On a recent Monday night at Coyo Taco in Wynwood, DJ Oscar G opens his weekly residency set with a gradual ascent of deep-house beats that drown out conversations at the bar. Standing next to him is an imposing figure — Oba Frank Lords, dressed in all white, in stark contrast to the dimly lit space. His beaded necklaces hang over a T-shirt that reads, "Weapons of mass percussion," around a graphic of two drumsticks crossed like an X. His eyes are closed for nearly a minute before he announces his presence with six consecutive cracks on the snare drum. The crowd roars in excitement, and suddenly, Lords launches into an array of Afro-Cuban drum patterns that fuse with the electronic beats, forming a textured rhythm that bewitches the crowd.
In the audience of 20- and 30-year-olds is a couple in wheelchairs. Jazalee Sircus has cerebral palsy. Her husband, Luis, is missing a leg. Both are practicing santeros and are here for Lords, their padrino. After the 90-minute set, Jazalee props herself up to applaud his performance.
"I love it," she says. "It makes me forget that I am in this [wheelchair]."
The 55-year-old Lords is an accomplished master percussionist, songwriter, and music producer. From pioneering the early Miami freestyle sound to remixing tracks for Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan to collaborating with Oscar G and Ralph Falcon on the enduring dance club anthem "Dark Beat," his contribution to Miami music history across four decades is transcendental.
"He had the opportunity and the talent to survive without national exposure, without a major multimillion-dollar hit," says Sergio Rozenblat, his former manager. "And Frank stayed in the industry and produced behind the scenes and wrote and co-wrote, which is almost schizophrenic as an artist because he loves being in the front but he operated in the background for a long time."
But Lords is more than just a musician: He's also a high priest in the Palo Mayombe and Rule of Osha religions with 1,132 spiritual godchildren, including Luis and Jazalee Sircus. His gifts of music and spirituality, of entertaining and healing, have been intertwined since as far back as he can remember — and he uses both to his advantage.
Since 2016, Lords and Oscar G have been collaborating on the Afro Cuban House Experiment (A.C.H.É.), a live show that fuses Palo Mayombe and Santería spiritual elements with dancing choreographed by a babalawo, priest, while Oscar G plays his signature Miami electronic beats. Lords says every performance "has a mythological twist to it," an ode to the orishas that serve as spirit guides for santeros. Lords believes A.C.H.É. is the ideal platform for both his music and his religion.
"I want the youth to accept my religious music in a flavor they can swallow," he says. "This is almost like modern Santería. I am introducing it to the youth with a little sugar that they like, the techno element."
Since he was a boy, Lords — born Francisco Javier Martín in Havana, Cuba — has gravitated toward vibrations. When he was 2 years old, his favorite hiding place was a cabinet under the kitchen sink.
"Open the cabinet and you would find me... in the dark, with wooden spoons playing on pots," he says.
Although he was drawn to music from a young age, his childhood dream was to become a Catholic priest. At the age of 10, after his family moved to Miami, he joined the congregation of Corpus Christi Church in Allapattah. He rose to become the head altar boy but ultimately grew disenchanted with what he saw as the hypocrisy of Catholicism. He says the last straw came when he was unpacking the monthly cases of wine from the Vatican one day: He noticed each bottle was priced at $250.
"Mind you, this is back in 1974. And how did they pay for these wines? The poor box," he says. "It just turned me off."
Looking elsewhere for inspiration, 10-year-old Lords found it unexpectedly on a bike ride in his family's Little Havana neighborhood. On a day that at first seemed like any other, he says, he came across a curious old man lugging a log over his shoulder.
"I watched him take it to his home and start shaving it," he recalls, "and I see right next to it is a drum."
The old man was Alpidio Rojas, a 92-year-old Cuban of African descent. After a few days, Rojas invited the boy inside his home, where Lords discovered an even larger collection of drums. But Rojas prohibited him from touching any of them. Instead, he gave Lords a 14-inch rectangular piece of wood that resembled a railroad tie and told him not to return until he could master a certain drumming technique on the wood.
"I thought that was easy as shit," Lords says, "but easy as shit turned into bleeding because I tried it so much that my fingers started to split from the blisters."
Connecting with Rojas was a life-changing experience for Lords. Shortly after the two met, Rojas told Lords that to be a master drummer, he must first be initiated into Palo Mayombe, an obscure religion that has its origins in the deep jungles of Central Africa.
The next morning, the ambitious fifth-grader skipped school and biked to Rojas' home before dawn. When he arrived, he was instructed to take a seat and was then blindfolded.
"I heard a lady talk to me," he remembers. "I felt water falling on me. I felt my clothes get ripped off."
He was escorted to a second room and told he would feel several pinches on his body. The traditional Palo Mayombe initiation ritual requires razor-blade cuts on the skin, including the forehead, neck, shoulders, hands, toes, and calves — and the 10-year-old Lords was no exception.
"I thought I was in Hell," he recalls. "There were dry birds hanging from the roof, a stuffed owl hanging from a string, pots full of flies, blood. And I was like, What's this?"
