Universal Language
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Universal Language

Band World Latin


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The best kept secret in music


"Cultural Literacy: Local groove ambassadors rock it like they talk it"

Last week while walking around the campus up at UC Santa Cruz, I came across a familiar sight: students, hippies and activists gathered together protesting. Nothing new under the sun, I thought to myself. But wait, something was different. This wasn´t the typical banner waving, petition signing, run-of-the mill protest—somebody was making these people dance. I mean really get down, and that´s when I noticed the band on the stage. It was a diverse group of musicians playing some of the best live salsa music I´d heard in some time. So I sat down with some friends to check out the show.

The band onstage was Universal Language, and the set they went on to play turned out to be as diverse as the instruments they used to play it. In addition to salsa, the band played hip-hop, reggae and African musical styles, often combining them in the same songs. They filled out these songs with more instruments than I realized existed, including drums, upright bass, Cuban tres, trumpet, Spanish guitar and a host of others. The lyrics, sung in three different languages, were both heartfelt and politically charged, dealing with issues in the Middle East, Chiapas, Mexico and all over the world. Needless to say, I left the show impressed with Universal Language.

The next day, I came into the Good Times office to find out my assignment for the week: do a piece on Universal Language. Sometimes fate works like that. So I sat down with the lead singer of the band, Moshé, to talk about his own musical history and the history of Universal Language.

Moshé started as a singer-songwriter, doing mostly solo stuff, but according to him, “I came to a point where I really wanted to have fun with the audience. I love dance shows; I love culturally mixed music.”

Enter David “Pacha” Alvarez. The Chiapas-born percussionist added a heartbeat to the rapidly evolving style that was to become Universal Language. According to Moshé, he also adds a political dimension to the band.

“Both David and his family are very involved with the struggles in Chiapas,” Moshé says. “He has marched with the Zapatistas, done a lot of rallies and he writes music that is informative. He goes back every year and stays in touch with the community.”

The rest of the band came together in rapid succession, including upright bassist Ethan Sanchez, trumpet player Jon Cavanaugh, guitarist Renzo Staiano and drummer Nate Fredricks. The band played its first gig in October 2003 at the Mediterranean Club in Aptos. Universal Language´s talent was obvious to the owners of the club, who instantly offered them a weekly gig.

In regard to the band´s rapid success, Moshé says, “Latin dance music seems really hot right now. And there are not a lot of bands doing it. We did the Cinco de Mayo show at the Catalyst and 1,200 people showed up. A lot of people like to come out and dance to Latin music.” Still, the band tries to take the music beyond just dancing into political and social issues as well.

“You´re not going to come to a show and we´re going be there preaching, but I do feel like if you´re going to have lyrics, it´s good to say something, ´cause there´s so much music out there that says nothing,” Moshé adds.

The political and social aspirations of the band are reflected in songs such as “Colorblind,” which finds Moshé singing lyrics in both Hebrew and Arabic.

“My family is from Israel, so that gives me another angle I bring to the music,” he says. “I hold a different view than a lot of Israelis or Jewish people do in that I feel for all the different groups in Israel, and I feel that music is a real strong force for bringing people together. If you go to Israel right now and see who´s making the biggest bridges between groups, it´s the young people who are into the peace festivals. There are new bands coming together that have Palestinians and Jews in them.”

According to Moshé, the binding force behind both the music and the politics of Universal Language is diversity. “We come from different places, and we´re involved with the bigger picture. You really need to have something bigger that you´re working for that makes you feel good. It keeps the band special. I feel like we get so much great feedback from people when we do a show, people that heard something in the lyrics and related to it, or even just felt something in the music. Getting that kind of feedback really keeps us pushing.”

Among other things, the feedback is pushing the band on to an upcoming release of a live album and a tour of California this summer. For the time being, however, Santa Cruzans will have the chance to catch Universal Language at their ground zero.

“I think that a big step is blowing up in your home town and then taking it from there,” Moshé says. We´ll just have to wait and see where they take it.

- Goodtimes Weekly 9/30/03

"Universal Frequency"

Sometimes a chance meeting can radically alter the course of an artist's career. Or, to put it another way: One day a singer can be content crooning at open-mic night about loves lost and found, and the next day find himself in a hard-driving Latin band. Moshe Vilozny found himself in that very situation when he had his musical worldview shifted by David "Pacha" Alvarez in November of 2002. Vilozny had just returned from Cuba and was beginning to explore traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms in Santa Cruz when he met Alvarez, who had just moved to this area from Chiapas, Mexico.

"David is an outstanding percussionist with a deep understanding of both Mexican and Caribbean music. His energy onstage is very giving and his excitement is infectious," says band mate Renzo Staiano.

