone of Spam Allstars, which celebrates its 20th anniversary Wednesday.
DJ Le Spam, Andrew Yeomanson, and his prodigious record collection are the backbone of Spam Allstars, which celebrates its 20th anniversary Wednesday.

“It all started with various studio experiments in 1994.  We’d mix found sounds with beats and loops and guitars … it was all very freeform,” said Yeomanson.  “One old album even had sound from a Spam TV commercial.”

Yeomanson and early band saxophonist Robin Carter became known as the Spam Allstars from then on, latching onto the idea of appropriating a classic brand name in the name of counter-culture.

Spam Allstars was a pet project, and they expected very little audience appeal.  Yeomanson was touring as a guitarist then for Miami musician Nil Lara, a Cuban-American singer and songwriter. It wasn’t until hearing jazz funk jam band Medeski Martin & Wood while touring with Lara that Yeomanson had his breakthrough moment —he would introduce other musicians into the Spam Allstars to facilitate an improvised jam.

While on the road between 1995 and 1998, the Spam Allstars scheduled a few shows in Miami with its new improvised formation.  But once the touring ended, Yeomanson and his changeable cast of bright Miami musicians began booking regular residencies in spots all over Miami, many of which the Allstars outlasted. And Yeomanson’s stage presence, DJ Le Spam, was born.

“By the time that came about, I surveyed the landscape and I saw the DJs were the ones working,” he said. “So, I started to DJ in addition to play guitar.  I could get a little bit of work for my eclectic taste.”

At the helm of this rag-tag group of Miami musical characters is Yeomanson, DJ Le Spam, the man with the original dream and lots of great coffee, who chooses his spot at the rear of the stage. His calm demeanor facilitates collaboration, both on stage and behind the scenes, bandmates say.

“Andrew is not just a good leader, a good producer and a great person, he’s also a great friend and genuinely will tell you what’s up and is very straight forward and that’s why he’s so successful,” said guitarist Jose Elias. “People look up to him and he always has a smile and treats everyone with the same amount of respect.”

Trumpet player Chad Bernstein also spoke very highly of his bandmate and friend.

“When I speak of Spam All Stars, even being as big a part of it as I had, it’s so much about what Andrew has built. He’s a historian himself – his record collection would embarrass most museums.  He’s poignant and intentional.  His intent is deep and has steered the ship over the last 20 years… he has collected a following … a subculture of artists and writers and videographers and people that appreciate vintage and vegan and coffee lovers.  He’s truly pure in his intentions in a world when most people are cloaked in an ulterior motive.”

 

Fuácata

The band’s next major milestone was Fuácata, a weekly Thursday night performance at Hoy Como Ayer. In the small space on Calle Ocho, Spam Allstars began to pack in crowds who loved to dance and shared a taste for anything-goes Miami music. Today, Fuácata on Thursday night at Hoy Como Ayer continues stronger than ever, drawing locals and tourists alike.   Throughout the 2000s, the scene at Hoy Como Ayer on Thursday nights was also critical for anyone in the creative industries or the arts to get their weekly dose of cultural infusion.

“Fuacata is for those who can hang out on a Thursday until 3:30 am, so that scene was very central to a lot of creative people who didn’t have 9-to-5s and didn’t operate on the schedule, “ explained Bernstein. “In addition to being an incredible musical force, Spam Allstars has also been a springboard for all of us to have a starting point to create from other people and meet other people and further our reach musically and creatively.”

The open and free nature of those Thursday night parties brought Mercedes Abal into the band. She jumped on stage with her flute one night during Fuácata to join in the fun and quickly became an official Allstar. “I was playing at Café Nostalgia and kept hearing ‘you have to go to Fuácata’,” Abal said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I went to check it out one night.”

Saxophonist AJ Hill has been with the band the second-longest of its current lineup. He remembers the early days of the Spam Allstars before Fuácata, when he owned a venue called the Good Room in the back of the former World Resources Cafe. He says that being a part of this band has been life-changing.

“To be part of an organization where you can be yourself — no rigid rules, its’ amazing,” Hill said. “For a musician, it’s like giving them a canvas and telling them to paint. For any artist, it’s the best way to express your art. You change here and there with responses to yourself … and continue to evolve.”