The old man then sat next to him and calmly described the rest of Lords' life.
"He almost even broke it down into dates," Lords says.
Lords kept the initiation a secret from his parents, who wouldn't find out until he told them well into his 20s. But that day, he returned home feeling empowered, like he was at the center of something extraordinary. He went back to Rojas' home every day thereafter. He says Rojas healed people and taught him the power of sigils and consecrated oracles.
"When he saw I was interested in that, that's when he opened my brain up and vomited inside," Lords says.
The deity Lords connected with most was Chango, the patron of drumming. Throughout his life, he says, Chango has been a guardian angel guiding and advising him on personal matters and his musical career.
"From what I have been told spiritually, the drum was already embedded into my spiritual DNA from birth," Lords says. "I vibrate in the same vibration that [Chango] does."
In the late 1970s, Lords' family relocated to Hialeah. One day when he was back in the old neighborhood, he stopped by Rojas' home. The woman who answered the door told him Rojas had died. Lords was devastated.
"The friendship that I established with this man was beyond father, beyond grandfather," he says. "It was like something supernatural."
In the years after Rojas' death, Lords found a job as a floor sweeper at Henry Stone's Hialeah-based hit record factory, TK Records. One day, the 15-year-old Lords, who often walked around with drumsticks in his back pocket, was asked to join a recording session to fill in for a percussionist who was injured. After the session, the producer told Lords he planned to keep the drum track but Lords wouldn't be credited. The song, "Miami Heatwave" by Seventh Avenue, was a disco smash in 1979.
A year later, Lords met his Santería godfather and submitted himself to a seven-day ritual to become initiated into Rule of Osha, more commonly known as Santería. He was given the spiritual name Oba-Bi.
"The word oba means 'king' in Nigeria, in the Yoruba language," he explains. "Oba-Bi means 'son of the king.'" ("Lords" is a stage name he adopted professionally years later — "Of the Lords," he says, a reference to his devout spirituality.)
After he was expelled from Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School for beating up an English teacher who had smacked him across the head for sleeping in class ("I was real high"), Lords obtained degrees in graphic design and commercial advertising and took a job drafting flyers for local publications. But he wanted to record music, so he quit and began delivering sub sandwiches in his Datsun 260Z instead. He used his cash tips to buy studio time at North Miami's Criteria Records. Lords, then an alternative punk rocker, formed his first band, Silent Prayer, which he says was inspired by Tears for Fears and INXS.
Around 1985, he met vocalist Rudy Gil at the Westchester teen hangout, the Beat Club, and they formed the musical group Secret Society. Soon after, they recorded their debut album, Too Blind to See, and enjoyed almost immediate local success thanks to DJ Funk E Frank Walsh of what was then Rhythm 98. "He played every single track on a daily rotation," Lords says.
In 1989, Secret Society released "We Belong Together," which became a major dance hit.
"Secret Society put a dent in Miami," says Gil, recalling one Sunday night the band performed at Club 1235 in South Beach. "After the show, the owner said to me: 'This is the biggest crowd we have ever had.'"
Secret Society was also Oscar G's first exposure to Lords. Even today, Oscar remembers the time the group performed at a "Say No to Drugs" benefit concert at his high school.
"People were going fucking nuts," he recalls. "It was like the Beatles being at Miami High."
Secret Society's momentum was real, and record execs quickly took notice. After Sergio Rozenblat left his post as A&R director for CBS Records, where he was responsible for scouting talent and recruiting artists and repertoire, he came aboard to manage the band.
"I loved their sound. I thought ['We Belong Together'] was special and had legs. The idea was to make them go national," says Rozenblat, who leveraged his connections in the record industry to secure the band a deal with Polygram Records.
According to Lords, Polygram paid them $50,000 for the rights to remix "We Belong Together" using Polygram's go-to producer, Shep Pettibone, who had cut his teeth on Madonna's early records. Polygram also offered Secret Society a multimillion-dollar, two-album deal, Lords says.
But the arrangement didn't pan out. Lords says he learned from a mail clerk at the label that Polygram was contacting radio stations around the country to replace Secret Society's version of the track with the remixed Pettibone version. But the new version never made it onto the air.
"[Polygram] didn't really want to do anything with us," Gil recalls. "They weren't into a long relationship."
Subsequently, an effort to record a new album with the Miami label Vision Records failed to take off owing to creative differences between Lords and Gil. Lords says they are no longer on speaking terms.
Gil, meanwhile, says he simply wanted to move in a different direction.
"Frank was really mad. He took it personal," Gil says. "We had our time."
Following Secret Society's disbandment, Lords found himself without a steady source of income. Married with a baby daughter at home, he went back into the studio with a new band, Latin Xpress. In 1996, the group released the Afro-Cuban-inspired song "Descarga" and cracked the Billboard dance charts. They quickly followed it with the song "Chango" — named for Lords' muse — which incorporated religious elements.
