Mesa played guitar with the group Mandrill, whose Afro-Cuban-fusion-rock gave Carlos Santana, War, and Earth, Wind and Fire a run for their money. "Back then, it wasn't called World Beat, but that's what it was," says Mesa. "We played jazz venues and rock venues. We'd play the Fillmore with Mott the Hoople, and then open for Duke Ellington."
Mandrill was a multinational, multicultural seven-piece outfit. The singing Wilson brothers (Lou on trumpet and congas, Ric on sax, and Carlos on trombone and flute) were born in Panama. Bundie Cenac (bass) came from the West Indies, and Mesa hails from Cuba. Claude Cave (keyboards) and Charlie Padro (drums) rounded out the group, which formed in the gritty Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1968.
Mesa, who now lives in Weston, was then residing in Hoboken, New Jersey. He answered an ad for a guitarist in the Village Voice and wound up meeting the Wilson brothers. The group that became Mandrill started out rehearsing in a Bed-Stuy beauty parlor owned by the Wilsons' mother.
The group signed to Polydor in 1970 and had a five-album run with the label: Mandrill, Mandrill Is, Composite Truth, Just Outside of Town, and Mandrilland. The band hit its peak in 1973 with the song "Fencewalk," which reached No. 19 on the Billboard R&B charts. By the time the group switched to United Artists, in 1975, Mesa had gone his own way. "In the '70s, the disco craze hit," he explains, "and I just walked away from the music scene. I was just sick of it."
Mesa resurfaced in the '80s with a straight-ahead rock-pop band that drew the attention of Capitol records. Capitol booked the band into Studio 54 in Manhattan to play a showcase concert for a top label exec, but he never showed up. Later Mesa's band auditioned for a small committee of three Capitol execs. Two of them gave the thumbs up, but the third provided the dissenting vote, and the band was turned down.
"Ironically," Mesa says of the group, "it was called Oasis."
In 1989 Mesa moved to Florida and joined an ill-fated Brazilian band. Two of the members were caught by INS agents and deported back to Brazil. On the positive side, notes Mesa, "Ever since then, I got more into jazz and 'island music.'"
Late last year Mesa and his new band, Paradise Central, released a self-titled debut CD that draws on Mesa's fusion-rock past but targets the smooth-jazz market. Mandrill fans might find the material on the soft side, but Mesa's voice is surprisingly soulful, and the songs boast some very nice hooks. Stu Grant, a disc jockey at Love 94 (WLVE-FM 93.9), recently aired Mesa's song "I Love the Way You Read My Mind."
"He called me a 'relative newcomer to the scene,'" Mesa says with a laugh. "I been here nine years, but who cares? I'm new to everyone else."
Omar Mesa and Paradise Central is available at all Uncle Sam's record stores and at Borders Books and Music in Sunrise.