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The term mantra brings to mind many things to many people. Most think of it in the Hindu sense, in which a mantra is a series of words repeated continuously by a praying or meditating believer. Others remember the goofy scene in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, when at the height of a party Jeff Goldblum, in a consummate act of L.A. flakiness, dials up his guru and in utter disbelief admits, "I forgot my mantra." For the quartet of musicians known as Mantra, the word stands for music -- and business.
"We're really doing it for the reason why you should, because the universal language of music is a spiritual thing," says guitarist Jose Elias. "We're doing it for the spirit, not for a lot of the other reasons it's commonly done." That would probably be sex, drugs, women, and money, not necessarily in that order. Elias does acknowledge that when he was a self-described "eleven-year-old punk," it was Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption" solo and "the chicks on all those rock videos" that really motivated him. But what spurs him to action is different now. Elias and his cohorts are in anything but a heavy-metal hair band.
A five-year-old ensemble founded by drummer Marlon Moore, Mantra originally went by the highly descriptive name Mantra Jazz and Blues Band. It was a clever ploy on the part of Moore to instantly explain what the group was all about. "I put both [musical terms] together and it worked!" Moore says, marveling at his ingenuity. Over the years the band incorporated funk, soul, and Afro-Cuban sounds and eventually dropped the convoluted moniker. A revolving cast of musicians also came and went.
The current lineup, featuring drummer Moore, tenor saxophonist Mike Sinisgalli, guitarist Elias, and bassist David Gallego, was cemented a year and a half ago. The band has been playing gigs ever since, at venues as varied as Satchmo, the Martini Bar, Café Tu Tu Tango, the Wild Oats Market, and St. John's on the Lake United Methodist Church on Miami Beach. Its repertoire consisted strictly of jazz and blues covers until its June 1999 show at the Miami Art Museum, when the group debuted its original tunes, written by all four members, to an appreciative audience.
Featured on its self-titled album, Mantra's smorgasbord of songs can only be characterized as highly eclectic. The CD commences with "San Lazaro," Elias's arrangement of a rhythmic Afro-Cuban chant transposed as a hip-shaking instrumental led by Sinisgalli's meandering, squawking sax. Showcasing Elias's velvety guitar lines, Gallego's funky self-assured bass, and Moore's controlled competent drumming, the eight-minute tune seems to fly by in half the time.
The influences of jazz giants such as Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis is clear in Gallego's frenetic, hard-driving "Like This." A touch of Kenny G -- albeit souped-up and less grating -- is even in evidence on "Soul Light, Soul Bright" and "Rainforest Blues," a couple of smooth jazz-inspired songs written by Sinisgalli that highlight his fluid saxophone. "You want to feel like you're not just about one song," Sinisgalli explains about the band's versatility. "When you're in performance, you're flowing from one song to the next. There's something to say about that flow."
Frequent gigs and rehearsals keep the group amazingly cohesive despite the fact that its members maintain a slew of musical commitments away from the band. Elias plays percussion during step-aerobics classes at a Miami Beach gym, performs with Latin folksinger Lilly Blanco and Latin Jazz outfit Conjunto Progreso, and is hoping to transform his own project, the Afro-Polyphonic Space Orchestra (which gave a rousing one-time show at Tobacco Road two years ago), into the Afro-Polyphonic World Orchestra. Moore is a veteran member of the Miami Steel and Percussion Orchestra and performs on weekends at a local church with Gallego, who sits in frequently with other musicians. Sinisgalli plays in a straight-ahead jazz quartet with friend Bob Torres. Despite their busy schedules, they somehow are able to devote a surfeit of energy to Mantra. "A mantra is anything that pulls you into spiritual presence," says Moore. "Everyone has a mantra."
At least Moore, the band's agent/manager, would like to make sure everyone has an encounter with Mantra, whether they catch them at a gig or purchase a CD. If the band is to spread the good word of its sounds to as many people as possible, the members know they have to be serious, professional, and self-sufficient. To ensure that Mantra becomes everyone's business, they had to make the band a business, namely they had to incorporate, which they recently did as Mantra Sounds, Inc. The benefits are myriad and include the ability to write off all sorts of things and form alliances with nonprofit groups to compete for grants allowing them to facilitate cultural exchanges and create programming, including jazz workshops for underprivileged at-risk kids. "What we do with positive energy, it can change everything. It can change people's lives," Moore notes.
But the Mantrans are loath to become stodgy entrepreneurs, wondering how to squeeze every dime out of every gig. They're essentially artists who are quite comfortable mixing business and pleasure -- with a dash of spirituality thrown. "It's all about the soul," Elias explains, describing the power of their music. "Moving people." It's a talent that Mantra apparently has mastered. At the opening of the Lyric Theater in Overtown this past March, they played a late set to an audience of stragglers and some homeless people. The final tune of the set, "San Lazaro," managed to rouse a man from the bed in his nearby apartment and compelled him to come onstage and dance, right in the middle of their song. "He came up on the stage and just started tapping his heels," Sinisgalli recalls, chuckling. "I'd rather do that than play for a bar full of drunk people who don't care and aren't listening to you."