Extra Spicy Salsa

Sergio Curbelo's Spanish accent is barely discernible, both because it isn't very thick in the first place and because he's talking on a crackly cell phone while bumping along a freeway leading into Boston.

"We'll be there in about seven minutes," Curbelo predicts through the static, noting that he and his band, Puya, are on the way to a show at Mama Kin's, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler's rock club. But for now, the lead vocalist for the Puerto Rican hardcore rock quartet is happy to bide his time talking about another trip: the group's journey from its native island to the United States and its rise from the South Florida underground club scene to a major-label recording deal.

Growing up in San Juan, the band members -- Curbelo, guitarist Ramon Ortiz, drummer Eduardo Paniagua, and bassist Harold Hopkins -- could pick up only two radio stations. One played American hard rock like Pantera and Bad Brains, and the other offered Latin salsa. The band combined the two vastly different styles and became a player in the island's live music scene. But while most acts were covering American rock songs, Puya wrote its own material and looked for ways to nurture an original sound.

A change of scenery, the band members decided, was in order. So they left home with no money, no job prospect, but plenty of confidence. They ended up in Fort Lauderdale, where they had a few friends.

That was back in 1993, when bands such as Saigon Kick and Marilyn Manson were gigging locally. "When we got to Fort Lauderdale, the music got a lot heavier, because the underground scene was all punk and metal," recalls Curbelo. "Along with all of the influences we brought with us, that helped create our sound."

Indeed, songs from the band's major-label debut album, Fundamental, due out in January on MCA Records, are a mixture of hyper heavy-metal guitar, Santana-like rock, and brass-driven salsa, all laced with English, Spanish, and Spanglish lyrics. It was Puya's move to South Florida, in fact, that led to its recording deal.

Within a year after its arrival in Fort Lauderdale, Puya was honored with a nomination for Best New Band at the South Florida Slammie Awards, which began in 1992 as a way to recognize the region's top hard-rock bands. Slammie is a combination of slam-dancing and Grammy. Puya didn't win, but one of its songs was included on SFSA: South Florida Slammie Awards Vol. 1. In 1995 the group played at the awards ceremony-concert showcase and won in the Hard-Alternative Band category.

"Everybody loved them when they were here, and I'm really proud to have them back," says Slammie founder Jim Hayward, a former music journalist and concert promoter who landed Puya as the headline act for this year's Slammies.

"It was very important to us, because it was recognition," recalls Curbelo of walking away with one of the five-pound ceramic skulls. "We were just happy to be a part of the Slammies that year, and to win was very gratifying."

Even more gratifying was the attention the band received from producers when it performed at the Billboard Latin Music Conference in Miami the same year. Famed producer Gustavo Santaolalla, of Argentina, took note of Puya's unique sound. "He saw us there, and he fell in love with the music," says Curbelo.

But the band didn't join forces with the producer right away. Puya's members were lured to Los Angeles by its growing Latin-rock scene and the interest shown by L.A.-based producers they'd met in Florida. Soon they were playing top clubs on the Latin circuit, and in early 1998 they secured a contract with MCA. In search of someone who could appreciate the band's attempt to integrate frontal-assault rock with Latin beats, Puya turned to Santaolalla, who ended up producing Fundamental.

"We had produced with an Anglo," says Curbelo, "and wanted to see if we could get a producer who could understand both the heavy side and the Latin side."

-- John Ferri

The South Florida Slammie Awards will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 17, at FU*BAR, 909 E. Cypress Creek Rd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $10 and $12. Call 954-776-0660. See "Concerts For the Week" for the full lineup of bands.