Surrounded by architectural plans and metaphysical tracts, Dharma, drummer and founder of the local band OrganicArma, can seem like he was beamed down from the mother ship. Everything about him is asymmetrical, pared down, and consciously futuristic. His stick-straight jet-black hair is long on one side and suddenly disappears, hedge-trimmer-style, on the other. His garb is minimalistic, all black, except when he peels away a rubbery outer jacket to reveal a tight T-shirt emblazoned with a design of neon molecule-like patterns.
His movements are feline and economical; his low, gravelly speaking voice recalls Neo from The Matrix. He compares his musical and artistic projects to the philosophical inquiry of Hegel. He stops speaking, somewhat abruptly, to read aloud a passage from a book called Undoing Yourself with Energized Meditation and Other Devices. He might appear to be here, sitting in a raw Wynwood warehouse space on a recent afternoon, but perhaps the real him is on a different astral plane.
Still, he wants you to join him — somewhere — and hopes to accomplish that by opening the doors (physical and otherwise) of his space on the corner of NW 29th Street and Fifth Avenue, which he has dubbed the "Awarehouse." For now it's an empty, cavernous space with an adjoining weed-speckled patio/yard. But soon, he says, it'll be a buzzing hive of activity, the center of operations for OrganicArma and its label, Acustronic, as well as a multipurpose venue sometimes open to the public.
In a slick series of renderings, he lays out what he hopes the final version of the place will be: a "physical manifestation" of Acustronic's ideology, "to originate, integrate, develop, produce, and transmit contemporary and purposeful concepts in the realms of music production, fine art, visual and multimedia arts, and wearable clothing." In simpler terms, he intends the Awarehouse to feature a performance space outfitted with web broadcast technology, a recording studio, a multimedia production lab, a large art gallery, and even a bar. That is, if the City of Miami finally lets him have his way.
But at the center of all of this is the band, OrganicArma. Though Dharma is more or less the public face and voice of the group, it's a trio, rounded out by two other pseudonymed players — bassist and keyboard player Lharma and the XX-chromosomed sound engineer and sampler Phaxas. Influenced by other "live electronic" groups, the players enforce a locked-in groove so tight that it sounds completely computer-generated. And beyond the beats comes a multimedia show complete with intricately patterned lights and animations custom-created for each song.
For the past four or five years, OrganicArma has taken around town a pared-down version of its show, at venues such as Circa 28 and the now-defunct Studio A. But the band really hasn't played out since 2007, save for a few appearances here and there, including one earlier this year at the Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York. "What is cool about the underground is that you get to share with all the other artists and the city, but to make an impact, you cannot put all your effort into that," Dharma says. "You need to prepare your message out of that."
And this is also where the likes of Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Hegel, and Timothy Leary come in. The band writes and performs songs, but not haphazardly — each one is the exploration of a concept taken from the members' collective voracious readings. "Most people start writing from their feelings," Dharma says, "but we like to get the feelings calm. We like to use those feelings to create tools, and those tools are our songs. Then each song has a theme, usually from books. At the end is something we like to share, in a way of education."
Visit the band's website (www.organicarma.com) and the home page greets you not with clear-cut options like "biography" and "photos," but with choices such as "consciousness," "conscience," "subconscious," and "unknown." A little frustrating, yes, but still fun to mess around with, once you, uh, let go of linear thought. Which is kind of the point.
Underneath all of this heady stuff lies a real groove, a cohesive brand of dance-floor funk with wide-reaching influences. It's a shame the group has become locally elusive, because its various elements appeal to a broad cross section of folks. For the indie-ish set, there's the dark, instrument-propelled influence of electro-ish groups such as Ladytron and Fischerspooner. For the hispanophone rockeros, there's the bilingual wordplay. For aging ravers who still worship theatrical groups such as Rabbit in the Moon, there's the light-and-visual magic. For club kids, there are the dance rhythms that crawl across micro-house, minimal techno, breaks, even industrial, and back.
But while the music is just part of OrganicArma's message, Dharma's vision is much larger. In fact he sees the Awarehouse as a home-base theater for a larger spectacle, à la Blue Man Group. And though he says he has secured the funds to realize his dreams (through investment partnerships and his moneymaking gig as an economist and trader), he claims the City of Miami's bureaucratic red tape is stymieing his efforts.
"We bought this place in July of last year. The city is so slow with the bureaucracy and permits," he says. "Then the entrepreneurs come, and there are so many limitations. They are not willing to do cool things here.... The city just wants to approve bullshit, like a million sushi places. Especially in a cool place like Wynwood — how are you going to have so many limitations? Because of permits, in December we are not going to be able to do the show that we want to do."
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"When I was trying to figure out how we could do our project, they told me we weren't allowed to do the construction, and ... because we are close to a school, we can't have people playing music," says Hilda Perez, the mother of OrganicArma member Lharma and a gallerist who has signed on to run the fine art portion of the Awarehouse. "So I said, okay, I am showing you all these different ways I can do my project!"
"They just don't know what they need to require. Of course there is the school, and we want to do a project where the kids come and see the art," Dharma says.
Still, the art gallery seems likely to be the first part to operate. With her husband, in her native Colombia and then later in Coral Gables, Hilda Perez ran the Luis Perez Galeria, specializing in modern Latin masters such as Edgar Negret, as well as emerging Latin artists.
Despite the obstacles involved in getting his plans off the ground, Dharma seems nonplussed. These are, after all, earthly concerns that will work themselves out. "The whole idea for this place is we need to be able to share our reality with the rest of the people, in a way where the people feel invited. They can come to see the band, or they can come to see art, or they can come to see a robotic installation. We have different plans," he says. "If the city is not prepared to connect with something like that, it doesn't matter for us. At the end, this place is where we live, and you want to live in a cool place."