The band’s percussionist and singer, Tomas Diaz, joined Spam Allstars right before Fuácata began, and credits the freestyle nature of the weekly party with the band’s enduring success.  “There was a DJ, bass, and guitar player, and when I entered I was playing bata (Cuban drums),” Diaz said.  “But I would get bored with 45 minutes of improvisational instrumental music. Since I was a singer, I could also bring songs to the mix, and the band gave me a chance to use all my resources.”

Twenty years of spontaneity has its perks — all the hours of improvisation mean that the Allstars almost never rehearse. Only during recording sessions will they sit together and map out a few lines, but because they always work in a spirit of collaboration and trust, it always works out, they say.

For Elias, this spirit of improvised exchange is the number one reason he’s grown as a musician.  “Not knowing, it’s always fresh,” he said. “On stage you never know what’s going to happen, so I’ve learned to really listen.”

Miami music mainstays

Today, the Spam Allstars are continuing their weekly residencies, having added Friday nights at Blackbird Ordinary in Brickell to their rotation.  Though the crowd is different than the late night artists, the weekly performances downtown allow the Spam Allstars to inspire even the most corporate Miamian to connect to their musical roots.

“Miami is still very segregated, but Spam Allstars represents the coming together of pockets of the city, and each of us band members are very rooted in Miami,” said Bernstein, who completed his PhD in 2012 and teaches at FIU, in addition to being a musician, running an organization and being a new father. “The music we play has all those folkloric roots that extend beyond Miami to Haiti and DR… and Miami and Chicago… all those places still stem from Miami for us… we are that generation of representation of a city who’s got the melting pot ingredients even if the ingredients don’t always get along.”

Each musician also works on their own projects, almost all of which involve making Miami’s music scene better. Yeomanson rents out his home recording studio, City of Progress Studios, to other artists, including local musicians The French Horn, actor Teo Castellanos, and international bands from France and Poland who hear through word of mouth about the low-cost recording opportunity — and possibly the coffee.

Elias heads up Community Arts and Culture, a local non-profit focused on promoting world music in Miami, which is hosting Wednesday’s concert, and is part of two other local bands, the Nag Champyons and Cortadito.  He too has a studio in his home. “We wanted to put on this event as a thank you to Andrew for all he has done,” said Elias.

Tomas Diaz just recorded his own album and single called “Suky”, with an upbeat video and choreographed dance.  Horn player Chad Bernstein plays with Suenalo in addition to Spam, and runs the non-profit Guitars Over Guns, which empowers at-risk youth through music.

“La Vida Continua”

When asked what’s next both for the group and the Miami music scene, both Yeomanson and Abal spoke about New Orleans.  In New Orleans, tourists flock to take in shows with local bands. While Spam Allstars is already a draw, they want to help grow that interest in local music in Miami.

“We get a lot of attention from people who come from other places.  Not as much as we could but in 20 years it will be a lot better,” Abal said.  “The difference is that in New Orleans, local artists get more airplay by local radio and TV stations, so that could improve. But still, the city’s music and art world keeps growing and growing and growing, so that is a good thing.”

As they celebrate two decades of keeping Miami moving, Spam Allstars recorded a new album that will be dropping sometime this year.  Their all-ages 20th anniversary show starts at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25 at the North Miami Beach Bandshell and will feature come-back performances by some of the band’s earlier members.  They will definitely perform their most popular song, “La Vida Continua.”

“I came across ‘La Vida Continua’ as an old African salsa record. It was charanga style, i.e. 50s-60s dance music with flutes and violins,” Yeomanson said. “I loved the timbao, i.e. the bass line and wanted to develop that.”

Diaz wrote the verses — “Pase lo que pase, la vida continua” — and the song became a crowd favorite in Miami, encapsulating both the freeform flow of their music and the universal and down-to-earth personality of the Spam Allstars and their hometown.  Whatever happens, life — Miami, and the Spam Allstars — goes on.

Maya Ibars is an attorney and freelance writer in Miami whose work has appeared in Miami New Times, Latin Finance magazine, and more.