In the sparkly, off-kilter world of Miami electro-pop duo Afrobeta, a new party anthem is bubbling under the surface all the time. Even if it's outside of official studio hours and even if half the group is sleeping and even if that song started as a fragment or a half-joke.
Such was the genesis of one of the group's latest new live staples, a ditty it's dubbed "Birthday Celebration" and saves for serenading celebrating fans. The song began as an off-the-cuff tune that frontwoman Christy "Cuci" Amador sang to her mother for her last birthday. Then, when Amador's own birthday came around, she got a musical surprise from Tony "Smurphio" Laurencio, the other half of the pair.
"The song was something really dumb and funny," she recalls. "But Tony came into the room at midnight and woke me up to the song. He had finished a whole other verse to it and developed and produced it."
In the Afrobeta universe, the lines separating work, play, and personal life seem blurred to almost nonexistence. Amador and Laurencio live together, make music all day and night together, and, now, tour the world together, sharing stages with leading electronic-music legends from San Francisco to Ibiza.
To say their relationship is "close" is probably wrong; it's more like symbiosis. Not only do Amador and Laurencio finish sentences for each other but they interpret as well. Ask one a question and the other is likely to explain the question in further detail.
All of this is to the fans' benefit. If the inner workings of Afrobeta are almost insular to a point, it translates as an expansive, inclusive, and wholly unique sound that spans pop and electronic genres. Afrobeta is a little freestyle, a little tech-house, a little electro, a tiny bit dubstep, a little funk, and a little rock 'n' roll, and the band isn't even afraid to kick in the occasional all-acoustic ballad. Yet it all works, thanks to a core built on Laurencio and Amador's joint songwriting.
The symbiosis has also made the band one of the most electrifying live acts to come from the local circuit. Playing off each other's cues, Amador and Laurencio control a performance like a DJ set, taking the energy up and down and drawing parts out as needed.
This is all done completely live, with Laurencio manning a tower of keyboards and controls while Amador flits between her own synth and laptop, hitting keys and buttons before dancing back to the front of the stage. As a frontwoman too, she's part singer, part cheerleader. Call-and-response tactics figure frequently, as do any other tricks Amador might pull out when the fringes of a crowd are failing to ignite.
"Sometimes I focus on those people more than I should," she says. "It's a battle where you try to get people involved. I have flags, and maybe I'll try to hit them with the flag or throw something. But then I have to bring it back to where I am — I'll have to look at Tony and be like, 'Where are we right now?' "
That Amador's previous "day job" was as an actress, especially popular in Spanish-language commercials, isn't a shock. What does surprise, though, is that she and Laurencio started Afrobeta five-and-a-half years ago as near strangers. Laurencio was already a popular figure on the Miami scene, both as a member of the fiercely beloved Spanish fusion act Suenalo and as a studio and touring musician for artists like Pitbull. Amador was a friend of a friend who at the time offered only a short stint in the Miami live electro group organicArma to her musical credit. As an almost starstruck Suenalo fan, she had to work up the nerve to give Laurencio a demo after a show one day.
Since then, the other acts gradually fell away. Laurencio even turned down an offer to become a full-time member of Pitbull's live band to stick with Afrobeta. The payoff of this laser focus, as well as steady gigging around Miami and a residency at Miami Beach hangout Jazid, paid off. The group's local draw and spark-plug performances landed them a deal with Do IT Music Group, a label and management house run by Charlie and Russell Faibisch, cofounders of Ultra Music Festival.
Yes, that helped Afrobeta score its first slot at the festival, in 2010. But its own merits helped it graduate to bigger stages at the 2011 edition, which it closed out Sunday night in the massive live stage's headlining slot. Last summer too, the group completed the full run of the summer Identity Festival tour, the country's first traveling all-electronic music festival. (Weather issues forced the postponement and then cancellation of the planned Miami stop.)
The "summer camp for artists" atmosphere, as Amador puts it, led to some fruitful and diverse connections. "Our bus mates were the Crystal Method," she says, "so we shared our music with them, they shared their music with us, and we became really great friends." Later, during one rainy day on the tour stop, Laurencio won over Aussie twin-DJ duo Nervo with a piano rendition of Men at Work songs. The four eventually wrote a track together, which will hopefully make it onto Afrobeta's planned upcoming new EP, due out in the spring.
The final track list is up in the air. But Amador and Laurencio describe the likely candidates as diverse as those on the group's last offering, the 2011 full-length Under the Streets. Criticisms of that album — mostly from outside of South Florida, where subgenre switch-ups are a given — focused on the songs' stylistic unpredictability. Laurencio and Amador saw that as a strength, they say, and one that will continue on the new release.
"We'd rather sound different on every song than have 14 songs with the beat sounding the same," Laurencio says. "I guess it kind of confuses the pop crowd, who say, 'What is this band? Are they electronic or what?' But we don't care. Every song is different. The common flavor is that we can play all these songs on acoustic instruments. It's all about the songwriting for us."
The result is that besides the party-ready "Birthday Celebration," other top contenders for the EP include an "adult contemporary dubstep" number and a cheekily titled, IDM-driven ballad called "Even When I Hate You I Still Love You." But until the final selections are made, the two continue to work — and play — nearly tirelessly to get it done, "normal" schedules and perhaps personal boundaries be damned.
"It's challenging, but we have to remember why we're doing this music together. Technically, Tony doesn't need me to do the music. He could go play as Tony Smurphio by himself," Amador says. "I could do my own little beats on my computer and write my own thing and not have to argue with him.
"But the common goal is the same for both of us," Laurencio quickly adds, again finishing her thought. "Getting to that common goal, there may be a couple of bumps, but the overall result is worth keeping the unity."