With the promise of a new musical energy to back up his lyrics, Vilozny was compelled to move away from the melancholy espresso underground, and to form the group Universal Language.

"The common denominator of our sound is the Cuban son," says Vilozny. "Everyone in the group has gone to Cuba at some point or been deeply involved in studying that music. It is a solid base to explore other genres from, and some of the rhythms contained in it can be applied to almost any other genre."

The group does both traditional material and mixes genres within single songs, combining such diverse musical material as Hebrew lyrics, Afro-Cuban montunos and hip-hop all in a single arrangement.

"We have an African groove with a Cuban rumba conga behind it. It works so well together that you don't even notice the rumba until we all drop out and leave Pacha alone and then he sings another song that he wrote," says Vilozny.

Vilozny describes the result as "fusing different cultures and borrowing grooves from different cultures and putting it on top of grooves like hip-hop and reggae. Basically taking traditional dance music and laying it down with our own twist."

The group came together fairly quickly. Vilozny recruited his high school friend Ethan Sanchez, who was already playing with Alvarez in Carne Cruda. After working with trumpeter Jon Cavanaugh on a recording project at Cabrillo, Vilozny asked him to sit in at the first cafe show that Universal Language played. After that night he was asked to become a permanent member. With the addition of the extraordinary local drummer Nate Fredricks and Vilozny's sister, Noga, on backup vocals, the group was ready to play clubs and had its first big show on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003, at the Mediterranean Club in Aptos.

"The show sold out and the booking agent at the club, Abi McKee, was so excited about the vibe that he asked us if we would play a weekly show there," says Vilozny.

Initially, though, Vilozny was not sold on the idea of a weekly engagement, thinking, "It's Santa Cruz, we can't play every week at the same place, people are going to get burned out." So instead of playing himself, Vilozny took control of booking on Thursday nights and created the Global Grooves showcase, which features the best in locally available world music.

Overall, Vilozny says, Universal Langauge is trying to bring a "message of hope."

"We just want to leave the crowd with a good feeling at the end of each show."
- Metro Santa Cruz Music Feature 4/21/04

"Singing in Tongues"

There are few band names that aptly describe the type of music played by their members. Some notable exceptions to this rule include Rage Against the Machine, Funkadelic and the Santa Cruz world music group Universal Language.

With band members from Mexico, Israel and the United States, this seven-piece group plays a mix of salsa, funk, hip-hop, reggae and African music. On “Colorblind,” vocalist Moshe Vilozny sings and raps lyrics about world unity in English, Hebrew and Arabic. During “Revolucion,” Vilozny slyly dedicates the song to George W. over a funky groove that recalls Spearhead.
- Monterey Coast Weekly 6/10/04

"Music Seen: Earthdance 2004"

Santa Cruz has cause to be proud: two of our own acts—revolutionary funk/folk powerhouse Diane Patterson and Latin/World Beat ensemble Universal Language—gave unforgettable performances at the 8th annual Earthdance festival, a musical gathering for peace that took place between Sept. 17 and 19. Universal Language managed to score a spot on the main stage, joining a list of artists that included Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, who led the largest drum circle in history on Saturday, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Ozomatli, Blackalicious and the Everyone Orchestra featuring guitarist Steve Kimock. The festival´s secondary stages showcased a wealth of soul-tickling sounds, some of the best being the gypsy bluegrass of Oregon´s Taarka; the Dead-Can-Dance-ish grooves of Hamsa Lila, whose members weathered technical difficulties with grace and enthusiasm; the unapologetically joyful vocals of Suzanne Sterling, who led her band Alcyone through a serotonin-soaked techno-tribal set; Shaman´s Dream´s flighty, liquid meanderings and the Nirvana-on-Peyote intensity of Kan´nal, whose mesmerizing drone was both uplifting and slightly sinister. Also impressive: New Monsoon, who sport the “Let´s get stupid-happy” Phish/String Cheese sound that´s becoming as distinct a genre as funk or jazz. - Goodtimes Santa Cruz 11/27/04

"It's A Family Affair"

One if the best features of my house in Santa Cruz is its proximity to the home of SALIF KONÉ. Safely cocooned in my room, I can hear him and his friends practicing balafon and singing late into the evening. It's the best lullaby anyone could ever ask for.

The fourth Koné to emigrate to Santa Cruz from Burkina Faso, Salif developed his prodigious vocal and percussive talents in the NATIONAL BALLET OF BURKINA FASO, a internationally recognized group started by his father. In addition to rocking his back porch on a nightly basis, Salif also appears with a number of local groups, including SOL CARIBE.

