Braco maintains Latin-rock flame

by Jordan Green

Braco maintains Latin-rock flame IN TOUGH TIMES, THE ESSENTIALS

In what other city in the United States can you drop into a neighborhood bar, buy a round of chilled domestic beers for $2.50 a piece, grab a table front and center, and listen to a scintillating Latin rock band whose players approach their instruments with verve and originality, tossing in a couple Santana covers, a free-flight John Coltrane tune and several of their own compositions? Greensboro, of course. The faded textile city and renewed transportation hub is at once an international crossroads and a parochial backwater steeped in regional wrestling mania. Or maybe this is the way it is in any mid-sized city in America in these recessionary times — subject to the immutable laws of supply and demand, considering that we have a surplus of underutilized talent and a skittish listening public with ever less disposable income The place is the Flatiron, a proud neighborhood joint on the northeast shoulder of the city’s downtown

with a loyal cadre of regulars who treat the musicians with respect but also maintain an avid interest in conversation around the bar and the occasional video poker game. The time is Friday night, about 10:30 p.m., by all rights a strong station in the weekly rotation, when the bar scene should be approaching its peak. The band is Braco, a fiery unit under the guiding hand of Nicaraguan-American Cesar Oviedo, whose music career has taken him from the inside circles of the revolutionary socialist government in Managua to the glitz of Las Vegas to his quiet, family spread in Randolph County. The other players are a mix of Latinos and Anglos, all ardent practitioners of the form, and all enthusiastic co-conspirators in Oviedo’s diabolical scheme. They include conga player Jose Sanchez, who came straight from work at Bank of America for the gig; guitarist John Parker, who manages the Music Loft; keyboardist/saxophonist Scott Drewery; timbale player Ramon Ortiz and drummer Ezra Kelly. “Once you get started playing with Cesar, it’s like a drug: I’ve got to have some more,” says Kelly, who met Oviedo when the two started working together at the Music Loft nine years ago, and formed Braco soon thereafter with Parker. Such is the quality of the music in contrast to the humble setting that the natural hierarchy of artist and public would seem to be turned on its head. One is tempted to adopt a preservationist stance about the music: Just give me one listener to carry the memory of the Afro-Cuban clave; of the particular expositionof guitar, keyboard and saxophone here; of the way the vocals areshouted underneath the bass line; of the way the three percussionistsmultiply the rhythmic force into a staccato orchestra. Then, in thenext generation, perhaps the music will come into full bloom with alistenership worthy of the measure of commitment from its players. Tobe fair, two songs into the first set, nine patrons encircle the bar,and soon Chris Roulhac — stalwart Greensboro livemusic booster and hostof “The North CarolinaShow” on WQFS 90.9 FM — arrives and begins shooting video. Later, anebullient cohort of youngsters reinforces the barflies. Some of theyoung, bearded men stop momentarily in front of the bandstand andadmire the players’ musicianship. Melanie Wallace, withluxuriant red hair, calls encouragement from the bar. The pool tablesees some action. And as the drinks flow, a young man hoists his ladyfriend around his waist and they spin around, but the dancers largelyshy away from the middle of the floor. Maybe, in fact, theseare the best of times. Consider that on at least three nights of theweek you can go out and hear great music without paying an exorbitantcover charge, and oftentimes for free. And the musicians pursue themusic not for commercial motives but because it’s the most vital thingthey can do, because they can’t not do it. Wallace, a writer and —through her position as a bartender — a trained observer of the humancondition, is talking about an artist friend who recently lost his jobat the Furniture Market after undergoing treatment for an illness. “When times are hard,” she says, “people fall back on what they’re passionate about.” Braco is proof of that.

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Braco released a full-length CD, Amplio Espacio, in 2006 that includes original compositions by Cesar Oviedo and Nicaraguan traditionals. Visit for information about ordering the CD.

Cesar Oviedo (second from right) leads the Latin rock band Braco, with Ezra Kelly on drums, Ramon Ortiz on timbales and John Parker on guitar. Other members include Jose Sanchez on congas and Scott Drewery on keyboards and saxophone. (photo by Jordan Green)