MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - He wears a black case around his torso looking like a gunslinger, ready to whip out a little four-string ukulele in case a song comes into his head.
Later, he's standing in front of a cafeteria window strumming a new tune as raindrops fall behind him, drawing polite smiles from a lady shoveling pastries to a customer who's probably wondering if he has to pay for this musical display.
All the while, this impromptu strumming and singing is captured on a minidisc recorder.
He is Javier Garcia, modern tropical man.
"It's the climate," says Garcia, who recently spoke with the Associated Press at an outdoor cafe on South Beach. "If it was cold and not as humid, I would probably be doing slower music. Tropical music is daytime music. Happy music."
After arriving in Miami at 16, Garcia has embraced the city, mixing musical styles such as reggae, ska, '70s-style funk, hip-hop and an array of tropical rhythms on his new album, "13," which seems inspired by the city's cultural salad bowl. He even throws in Miami-Cuban street slang and rap, adding a fresh lyrical edge to his music.
Born in Madrid, the 31-year-old Garcia is the youngest of six children from an Irish mother and Cuban father. In his early teens, he was sent to a boarding school in Ireland.
"I was hanging around with the rough kids who would steal motorbikes and smoke hash," Garcia said.
Before he left Spain, one of Garcia's brothers gave him a guitar, and he began to learn the instrument on his own.
"That's when I began to take refuge in music," he said.
Growing up in Europe, Garcia listened to English-language acts such as Journey, Foreigner and Boston. But showing a tendency to explore musically, his first CD was by Terrence Trent D'Arby.
Garcia was "asked to leave" the boarding school and came to Miami to live with his father, a lover of Cuban music's older styles, such as son.
Garcia got hooked on the old tropical masters, such as Beny More and the Fania All-Stars - helping him turn a page in his life.
"I moved from a rebelliousness to a more uplifting stage," says Garcia, who named his first son Beno, for Beny More. "Before, I was always out of place. When I came to Miami, I kind of sunk in."
His new album provides a blast of tropical rhythms and energy in a tightly produced collaboration with Gustavo Sataolalla, one of Latin rock's most accomplished producers who has worked on albums with Juanes, Molotov and Cafe Tacuba, among others.
"13" also features two musicians who add cache and texture to Garcia's music - Cuban-American trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., who's toured with Paul McCartney among other big names.
The album will serves proper, yet juiced-up, homage to the Cuban son in "Me Gustaria" (I'd Like That), while also unleashing shake-it-up tunes such as "Bajo Y Piano" (Bass and Piano)- a tribute to rhythm sections with Sandoval and Laboriel showing off their talents.
Lilting reggae rhythms are featured on "Como Bailan" (How They Dance), a tribute to Cuban women. Love is the theme of "Algo Especial," a ballad that could have come out of Garcia's father's collection of old Cuban music.
"I'm kind of paying homage to the old styles, at the same time mixing it up," Garcia says.
Garcia, who grew up during the hip-hop revolution, will also rap on some songs, and drops slang phrases often heard on the streets of Miami. Also, in "Llego Chango" (Chango is Here) he refers to Santeria, which involves sacrificing animals to different spirits and is known to be practiced in Cuba and Miami.
But in "He Venido" (I've Come") Garcia unveils a darker side, a concern about death and a desire to leave behind something worthwhile after he's gone.
"I have something that pulls me that way, toward darkness," he says.
As for the minidisc recorder and ukulele, they go with him everywhere.
During his musical show in front of the cafe window, Garcia puts together a toe-tapping, blues-country riff that he had been working on awhile.
For him, the musical experience seems almost religious, an organic manifestation of his life's travels and personality while living in multicultural Miami.
In one of his songs, Garcia sings "De la tierra nace el ritmo" (rhythm is born from the earth).
"Rhythm is the true meditation. You're there on the beat, or you're not there," says Garcia, tropical music philosopher. "When you get into a trance, you forget all about time and you get lost."
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