For someone who considers himself an expressionist, Khadir frontman Lino de la Guardia has had a hard time expressing himself -- or rather, he's found it difficult to get the sounds in his head captured on tape. His frustration is evident when the 32-year-old Miami native talks about all the aborted sessions and botched mixes, and especially all the ill-suited producers he's encountered during his time in Khadir and Shank, his first band.
"I've always wanted to take the time to find the right producer," de la Guardia laments over a fruit salad at a South Miami deli, where he and a few other Khadir members are having lunch. "I've never had the chance to audition producers, to find someone who knows what I'm trying to do." De la Guardia rolls his eyes and lets out a sigh of exasperation. "I'd like to get someone who knows what I want and will sit down with me and figure out how to get it on tape. Maybe one day I'll get the chance to have somebody say, 'What is it that you hear?' and they'll just say, 'Okay, cool' instead of taking my thing and changing it around."
That's exactly what happened, de la Guardia says, during the myriad sessions that produced the two Khadir releases thus far: an eight-song promotional cassette culled from mid-'96 recordings overseen by P-Funk drum legend Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey; and Step into the Rhythm, Khadir's debut CD released a couple of weeks ago on Bitter Crop, an indie label run by de la Guardia's half-brother Oscar de la Guardia. Both are terrific documents of Khadir's singular fusion of funk, R&B, and Afro-Cuban rhythms, yet de la Guardia says neither has successfully defined the band.
He had high hopes for the collaboration with Brailey, the man who captained some of Parliament-Funkadelic's greatest hits, including "Flashlight" and "Up for the Down Stroke." "I was thrilled," de la Guardia, a P-Funk fanatic, says of the opportunity to work with Brailey, who was introduced to the group by Peter Weatherbee. His Coconut Grove Recording Company was partially bankrolling the sessions. "But it just didn't work at all. I remember Jerome sitting me down and saying, 'What are you hearing in your head?' So I told him it was kind of an old-school funk vibe and he said, 'The old-school vibe is no good now, you've got to get into the new stuff.' You know, before I even finished telling him he basically said it was all wrong. And I guess I thought, 'This is Jerome Brailey. Maybe he knows more than I do.' But I felt like all he did was come into the studio, play through the songs, get his paycheck, and split. It was just a job for him."
As for Step into the Rhythm, de la Guardia says his vision never quite clicked with that of producer Richard Serotta, and he's less than enthusiastic about the finished product. "There's a lot of stuff on there that just isn't us," he complains. "It doesn't represent us much at all. Richard is a great producer, and I'm not knocking him. I just don't think he really knows where I'm coming from. On one song, 'Trouble,' he finished it while I wasn't there. When I came back into the studio he said, 'Wait till you hear what we did.' What he did was have this guy playing a merengue rhythm" -- de la Guardia derisively mouths the sound of a synthesized drum beat, then sneers -- "and it just wasn't for me. Even the percussionist knew it wasn't right for the song. And when I'd give my point of view, [Serotta] would basically say, 'Step aside and let me do what I want to do.'"
In Serotta's defense, Khadir manager Oscar de la Guardia says the producer was faced with what was a nearly impossible task. The CD, he explains, had to be finished and ready by the band's April appearance at this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which left both Khadir and Serotta little time to fuss over details. "Serotta is a fine producer," says Oscar. "We didn't have much time or a whole lot of money, so everything had to be done very fast. There's a saying in Spanish that basically says: 'Good, cheap, and pretty -- you can have two of those things but you can't have all three.'" Adds Khadir drummer Joe Eshkenazi: "It's a good CD and we're mostly happy with it, but it's not 100 percent representative of what we do. But we went into the studio with Richard just two weeks after meeting him, so he didn't know us or what we were about. For the time and money he had, Richard did a good job."
Whether or not de la Guardia is happy with the work his band has done in the studio, both the promo cassette and Step into the Rhythm are masterful homages to the power of the groove. Big grooves, inspired by the lean riffs of James Brown; the dense, busy productions of George Clinton; and the joyous camaraderie of Sly and the Family Stone, with an added shot of propulsive Afro-Cuban percussion and guitar wizardry that recalls the early-Seventies experiments of Santana. "When we came out with our stuff," recalls Eshkenazi, "people said, 'What are they? Are they rock? Are they Latin? Are they R&B? Are they funk?' And we said, 'Yes. All of the above.'"
