The first two shows to fly the Rhythm Foundation flag immediately announced the group's brave new world-music intentions, a bold tightrope walk across generations, cultures and trends.
The opener in August 1988 was a sold-out Gusman Theater performance by singer Milton Nascimento, the Brazilian treasure whose voice stirred a wistful pride in South American immigrant communities across South Florida. This concert was followed four months later by the brilliantly, contentiously innovative jazz icon Ornette Coleman, a saxophonist born in America but an inhabitant of his own galaxy of the future.
A parade of eclecticism cemented the brand over the next few years with tropical bard Jimmy Buffett on a bill with jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri and Haitian compa band Tabou Combo, followed by a visit from the otherworldly Sun Ra. The next concert returned to earth with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, then Talking Head David Byrne (with his first solo album, the Afro-Cuban homage "Rei Momo"), reggae legends Toots and the Maytals paired with trailblazing Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans, followed by inventive jazz explorer Don Cherry.
It was a balancing act, with an eye to the future and another on the past. That it continues nearly 30 years later, with its original vision intact, is a reflection of South Florida's unique relationship with the rest of the world, Rhythm Foundation director Laura Quinlan says.
"We are a community of so many transplants. There is a nostalgia element to a lot of our programming, keeping people connected to the countries they came from." she says. "But the South Florida audience is a very internationally minded group of people who like to be connected to what is happening in the world now. If you weren't internationally curious, you wouldn't be here. This is not a community of xenophobes."
Quinlan has been with the Rhythm Foundation since the beginning, when she and future husband James Quinlan were booking the Cameo Theater on Miami Beach with punk shows. Creating the nonprofit was aimed at renovating the theater to allow them to pursue a growing interest in world music.
Their original mission was simple: to provide programming that encourages diverse audiences to share the experience of live music together.
"To create opportunities for people to know each other's culture. You know music and food are the easiest ways to explore cultures, to get to know people of different backgrounds," says Quinlan, a Miami Beach native and self-described "super gringa."
Over the years, the Rhythm Foundation has been a veritable Williamsburg of musical exotica, including intimate shows by the likes of Philip Glass, Thievery Corporation, Jane Birkin, Caetano Veloso, Brazilian Girls, Seu Jorge, Cesaria Evora, Diego El Cigala, Arcade Fire and Medeski Martin and Wood.
In the past five years, the Quinlans (James is chairman of the foundation's board of directors) revised the Rhythm Foundation mission to include a community development aspect, using its programming to ignite local economies, Laura Quinlan says.
This effort began with Big Night in Little Haiti, a free, family-oriented gathering in the Miami neighborhood with top touring Haitian bands, and also includes regular programming at the ArtsPark in downtown Hollywood and at the North Beach Bandshell, where an eclectic new series called Dance Band Night began in May.
Dance Band Night, a concert preceded by a free, hour-long dance lesson appropriate to the music of the evening, opened with the jazzy Parisian swing of the French Horn. It has offered nights devoted to salsa and vallenato, but also included a session of barn dancing with the Broward-based band Cornbread and caller Anita Mason. On Oct. 8, the dancing will be cumbia. On Nov. 12, it will be rockabilly.
"Recently, we've taken an even broader view of world music, and we're doing a lot of music based in the United States," Quinlan says. "There's a lot of really innovative and interesting music in this country."
Quinlan says one of her favorite shows of the year took place in May during the Hollywood ArtsPark Experience series, a partnership with the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.
"One of the most beautiful shows that we had this year was the Wood Brothers [Oliver and Chris Wood, the latter part of the alt-jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood], an Americana group," she says. "It was exquisite. It was such a treat."
In January, the Rhythm Foundation will offer a new series at the North Beach Bandshell called Seaside Sessions that will include three Saturdays of music: indie jazz-rock pianist Marco Benevento on Jan 16; celebrated New Orleans jazz trumpeter Christian Scott and acclaimed Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia on Jan. 23; and, on Jan. 30, the experimental trio DRKWAV, composed of saxophonist Skerik, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Adam Deitch.
The black space jams of DRKWAV might be called jazz, in the same way Ornette Coleman's 1988 show was. Or not.
"We didn't call it a jazz series, because a lot of people think they don't like jazz," Quinlan says, conspiratorially. "It's international music, innovative music, new sounds … I'm really looking forward to it."