Music » Soundcheck

Important Imports

Three disparate musicians find a welcome climate in Cleveland.


Fernanda Cunha shudders every time the door opens at Sergio's, an upscale Brazilian restaurant in University Circle. As she sits with microphone in hand, tucked into a corner near the establishment's entrance on a recent Monday night, it's obvious she has little appreciation for the January cold that invades her space every time a patron arrives.

But if there's a chill in the air, it's countered by the warmth in Cunha's voice. Singing blithe bossa nova numbers in Portuguese, Cunha and her partner, guitarist Kip Reed, entertain diners with tropical jazz as sizzling as the sun in Cunha's native Brazil. Her vibrant, exotic contribution to the local music scene is no anomaly: Cunha is part of a strong class of visitors and immigrants who have greatly broadened Cleveland's musical horizons.

"I like this because I live in Rio," Cunha says in fractured English a couple of days later. "[Rio] is a busy city, there's so much violence, and here there's so much peace. I'm resting, I think."

"Rest" is a relative term here, as she maintains a steady pace of performances, playing Sergio's every Monday and Wednesday, while also singing regularly at Touch Supper Club and Fat Fish Blue with local world music ensemble Grupo Brasil. In addition, she is preparing to cut a record next month. The niece of renowned Brazilian composer Sueli Costa and daughter of prominent vocalist Thelma Costa, Cunha came to Cleveland earlier this year after the owner of Sergio's invited her to be the house singer at his restaurant. Since then, she's attempted to make artistic headway in a rock-centered town. Despite the challenge, playing Cleveland does have its benefits.

"I don't have to worry about the lyrics," Cunha says with a laugh. "Sometimes the musicians say, 'Oh, let's play that music,' and I think, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know all those lyrics.' Then I think, 'Okay, let's go. No one will know what I'm saying.' I'm very free here."

Also basking in this freedom -- and shivering in the winter chill -- is Istan Black. A Jamaican-born reggae artist and distant cousin to Bob Marley, Black has recorded with such legends as Lee "Scratch" Perry, Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, and Earl "Chinna" Smith (longtime guitarist for Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers). Black cut his first record in 1973 and migrated to Cleveland in 1997 to be with his mother and siblings here. Since then, he's helped revive the once-thriving reggae scene with the traditional sound and spirit of the genre's motherland.

"The thing I really want to get across is that it's got to be a wider scene," Black says of Cleveland reggae. "It's a worldwide atmosphere. You've got to focus your mind in that kind of way, instead of just a small little circle. 'Local' -- I don't really like that word. It's universal. I just want to make sure that people get expressed fully and get whatever they really need, open up their minds. Music is more than gimmick."

And no one knows this better than Sorca McGrath, the frontwoman of no-nonsense pop rockers Dakota Floyd. Unlike Cunha and Black's warm-weather homelands, McGrath hails from the rugged hills of Ireland, where nontraditional bands are often greeted with deaf ears. Upon meeting Cleveland expat Bill Watterson at a gig by her old band in Dublin in 1999, McGrath formed Dakota Floyd with Watterson and relocated to his hometown, where their reception has been much friendlier.

"I found a lot of people very encouraging," McGrath says. "You arrive, you play some music, and people will tell you if they like it. It's not like that in Dublin. They're too cool for that. We played New York, Chicago, Toledo, and Columbus -- we kind of did a little tour -- and as soon as we came back off that, we were pretty tight. All of a sudden, heads were turning in Cleveland. It was really nice."

With a terrific three-song EP on D.C.'s Rags to Riches label already out, Dakota Floyd has another single of equally salty and svelte rock in the works for its growing fan base.

"Dakota Floyd's a weird band, because we get older people really digging us as well as younger people, so I'm kind of happy that we're getting a draw that's pretty broad," McGrath says. "We're getting people coming who may have never thought of going to the Grog Shop; people thinking like 'Wow, I thought this place was a hole.' And I'm like 'Well, it is a hole, but there's some good music going on.' There's such range here."

Our thoughts exactly.

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