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Omar Gonzalez speeds down the highway in a burgundy minivan to a gig at the Marlin Hotel. "I hope this promoter doesn't make a big deal about being late," says the Oski Foundation frontman as he switches lanes. Heavyset and five foot eleven, the man known as Oski is calm and facetious, as he tends to be, while his stepdaughter struggles to paint her toenails in the front seat. As the seventeen-year-old sings along to the radio, Oski lead guitarist Dave "D Nasty" Lagnado, an Italian American in a baseball cap, observes from the passenger seat: "[We] don't sound like anything that is on the radio."
At least not until Hot 105 (WHQT-FM) DJ Demus, host of the Thursday-night Jazz Funk Lounge, approached the Foundation on the rooftop at Hardaway's Firehouse Four, deeming the band's Latin-tinged, reggae-inflected R&B rotation-worthy. This past September 30, the six-member outfit crowded into the Hot 105 studio to give a live acoustic performance of their song "Gone," followed by a rendition of "God Bless America" dedicated to those who lost loved ones in the September 11 terrorist attacks. "Gone" tells of the strong presence of lost loves and those dear to the soul, even after they are gone. At the microphone Oski improvised the unplugged version, repeating the chorus over and over. The group finished with the reggae-blues ballad "The Rhythm."
"[We are] funk, R&B, blues, jazz, reggae, and [a] little bit of Latin in there," Lagnado summed up for Hot 105 listeners.
The Foundation brought those elements together two years ago this December, after Oski put an ad in New Times and, he says, "got a lot of crazy calls." Four members signed on, including poet Diane Perez, who has since taken her spoken-word elsewhere. Finally Oski settled at six members, with half the band on guitar. "Without the guitar there's no rock band" -- not even urban rock -- Oski explains. "That's the melody of the music." Perhaps as much a harbinger as the band's own brimming self-confidence, they signed on with John Tovar, the manager notorious for his role in South Florida success stories Marilyn Manson and the Mavericks.
Aggressive flyering and e-mails coupled with Tovar's connections have made the Foundation a local staple, with more than 100 gigs last year at venues including Alligator Alley, Tobacco Road, Firehouse Four, and the fire-code-challenged Power Studios. Oski's blunt style has given some club owners pause in booking the band, but the warm bodies and green money of his fan base always win in the end. Oski reached the largest crowd opening for John Fogerty at MARS Music Amphitheatre. "We're the type of band you have to see live," boasts Oski.
The vibe at the Marlin is mellow. Roughly 25 people lounge on the snug club's divans, grooving to a Maxwell CD until DJ Aztec takes over -- but the stereo system puts out mostly feedback. Loud feedback. Oblivious, Oski and the rest of the band set up and then set out to prep the crowd: flirting, politicking, and passing out tiny Ziplocked bags of weed along with a folded photo of the band to every guest. Affable and of generous proportion, Oski looks like a Latin John Popper (of Blues Traveler) as he mingles, exuding confidence with his peeps.
Onstage bassist Victor Julia, preppy Puerto Rican suave, rocks a tapered beard and a sly grin. Beside him rhythm guitarist Eli Stamp, sporting long frizzy hair, barely moves as he jams, a testimony to the discipline of his karate training. "I speak through my music," he says later. Next to him Rod Lorie, whom Oski describes as "the spiritual bond of the band, Mr. Babalu himself," fingers old-school rock and roll as the third guitarist, stepping right out of the Seventies with his long red sideburns and patriotic bandanna. At the back, clean-cut-looking Cuban drummer Danny Delafe chills. He recently joined the band after a stint with Vernon's Machine and still moonlights with Stone Monkey. Tall, short, hefty, slim, light-skinned, dark-skinned, the band's physical and ethnic differences match the diverse genres the Oski Foundation fuses together.
In fact one band is not big enough for so much diversity, leading Oski to make room for other groups onstage. During a break hip-hop/reggae outfit Elementz of Soul runs through a set. "We always show love to other bands that we think [are] doin' they thing," says Oski. "Whenever we do a gig and [the club] stops them from playing, we just have them come through and perform wit us." That camaraderie expanded to entrepreneurship as the member of the Oski Foundation formed a new record label called Urban Rock Records.
This month the Oski Foundation releases its debut album, In the Pursuit of Happiness, recorded over a six-month period at Miami-Dade Community College's South Campus by professor and engineer Rick Reed. The disc features local all-stars such as Square Egg keyboardist Brian Wolfe; Ryan Sambrook of Rhett & the Pawn Shop Drunks; and vocalists Rachelle Coba, Jennifer Kaiser, and Big Brooklyn Red; and includes a live track captured at the gig opening for Fogerty and Aaron Neville in front of 20,000 people. "We sound like nobody," Oski says of the Foundation sound. "[We call it] urban rock since we are from one of the baddest metropolises in the world."
Blending guitar riffs with rap, these seven urban rock tracks take a poetic look at local social issues. Electrified by Lagnado's solo, "Welcome Home" follows a young man released from prison who finds the world outside more alienating than institutionalization. Crowd-favorite "Box," slated as the first single, is a catchy jazz jingle about the life of a homeless man. "To My Soul" takes a turn into the finger-snapping of Southern blues with a hint of ska, while "Life Goes On" overlays Seventies funk with ominous scaling guitar. "“Life Goes On' looks at how the world is gonna keep going," relays Oski, "that weare the only ones that are diminishing. The dinosaurs had their time, and now we're having our time." The sense of time running out spurs on the singer in his personal life as well. "When you really look at it, you have about a 60-year time frame to make your mark," he observes. "The inevitable is inevitable."