The Vagabond Spirit is Alive and Well in Miami
March 21, 2017
The scene is Miami, the year is 1989.
The city was in the early stages of its renaissance, a village comprised of incredible people inventing, and in some cases, re-inventing themselves through a vibrant, artistic, bohemian energy arguably not seen since. This is before all the technological advances in social media and the internet’s full-blown incorporation into our daily lives. Everything was raw, innocent, wide open, vibrant–a clean canvas to paint a masterpiece on. A collection of outsiders, misfits and mishapes were coming together to set Miami on a course to stardom…
…among this group of incredible creatives was Carmel Ophir who, empowered by a pure love for music and human connection, was about to change Miami’s nightlife scene as we know it.
You may not know him by name, but you definitely know his legacy. The man responsible for The Vagabond (R.I.P.) and all that it brought to the city, Ophir saw potential in expanding Miami’s access to a vibrant spectrum of musical genres. He saw no boundaries and refused to box our city’s sound under one identity by bringing legendary acts like the late Frankie Knuckles, John Digweed, George Clinton, and Masters at Work here on the regular. Over nearly 9 years ago to the day, The Vagabond became a home for high-quality music at an affordable price. It brought together a crowd as varied as its billing and to this day, if you ask anyone about that club (myself included) it’s almost impossible for them to reminisce without a huge smile on their face. A warm nostalgia that can’t be measured in ticket sales.
But back to the beginning. Ophir and his fellow collaborators were leading the pack in making music, namely electronic music, accessible to Miami in an intimate, non-stereotypical nightclub setting. He had no problem with the accelerated growth of the genre, in fact, he welcomed it to our shores with open arms. “Electronic music as a whole has been embraced worldwide, probably more than any other genre in history,” he says. “We hear it on almost every platform, from the dance floors to festivals to TV shows, commercials, and in scores of movies.” After it grew too fast and became rejected by self-proclaimed “purists,” the dance floor opened up for an underground movement where creativity and pushing envelopes thrive and thanks to visionaries like him, Miami is becoming a key home for that kind of exploration.
Over the course of 30 years, Ophir’s taste in programming ranged from spoken word/open mic, folk, blues, hip-hop, freestyle, indie, rock, soul, mod, retro, live bands, house music, techno, themed events, burlesque, fetish, 80’s Prom, Back Door Bamby, etc. His belief is that as a proper venue must offer an experience that tantalizes the senses and opens the imagination, exposes the audience to multiple forms of entertainment, turns them on to new music, and educated them on its origins. But more significantly, the audience’s mindset must be changed: “For too long, a sense of entitlement has created a culture that doesn’t celebrate venues bringing great talent to play, but rather a sense that it’s beneath them to have to pay to see/hear artists perform,” Ophir says. In short: paying to see a show isn’t ludicrous, it’s necessary for culture’s survival.
So what side of the spectrum should a successful venue fall on? One that ensures its success by booking popular acts but sacrifices a certain underground legitimacy? Or one that takes risks and builds an identity upon a lineup that welcomes all kinds of ears? It’s an age-old conundrum and one that has forced too many great venues to hold the short end of the stick. So how do you survive? “Taking chances, pushing envelopes, and thinking outside the box are paramount in my eyes for this industry,” he said. Sometimes it’s not about appeasing, sometimes it’s about changing perspectives.
Fast-forward to 2014 and The Vagabond has been sold, eventually becoming today’s Armando Records, and Ophir has taken on new ventures while maintaining the spirit of what kept it all alive. Phase two, better known as Vagabonds-At-Large, has become a moving platform that allows him to upkeep his signature range of billed artists and sprinkle the sound around town. It’s his bridge to what may come next, “maintaining a spirit of togetherness through music, artistry, and various pop-up events and collaborations, while looking to the future.”
For this kind of floating injection of culture, turnkey happenings like Miami Music Week and Winter Music Conference are a benefit. They’re large-scale celebrations of music, where everyone has a chance to showcase a wide variety of sound albeit having morphed from a true industry gathering to an additional excuse for spring breakers to party. But with alternative festivals like October’s III Points and Rapture (launching this year MMW), music lovers have the opportunity to explore more options and get turned on to a more authentic music experience and that’s where Vagabonds-At-Large stands strong.
This year, Carmel and Vagabonds-At-Large are already pumping the city hard with house legends like John Digweed, Louie Vega, Chosen Few DJs, and Jellybean Benitez–a perfect excuse to escape the mass exodus that will happen around Miami over the next few days. And while Miami’s musical landscape continues to morph and shift, he remains hopeful that there will always be a place for Vagabonds-At-Large: “As long as there is passion, it will always live on. Steer clear from contrived trends, ‘taste-makers’ dictating what you should be listening to, where to go, and what to eat. Be individual, be open, be critical, support local venues, local talent, and welcome national and international acts with your attendance and attention.”
And to anyone actively working against the current? “Always keep your finger on the pulse of tomorrow, but never forget where you came from.”