If the theory of evolution were applied to Central Florida's live acts, it would have a special set of rules for the ever-changing lineup of Umöja. The multicultural, multi-ethnic and multitalented percussion ensemble has been in a constant state of flux since their origin in the mid-'90s. Every year, for some reason around the holiday season, Umöja's roster undergoes a changing of the guard.
"It seems like around December there's always a transition," says catch-a-fire frontman Eugene Snowden. "But the thing about it is, whenever there's a transition, the musicians always elevate it from the last time."
Snowden is making these observations a few hours before Umöja performs an informal jam as part of the annual "Party for Life" AIDS benefit at the Wall Street Plaza axis of Go Lounge, Harold & Maude's and the Kit Kat Club, which precedes the band's headlining gig at Sapphire Supper Club. Drummer Kingsley Paul Grant and guitarist Mike Ryan played their first Umöja show at Club Carambola just a few days prior, but Snowden seems confident, relating the band's recent history with a staccato-sharp delivery that betrays his New York upbringing. "Both Brians are gone," says Snowden, referring to recently departed guitarist Brian Gregory and drummer Brian Sepala. "I never, ever kick anyone out. They invite themselves out."
Born into a musical family, Snowden made his way to Orlando in 1993 to escape the cold of Cleveland and New York, where he kept time for a blues band. He ingratiated himself into the drum circles that populated the streets of downtown at the time. Then, two months after he first stepped foot on Orange Avenue, destiny walked by in the form of a dashiki-wearing percussionist and Valencia Community College professor named David Klossen. Klossen was the only sign of Afrocentricity that Snowden had noticed since his arrival in town, and Snowden's curiosity was sufficiently aroused for him to make the trek to V.C.C. Although Klossen wasn't there, visiting Nigerian-born drum master Ajaas Mutima was.
For the next several years Snowden became a percussion disciple and made several trips to Nigeria for further study with Mutima. His outlook on music was transformed, and soon he was ready to apply it.
Umöja, a Swahili terms that means unity, first formed as a drum-only outfit featuring Blackbird Roldan, still a band member, and Marty and Rebecca Murphy. "It was a spiritual thing for us," explains Snowden. "We did not mean to form a band."
Umöja continued its evolution with a series of shows and "family jams" at Go Lounge and Java Jabbers. By the time they performed at Sapphire in January 1997 as part of a multimedia happening produced by the Illuminati artists collective, they more or less resembled the form that they take today.
And that form has undeniable energy. When the new lineup debuts at Sapphire, Snowden, cowbell in hand, serves as frenetic conductor and spiritual flashpoint, seemingly sending out psychic directions to the band as they perform their jazz, funk and rock-inflected percussive jams alongside call-and-response songs that directly involve the audience and keep the energy level at a maximum.
Umöja's open-door policy toward musicians, however, has hindered the band from playing outside of Central Florida and has caused its share of ego problems during recent recording sessions. But the revamped lineup fully intends to finish five songs for an EP and go on tour with its original attitude toward expression intact.
"With the people we have got now that will not be a problem," says Snowden. "Umöja is a whole again. ... It's back to being what it originally was, and that's a good thing, yo!"