Sam Rocha’s work is unique, and so is he. The Mexican-American philosophy professor in Vancouver just debuted “Late to Love” (Wiseblood Records, $13), a funky album of Augustinian soul.
What kind of music is it? And why Augustine?
“I was immersed in Augustine,” Rocha said. “I was teaching the ‘Confessions’ in two classes and running a book study, too.” The 31-year-old father of three had also been singing and playing guitar with the neosoul group The Groovemen, bringing along his childhood memories of black Pentecostal churches and charismatic prayer meetings.
Rocha sings and plays guitar on the 11-track “Late to Love,” which is so hard to categorize but so easy on the ears.
“I had all these supplemental licks and patches strewn everywhere, so I sewed together different pieces and then added the lyrics,” he said.
“Late to Love” has won acclaim from a small but enthusiastic crowd of reviewers, including pastor and bassist Jimi Calhoun, who played alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Etta James. In the online journal Syndicate, Calhoun praises Rocha’s “masterful songwriting” and calls his vocals and guitar “smooth, soulful and tasty.” The smart, simple lyrics, says Calhoun, are “pure Augustine.”
But what would Augustine think of tracks like “Eggs with Love” or “In the Self’s Place”?
Augustine’s “Confessions” can be read in many different ways, Rocha said.
“Augustine was telling his conversion story, but also giving a discourse on time, on Genesis, on the nature of evil.” “Late to Love” imitates that multi-faceted style.
“And it’s not just Augustine’s story,” Rocha said. “It’s very much my story. But without being too ‘emo.’”
The album’s blend of jazz, neosoul and Motown is also a nod toward Augustine’s North African heritage. Rocha turns the mic over to the vocalist Chinyere Richardson in the haunting “Eulogy for Monica.”
“Late to Love” is deliberately spare but rich, smoothly blending Rocha’s smoky vocals and guitar with a funky bass and mellow percussive groove. The finished product’s tightly engineered polish is deceptive.
“The outtakes from the first day are mostly us yelling at each other,” Rocha said. “I don’t read music. I showed up deliberately unprepared.”
Rocha says he chose his musicians carefully, built up their trust and then got out of their way. “It was an amazing creative process,” he said, especially because the whole project was recorded in five days.
Rocha’s musical background is just as hard to pigeonhole as his album. He was 5 years old when he learned his first guitar chords from his dad, a heroin addict-turned-evangelical missionary, who brought a Mexican-inflected style of folk music to charismatic prayer meetings and services.
As Rocha grew older and came into his own, he found himself providing “more electric, more slick” styles of music for Catholic youth ministry events and conferences. “It was like U2 plays the Mass,” he said.
He recognized the same sound company setting up for bands at local clubs and for Life Teen worship services.
“As the two started blending together,” he said, “I got a little cynical.”
The musicians were good, but Rocha wondered if the congregation was really having a spiritual experience or simply benefiting from the standard, fundamental elements of performance that any secular stage show could bring about.
He experienced his first high liturgy at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in downtown Columbus, Ohio, and a whole new aesthetic world opened up. “I felt like I walked out of the folk tradition and walked into a marble hall,” he said. “It helped me process the idea that there is a bigger Church out there.”
But stark aesthetic contrasts can sometimes be deceptive. “Whenever I heard a High Mass,” Rocha said, “I would say, ‘No more guitars at Mass for me!’” But then his family moved to a tiny town in Indiana, where the Mass had no music at all. “It was so sad and little,” Rocha said. So he brought in his guitar, and returned once again to his Mexican roots.
Since then, he’s been trying to reconcile all his various aesthetic experiences of the Church — the folk music of his Mexican parents, the slicker sound of Life Teen and the charismatic movement, and his hard-won love of jazz, which he deliberately cultivated out of a desire to understand as much about music as he could.
He said that he repents of his early cynicism about the spiritual effects of theatricality.
“Maybe it’s not that spiritual effects are brought about with secular theatrics,” he said. “Maybe it’s all spiritual.”
To listen to songs from “Late to Love” or to purchase the album, visit Rocha’s website at samueldrocha.wix.com/late-to-love.
Simcha Fisher writes from New Hampshire.