The easiest way to describe Kelly’s Mission Rock is to say it’s a lot like Benny’s party in the movie City of God — minus the Scorsese-inspired denouement, which takes place in a strobe-lit warehouse packed to the hilt with every strain of hipster: disco-heads, gangsters, hippies, and soul-groovers. Granted, San Francisco’s current hip-hop scene is a temporal and transcontinental departure from blaxploitation-era Brazil; the look, here and now, is hybrid, urbane, and activist-chic. You won’t see any blow-sniffing or pistol-whipping at Mission Rock, but you will see whole thickets of Kangol hats and faux-leather jackets, clusters of B-girls boogying down, and the occasional “No Blood for Oil” T-shirt. It’s a perfect fit for O-Maya, a ten-piece Afro-Latin hip-hop ensemble known for combining rap pyrotechnics with jazzy instrumentation.
With fedoras and porkpie hats pulled low over their eyes, the musicians of O-Maya look like they could have slunk out of one of the Harlem joints described in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. And if threads are an accurate indication of personality, they’re a striking combination of street-conscious and suave. Simpering under his hat brim, MC Rico Pabón looks like the lost cousin of Super Fly, in contrast to the more collegiate, denim-jacketed Destani Wolf. This mélange of styles is embodied in O-Maya’s music, which blends agitpropist ragga MCing with brassy ranchero horns, interweaving the neo-traditional vocals of Jorge Martinez and Wolf’s lilting wails.
Wolf unleashes the set with a contralto ripple in “Beso,” the kind of love song that conjures daydreams of a gibbous moon in San Juan, or some tropical place where the smell of hibiscus is heavier than rain. The band follows with more driving, political numbers like “Funky,” which they dedicate to Bush and the warmongers in Congress. Pabón leads the crowd in rousing chants and hand-clapping, which stirs nerves already jangled from three days of protests. These days we’re hungry for decisively antiwar art, even if it’s tempered by more expressionistic, groove-driven lullabies and lacquered jazz articulations.
O-Maya’s preoccupation with linking styles, places, and concepts stems from an ideology of cultural connectedness. The band blends Nicaraguan, Puerto Rican, African-American, and Mexican roots with political lyrics garnered from hip-hop griots like Run DMC and Afrika Bambaataa. In one set you’ll get the percussive, vaguely Getzian “Los Colores” followed by the powder-keg tune “El Sueño,” to form a kind of musical synergy that’s wedged between the Last Poets and Tito Puente. While this protean quality of genre is part of the band’s appeal, it makes it difficult to classify. When asked about musical influences, saxophonist Quincy Griffin cites forms as eclectic as old-skool boom-bap, Mexican norteño, and roots reggae. He admits it’s sometimes difficult for O-Maya to find similar bands to share its bill: “We’re playing with different forms, incorporating elements from more than one sound,” he says. “Around here you’ll see a strong salsa scene and a strong hip-hop scene, but not too many bands are playing with multiple styles.”
It’s tempting to describe O-Maya in gaudy terms culled from cultural theory, such as “diaspora” or “hybrid musicscape.” These philosophical mewings roll easily off the tongues of more elitist, armchair hipsters such as DJ/rupture, who want to give their music a sense of authority. Such avant-gardist snobbery supposedly distinguishes an expatriate in Madrid from a West Coast hip-hop group. But the bandmembers exhibit no such highbrow pretensions. In their vine-festooned North Berkeley studio, Wolf and Griffin emphasize a firm sense of community above all else. Furnished with tatami mats and a squishy loveseat, the studio is pleasantly conducive to hanging out. It was easy to lollygag there, chatting with the musicians about their high school days in the East Bay when Run DMC was all the rage. Today they’re involved in loftier endeavors: Wolf composes music for several groups, including her self-titled World Soul Beats, and Griffin creates film scores with O-Maya’s percussionist Hector Pérez. Among their accomplishments is the Oscar-nominated documentary Daughter from Danang.
Jazz-sexiness is a matter of alchemy for many instrumental groups, but it comes easy for the members of O-Maya, who live by the credo that less is more. Drummer Valentino Pellizzer-Salgado and trumpeter Isaac Peña articulate solos with undulating dynamics that distinguish elegant musicians from amateurs. But instrumental flair is ancillary to the band’s deep-rooted hip-hop sensibility. At shows they unabashedly rally for peace, voice support for Bay Area activists, and proudly embrace their Afro-Latin heritage in such songs as “Mexico Lindo.” O-Maya’s raps invigorate the fans at Mission Rock, who go from hip-shimmying to fist-pumping as the night wears on. The second set starts after witching hour, and several rum-cocktails with lime, but there’s no trace of lethargy in the crowd — even square kids with reporters’ notebooks are cranked up and ready to dance.