Adrian Quesada tells us ocote is a type of firewood that produces lots of sparks when burning—which makes it perfect for the name of Ocote Soul Sounds, a band he leads with Martin Perna.
Quesada and Perna stoke a rhythmic fire with generous helpings of music from African and Latin origins. Which makes sense, considering their "day jobs."
Perna's other primary gig is as a founding member of Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, while Quesada plays with the Grammy Award-winning Grupo Fantasma, who have made a name for themselves by playing an infectious blend of Latin music, funk and pop-rock.
Ocote Soul Sounds have released four albums since 2004, the most recent being the beautiful Taurus earlier this year. Over the years, the Ocote sound has evolved into a compelling, seamless meld of African, salsa, jazz, funk, hip-hop, down-tempo and lounge music. Perna sings and plays saxophone, flute, guitar, organ and percussion; Quesada is adept at, among other instruments, guitar, bass and drums.
Quesada, who has played in Tucson multiple times, is looking forward to returning to the Old Pueblo on Dec. 8, when Ocote Soul Sounds play a gig at the Solar Culture Gallery.
Ocote began as a solo experiment for the New York City-based Perna, says Quesada, who lives and works in Austin. The two musicians, who already admired each other's work, eventually came together through mutual friends.
"Originally, I was a fan of his band Antibalas. That must've been eight or nine years ago. We had already been doing Grupo Fantasma for a while," Quesada says. "My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, moved to New York City, and her roommate at the time was good friends with Martin. It was serendipitous, really.
"He had actually been doing some Ocote songs already, which is why by the time I hooked up with him, the first few albums came out credited to 'Ocote Soul Sounds and Adrian Quesada.'"
Bringing together African and Latin music, Ocote's material naturally leans heavily on groove, and the result is often a sound that recalls beats both tropical and urban, with more than a little Caribbean embellishment. "The two things that tie everything we do together are spirituality and rhythm," Quesada says.
Although it is easy to wax nostalgic and romanticize music of the past, Ocote Soul Sounds definitely channel the sly, effortless grooves of urban soul-jazz, with a tinge of reggae, from the late 1960s and early '70s. When asked about this, Quesada agrees but says it's not premeditated.
"It just so happens that both Martin's and my favorite eras of music are the 1960s and '70s. It was a different industry back then, and a lot of the music was more pure and easily accessible. A lot of the contemporary music of that time was more honest and less diluted by outside forces. From my point of view, the production quality and recordings of the time can't be matched. I know Martin has a bit of an early-'80s funk obsession, but we are both fond of that period's recordings, and to have you compare ours to that time is a great compliment."
The four Ocote albums have been released by Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL) Music, the label owned and operated by the Thievery Corporation, the popular Washington, D.C., duo that trades in trip-hop and acid jazz. Ocote encountered Thievery by chance at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2004, and the connection proved fortuitous, Quesada says.
"We were backstage, and I turned around, and there were the Thievery guys, so we gave them our first album. That was on a Friday, and by Monday, they had emailed us."
ESL re-released that record and has issued each Ocote record since. Quesada is most proud of the new Taurus, which happens to be the astrological sign under which both he and Perna were born.
"I think the music is getting a little more refined. We're executing our ideas better. The first couple of albums were sort of a practice period to define our sound and get it right. And usually in the past, Martin would do about half of the album, and I would do the other half, but with Taurus, we were working more and more together. And I think it shows—the sound is more unified and forceful."
With Perna in New York and Quesada in Austin, the logistics of working together were often challenging, especially since both musicians have their hands in multiple projects.
In addition to Antibalas, Perna has played on all the TV on the Radio albums, and has contributed to works by Beck, Scarlett Johansson, Angelique Kidjo, Baaba Maal and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
Perna also performed at and helped curate Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's Afro-Picks concert on Sept. 11 in Paris. The show included ?uestlove's band, The Roots, as well as Macy Gray, Tony Allen, Fela Kuti's Afrika 70, Amp Fiddler, the Fela! Broadway musical cast and the David Murray Big Band.
In addition to playing with Grupo Fantasma, Quesada also is a member of the dynamic Chicano-funk band Brownout and the relatively new psychedelic-soul act The Echocentrics, featuring Natalia Clavier and Tita Lima (from Argentina and Brazil, respectively). He's an active producer of other up-and-coming acts as well.
Although Ocote Soul Sounds have played a few dates here and there over the years, the trip that brings them to Tucson next week is the first major concert tour undertaken by the full band, which will include eight musicians, a roughly 50-50 mixture of Antibalas and Grupo Fantasma members.
"As far as scheduling, it is a little difficult sometimes to get everyone together, and Ocote is fresh on the block in terms of really touring and being on the road, but we have a lot of experience doing it with our other bands. And everybody with us does, too. We have a large musical family to draw from, and musicians who are for the most part on the same page, or at least in the same book. So we are feeling positive about making this work."