Eshkenazi is right: Khadir's sound is an amalgam of wobbly wah-wah guitars (supplied by Dylan Schiavone), the slippery bass lines of Dameon Maizler, fatback funk drums (compliments of Eshkenazi), the backing-vocal majesty of Marty Fernandez, and de la Guardia's rough-hewn voice, which can growl, moan, and soar skyward in a leathery falsetto. And though they're severely underrepresented on Step into the Rhythm, percussionists Joe Collado and Tomas Diaz manage to put a new -- but instantly familiar -- spin on Khadir's Seventies-style panoply of funk and soul.
De la Guardia blames the missing Afro-Cuban firepower (very much a part of the Brailey-helmed stuff) on Serotta. "He doesn't have any clue about Afro-Cuban rhythms, so he just took them out completely," says de la Guardia, exaggerating slightly. "I just don't think he knew how to go about recording them. That's what I mean about him not hearing what's in my head. That song "Your Only Love" -- I can't listen to it on the CD. It was a gospel song the way I heard it in my head, but the way it turned out it's more of a country-rock-pop sound. I told Serotta I wanted it to be gospel-oriented, because that's what influenced me when I was writing the song. But he told me, 'No, this is a Van Morrison-type song,' and because he's the producer I just shut my mouth."
Obviously, that's not always easily for de la Guardia, and that passion -- that drive to call things as he sees them and to pull no punches -- informs his songwriting. "Lino's lyrics are very spiritual but very much a part of the real world," says bassist Maizler, defining perfectly the genius behind de la Guardia's art. Delving into both the world around him and his own checkered past (he's bounced from Miami to the Dominican Republic to the West Coast, and has slept in cardboard boxes and been on the wrong side of prison bars), de la Guardia writes with equal measures of grit and compassion, concern and indignation. In "Your Only Love" he examines the pain of a son abandoned by his father. "Days a Gone" is a chronicle of optimism turning to cynical rage, while "The Funktion" takes a look at why optimism can sour.
"They come from things that happen, anything in everyday life," de la Guardia says of his songs. "Before I'm a musician, I'm an expressionist. Every time I write something, it's got to touch me when I hear it played back. If something makes me real, real happy one day, I'll write about it. But usually every day you hear some bad news, and once in a while it really hits home." De la Guardia is referring specifically to "Keep on Givin'," which was inspired by the Martin Luther King Day shooting this year in Liberty City which took the life of six-year-old Rickia Issac. "I know that happens every day, but it was this certain day," de la Guardia says. "People are celebrating and feeling good and you hear about something like this and you wonder, 'What the fuck is going on?'"
De la Guardia has been asking questions like that since he formed his first band Shank a couple of years back with some area session players. A later lineup cut some demos for the Coconut Grove label, but de la Guardia wasn't happy with the results; the project was shelved. After changing the band's name last year to Khadir -- the Arabic word for a muselike angel -- de la Guardia submitted a copy of the aforementioned promotional tape to the New Orleans-based Cutting Edge Music Business Conference, a South By Southwest-like artist showcase-cum-industry confab. Having won a slot in the Cutting Edge event (their debut live gig, by the way), Khadir was invited back to New Orleans to perform in yet another Crescent City blowout -- Jeff Fest, which then led to other gigs at famed clubs there such as Tipitina's, and heavy radio play on the city's community stations.
Because of this prodigious activity, not to mention the maturity in de la Guardia's writing and the agility and finesse in the group's playing, it's easy to forget that Khadir is still a very young band -- one that de la Guardia describes as a "people" band. "The best way to describe what we're doing is to call it people music. It's about the struggles that people go through every day. And I think if you take something up on-stage and it's real -- and people know when something is true when they see it -- it's going to touch their hearts."
Khadir's record-release party is Saturday, May 24, at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave; 374-1198. Showtime is 9:00 p.m. Cover charge is $5.
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