It was to my great surprise and enjoyment that when I entered Moe's Alley last Saturday night, the first thing I heard was Salif's djembe, echoing through the packed house, announcing the return of UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE to the stage.

"I was happy to find that we still knew how to play all the songs," said RENZO STAIANO, guitarist and tres player for the band. "I guess we all still had residual memories from the recording process. Following recording sessions for the latest record, we all took off for various parts of the world, and we only really got together in the last few days to rehearse."

This time off did not diminish the power of Universal Language's delivery in the slightest. Playing a mixture of tunes mostly drawn from their new CD, ¡Revolución!, the band is in fine form. In fact, with the addition of GIANNI STAIANO and JOEL FORD to the group, the band sounds bigger, better and tighter than it ever has. Gianni's tasteful accompaniment on the Rhodes and solid soloing took some of the chordal pressure off the stringed instruments, allowing his brother Renzo and vocalist MOSHE VILOZNY to concentrate on leaner, more interesting riffs and motives throughout the tunes. The horn section was also strong throughout the evening, and the improvised horn arrangements were a special treat.

Like the DAILY SHOW, Universal Language is more interesting and compelling when the political news is really grim. Cuts like "Eli," "Adelante" and "Revolución" speak to the idiocy of our government, the narrow-mindedness of racism and the failure of communication on a global scale. It also encourages dancing, which is a good thing, because the crowd at Moe's was definitely in the mood to gyrate.

As the evening wore on, the group continued to turn up the intensity, working through material based on African, Caribbean and Central American song forms. ETHAN SANCHEZ, NATE FREDRICKS and DAVID 'PACHA' ALVAREZ were grooving hard throughout the evening, solidly supporting the instrumental pyrotechnics of the other members of the band and looking thoroughly amused in the process. With additional percussion supplied by Gianni, JOHN CAVANAUGH and Ford, the groove was thick, viscous and irresistible. By the third set, when LENO SANCHEZ, Ethan's uncle, hopped up onstage, there was not a seditary set of feet in the house. Welcome back, gents, it's good to see you. - Metro Santa Cruz 3/1/05


Revolución, (Deput LP) 2004


Feeling a bit camera shy


Universal Language is a musical melting pot fusing Latin and world grooves to create infectious high energy dance music. With strong roots in Mexico, Israel, Cuba, Italy and California, UL has united realizing a pancultural vision of unity through music. Their driving dance oriented grooves have been compared to Latin fusion bands such as Ozomatli and Orishas, yet they bring a style and sound that is all their own. Positive lyrics, blistering latin percussion, Cuban tres, double bass, Andean Charango and Spanish guitar are some of the ingredients used to create a rich cultural landscape that gives their music an energy that always leaves the crowd inspired. UL has shared the stage with Ozomatli, Spearhead, Blackalicious, Vinyl, Steve Kimock, Mickey Hart.....

¡Revolucion! Is UL's debut studio album, teaming the all-star band up with members of Spearhead and Sambada. It was released on January 15th of 2005, and the record is already recieving airplay on KZSC, KPIG, KUSP, and KKUP in California as well as international airplay in Mexico, Cuba and Israel. The last track on the album, Colorblind, is sung in Hebrew and Arabic bringing a message of Unity and hope to the Middle-East. The title track features phenomenal beatboxing and vocals by Spearhead's own Radio Active and samples from sub-comandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista movement. This is music with a message to move you mind body and soul.

Trilingual vocalist and stringed instrumentalist Moshe, leads the group with original and inspiring music. He has appeared on stage with numerous performers such as Bobby Mcferrin, KRS-1 and Radioactive (of Spearhead). The bands revolutionary percussionist Pacha, from Chiapas, pours out heartfelt rhythms and vocals that transport audiences into new dimensions. Catch him in the U.S. while you can! He has appeared on stage with Manu Chao and CaféTacuba, and has toured extensively with Sista Monica. Brothers Renzo and Gianni are both graduates of Berklee College of Music; Renzo performs professionally with a variety of stringed instruments including, six-, seven- and eight-string electric guitars, Spanish acoustic guitar, the Cuban tres, the Spanish six-string requinto, and the pan-andean charango. Ethan plays the upright bass giving the group a truly unique sound. His versatility will bring you from a classical bow style into a funk groove in no time. From Tuvan throat singing to soprano saxophone, Joel definately explores and pushes all realms of music. As a composer he has earned himself a number of prestigious awards and his sizzling improvisational solos are not to be missed. Jon spices things up on trumpet tearing through tunes with melodic explosions of sweetly placed phrases and tasteful interludes. Nate's stylistic diversity keeps the group grounded from rhumba to reggae. As one of the Bay Area's most demanded live, and studio drummers, Nate never misses a beat.