What fascinates me about music is that it speaks to every person on earth, and if it doesn't, they don't deserve ears. We can all find a groove that we like, something that makes us dance, sway, or at the least bob our heads. I've been listening to a lot of OTRA lately, a truly authentic Latin Jazz band here in New Orleans, in preparation for this year's Jazz Fest. I'm no dancer, but I dance when I listen to this band. The festive feel of the music, the fun and sexy sounds that you get with polite and dominate horns, non-stop percussive rhythm, and a slithery bass that seems to fall out of time, and in the same breath keeps the songs intact. The music is so rhythmic and fun you can't help but dance. OTRA has spoken to me musically several times over the years, but I've never taken the time to really understand them until now. I decided to contact the founder and the bassist of the group, Sam Price. Sam is from Slidell, LA, and his fascination with Afro-Cuban music started when he moved to NOLA and started listening to WWOZ.
After a stint in the Army, Sam came home to start his career as a musician. When he heard Ray Moore's show on WWOZ, he was hooked for life. Having influences such as The Fort Apache Band and other artists like Poncho Sanchez inspired Sam enough to seek out the right musicians for the project. Players have come and gone since OTRA's inception, and the lineup this year will be; Sam Price on bass, Brent Rose on saxophone, Leon Brown playing trumpet, Michael Skinkus percussion, Alexi Marti on congas, Gabriel Velasco plays the timbales, and Eduardo Tozzatto playing piano. The group is no stranger to Jazz Fest, having eight appearances under their sombreros, ahem. These veteran Afro-Cuban musicians have what it takes to provide the perfect Jazz Fest experience.
Speaking with Sam, we talked about the beginning of this new style of bass playing "When I was a kid, at some point I discovered WWOZ and started listening to different music. I moved down to New Orleans and met other musicians, and before I knew it I got a call to do a Brazilian gig. I'm like, 'What is Brazilian music? I don't even know what that is.' Ray Moore, a purveyor of Brazilian music here in NOLA called me and told me not to worry about it, just to come down, that they'd show me how to play the music. So that was my first experience with it. And then through doing that I was exposed to Cuban music, and man it just hit me. I felt the rhythm and that was it. Basically it was a slow process of getting involved with World music, and then Latin music."
Playing his first gigs in New Orleans proved to be quite a memorable time. When Sam got a call from one of the best in the business he couldn't turn the offer down,"When Fredy Omar started his band, I was the first bass player. I learned a lot from that experience too. Gradually what I started figuring out was that within the umbrella of Latin music, there are all these sub-genres. I started to identify what they were and then I started to formulate an idea of what I wanted to do with the music."
These experiences helped Sam decide what direction to put OTRA in. The history of the music is an important part of New Orleans, and when asked what Latin music is for Sam, a bit of history comes through: "That's why I call my band Afro-Cuban Jazz because it identifies with the connection between slaves that were coming from Africa and eventually ended up in the Islands, and the Cuban connection. So really it's a musical lineage that goes all the way back to the rhythms of Africa." The central rhythms of Latin music are all connected, it holds everybody together. That same rhythm is also heard in New Orleans music. The origins go all the way back to Cuba. Our city is so rich with music culture that it makes our sounds undeniable. Listening to OTRA, what Price is saying makes sense. Latin music is all about the rhythm. "In Cuban music, rather than having a drum set where all of the pieces are incorporated into one unit, they're all played individually. The conga drums could almost be like the bass drum and the snare. The tembales are also like the snare, with so many cymbals and accents. The bongo, everything is separated in separate units. The bass and piano are also considered important rhythm instruments."
You would assume that a Latin Jazz band would play mostly covers of older bands, such as Arsenlo Rodriguez, or Poncho Sanchez. But Price likes to compose as well as play, "I'd say it's about 60/ 40 originals to covers. Some of the songs I've written started out with bass lines. A lot of it ends up being rhythm ideas. When you listen to this music enough, and play it enough, you start to learn the language." And OTRA definitely has the language down. The bass connects all the instruments in a web of exotic and festive music that will make anyone dance. As the interview continued I've considered the importance of Latin Jazz with Price. When I asked him his feelings about the recognition the genre receives here in NOLA, "Well, this is kind of a hot subject for me. I feel like the relevance and the importance of Cuban music here in New Orleans is really under appreciated. Cuba's role in the development of New Orleans music has consistently been over looked. In the turn of the century before the revolution, there were ships going back and forth to Cuba twice a day. There were military bands playing that created this cross-pollination. I heard a field recording of music that was played in Cuba during that time, and it didn't sound anything like Cuban music as we hear it today, it sounded like ragtime. It was like a reverse affect. New Orleans musicians were picking up on Cuban and African music, and that's where we get these rhythms from."
OTRA will be performing some of the best music our city has to offer at this year's Jazz and Heritage festival. They're a New Orleans music staple! In a city with so much zest and culture it is important to have a good mix of styles, and OTRA is the perfect fit. Their already existing fans will also be honoring the group, and to any one checking them out for the first time I'm convinced of your instant love for this band. Make sure you see OTRA during the fun this year. And remember to be prepared to dance, OTRA's rhythms can't be denied. If they can turn this no rhythm white boy into a sex machine, they can do the same for you.