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New Orleans City Life, September 2004


The Other Latin Beat

The night grows deep as the band Otra hits the stage. The drummers lock into a brisk percolating rhythm oozing with the essence of Afro-Cuban music. Amplified tones from an upright bass enrich the sound, and electric piano begins to plink with rolling precision. Conversations slowly die down as people are drawn to the warm energy coming from the stage. The trumpet and saxophone are being played rapidly, arching lines that weave in and out of each other. Otra is officially operating at full power, and as the sound washes over the crowd, a gaggle of frantic dancers struggle to keep the pace with the music.

Otra is the brainchild of bassist Sam Price, who developed the concept in the summer of 2002. “Otra, of course, means ‘other,’ and I wanted this band to be filled with fresh, great players out of nowhere, outside of the usual Latin scene. I also wanted to merge jazz concepts with the Latin beat and dig deeper into the African roots of Afro-Cuban music,” says Price. Price couldn’t have had better timing from this project because a “great player out of nowhere” showed up in New Orleans in the spring of 2002. Keyboardist Rob Block moved to town from St. Louis with a pedigree as thick as his original songbook. Block, a guitarist, had been teaching in the music department at Webster University in St. Louis and playing gigs with organ master Charles Earland. Soon after arriving in New Orleans, Block discovered he shared a musical kinship with Price and was sold on the Otra idea. “With Otra, I like to combine the roots of Cuban music with the improv style of modern jazz. The rhythmic style I play in this band is known as the ‘montuno.’ It is a way to play repetitive yet intriguing patterns.”

Otra’s percussive backbone is formed by Humberto “Pupi” Menes and Cristobal “El Cañon” Cruzado. As Price likes to say, Menes and Cruzado are “the real deal.” Between them they share more than 60 years of musical experience. Menes adds to Otra’s sound, playing bongos, tumbadoras and the chekere. Cruzado plays the timbales in a manner that leaves no doubt as to why he is nicknamed “the cannon.” He is consistently and powerfully on the beat, because as he says, “If I slip, everybody else will.”

There is certainly some mystical quality about the two. It is almost as if they are of the music; the Afro-Cuban sound circulates and courses through their veins. Menes, in particular, is a marvel to watch on stage – a cool, Havana Shiva in a newsboy hat, arms flying akimbo but under control, forcefully manipulating the skins of his drums and controlling the hip-shaking antics of the dancing audience, much like a puppeteer pulls the strings on his beloved puppets.

This elusive mystical quality identified in the percussionists is in line with Price’s desire to explore the deeper aspects of the African side of the music. One style Otra plays is the rumba, which Price explains is from the “sacred ceremonies of Africans living in Cuba and maintaining their religious traditions while pretending to pay homage to Catholic saints.” Other less supernatural styles include the cha-cha-cha, mambo and guajira. Thus, Otra can best be described as dance music that is a collision of salsa with Afro-Cuban.

The brassy front line of Otra is provided by saxophonist Brent Rose and trumpeter Eric Lucero. Both players are well respected within the New Orleans music community and bring a high level of tasteful skill and energy to the band.

Rose performs with a fiery soulful and bluesy resonance and his playing is a nice contrast when paired with Lucero’s high-range explorations of the Latin music dialect on the trumpet.

“To me, this band is the perfect mix of improvisation and dancing.” Rose says, “We present a party atmosphere at our shows that is appealing to the masses. With Otra, I feel the balance of what I want to be as a musician and an overall sound that I want people to experience.” Within the last year, Otra has established itself as a steady draw on the late-night dance and party scene. They aren’t afraid to bring their soulful organic groove to Frenchman Street haunts such as Café Brazil, Spotted Cat and dba or to The Maple Leaf and Twi-Ro-Pa Mills. Their first album, entitled “Todo Pa’la Gente (Everything for the People),” was released in June.

It is obvious members of Otra have a deep respect for each other as well as for the music they perform. Brent Rose sums up Otra when he says, “This band has a voice. It is six people not conforming and being themselves completely while staying within the context of a certain sound.”

- Billy Thinnes return to Press index

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