"We grabbed the vocal snippets from a reel-to-reel tape that the singer Gina Martin smuggled from Cuba in the '50s... of Santería songs," Lords says. "We sampled the pieces of her singing and created an entire production of house music... and remade the song."
Both tracks appear on the 1999 album The Ultimate Afro House Collection. The record established Latin Xpress as a formidable and in-demand act.
One day, Lords took a call from Ricky Martin's assistant, who wanted him to remix the song "She Bangs." Lords teamed up with his musical partner Albert "Adam" Camara and, as the production team OBADAM (Oba/Adam), added an Afro-house beat to the Martin track, which was released in 2000 as a 12-inch club record. OBADAM also remixed tracks for Celia Cruz and for Gloria Estefan, whose song "Out of Nowhere" would be nominated for a Best Dance Recording Grammy in 2002.
That same year, Oscar G, then the resident DJ at Space, and his partner Ralph Falcon were composing a new dance track.
"We recorded the vocals ourselves, but we felt it sounded kind of weak," Oscar recalls. "We hit up Frank at 2 a.m., and he was there literally in 20 minutes. And he just killed it like he always does."
The track "Dark Beat" was released in late 2002 and became the number one dance club hit in the nation, according to Billboard.
"The song was so massive. I would play it every week [at Space]," Oscar G recalls. "We had Frank come and perform it. I always remember he had this fire-breathing thing he does. He performed the song, and he couldn't believe it, because when he started singing, the whole crowd sang along with him."
With the success of Latin Xpress, the remixes, and now "Dark Beat," Lords' career was in full rock-star mode — and the lifestyle was consuming him. He says he would often wake up with a bottle of Jack Daniel's, snort drugs to get up, and pile on more drugs to come down.
"I was like an elevator," he says. "It was a very toxic time. Thank God I'm alive."
As far as his religious duties, he was normally unable to find the time. However, one day at a Santería drumming ritual in Miami in 2003, he says, a stranger became possessed with the spirit of Chango and told Lords he must stop playing music immediately.
"'I brought you to Earth to save people,'" he says the man told him. The man instructed Lords to concentrate on his religion and open a botanica to sell religious artifacts.
At first, Lords brushed off the encounter. But for the next few days, his manager didn't receive any calls for new gigs.
"I had the number one record in the U.S. From three gigs per night to nothing. After six months and 96 live shows, Chango just turned the water off," Lords says.
A few days later, he was sitting on the porch outside his Hialeah Gardens home when he was approached by another stranger. He says the woman told him she was instructed to give him two envelopes containing a total of $75,000. Lords recognized her from a recent séance and eventually came to believe the woman was sent by the spirit of Rojas, his Palo Mayombe godfather.
Lords took a hiatus from music and, using "every penny" of the money from the woman, opened a botanica in Hialeah. For the next nine years, he dedicated himself to the store, as well as to performing religious initiations, spiritual cleansings, and readings.
"Chango did not let me play a single drum for nine years," he says. "He didn't let me record or nothing."
During his break from music, Lords was pulled over by Hialeah police in June 2011. What began as a routine traffic stop led to his arrest for possession of 58 grams of cocaine and an unlicensed firearm found in his trunk. He says he spent three nights in jail.
Lords says he was framed and blames a fellow santero whom he had recently kicked out of his inner circle. State prosecutors came to believe the same thing. In a closeout memo, a detective reported that Lords' fingerprints were not found on the gun or any of the drugs. The State Attorney's Office ultimately dropped the case.
"When I got out [of jail], I go straight to Chango and I say, 'Am I done with this [punishment]? Can I go back to my regular life?'" Lords recalls.
He says Chango replied that Lords could return to his music, but only if he kept a balance with his duties as a priest. Furthermore, in order to maintain that balance, the disciplines must be no more than 20 footsteps from each other.
In his Miami home, Lords' music studio is now exactly 20 steps from his indoor altar to Chango and exactly 20 steps from his outdoor Palo Mayombe room. "[Chango] said, 'If you keep that balance for the rest of your life, you and I will never have a problem.'"
To some critics, Palo Mayombe has long been a dark religion used to inflict pain rather than to heal. Lords adamantly rejects that notion.
"God or the angels or the saints never taught us to do witchcraft to harm another human. That is not godly," he says. "It is not Santería to do harm with witchcraft, nor is it of Palo."
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Chango continues to speak to Lords, sometimes in his dreams, but mostly when he is awake. He says he has an obligation to continue, through his music and his spirituality, to use this blessed power to heal and do good.
Lords and Oscar G are in discussions with a Miami nightclub to secure a monthly residency for A.C.H.É. They're also exploring plans for a New Year's Eve celebration in Wynwood they hope becomes an annual affair.
Arguably, Lords' success in music can be at least partially attributed to his proximity to higher powers. And for that, he thanks Rojas.
"Alpidio has put certain people in my life that have nurtured me in his absence," Lords says. "And now he nurtures me because he talks to me, and I hear him clear as day."