MOKA Helps Warm the Soul
Brian Rademaekers, The Star, March 2008
Philly is a soul town, through and through. In the 70s, our own special flavor of soul – Philly Soul – made waves across the country with its funk influences and lush arrangements, and later paved the way for that crazy stuff they called disco. And while attention over the years has drifted to various other Philly music scenes that have sprouted, soul is still alive in the City of Brotherly Love.
Proving that is Moka, a six-piece from Northern Liberties with the ability to deliver some incredibly smooth soul jams that are as complex as they are cool.
Even if you aren’t really a fan of modern-day soul, this is a band to appreciate.
Moka’s sound is electric, alive, fluid and smattered with a handful of eclectic influences. The smoky undertones of soul are there too, and they are oh so good.
On its latest album, Time Is Now, the group calls on a touch of blues, classic Philly soul, Motown, acid jazz guitar riffs, hip-hop lyricism, gospel goodness, reggae vibes and a healthy dose of rock vigor.
If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is.
Arranged primarily by lead guitarist Robb McCall, the songs of Moka are stunningly lush pieces of composition that underscore the skills of the experienced family of musicians who make up the band.
In many ways, Moka is an instrumental glory that could stand on its own quite nicely. McCall is a Philly native from a musical family who trained classically at the Settlement Music School and studied world music at the New England Conservatory of Music. That professional training shines through in his arrangements, a compelling blend of rocking musicianship and tight execution.
Giving life to his creations is a cast of seasoned music men, including percussionist Luis DiCupe, Damon Bennett on keys, bassist Tone Whitfield, and alternating drummers Jimmy Coleman and Steve McKie.
The cherry on top, though, is Pauline Houston, the mama lion of Moka who gives voice to the heady grooves of funk, jazz and soul explored by the band.
Houston, also a Philly native from a music-rich family that happens to include some 23 other siblings, sports a voice that is capable of deep seductive soul, rough blues and straight-up rock. It’s a pliability that’s needed to keep up with the diverse sounds of Moka, and Houston does just that while adding yet another layer of richness to the songs with her deft vocals.
All this is wonderfully captured on Time Is Now, which was released in October. Produced and recorded by McCall in his Charging Bull Studio in Northern Liberties with a style that sought to mirror the studio magic employed by soul icons Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the album contains a number of gems that make it well worth seeking out.
Songs like “Wash Away” showcase Houston’s powerful vocals, while a cool modern medley of orchestration sparkles in the background. Listen closely and you’ll hear that Moka has plenty to say in the realm of political and social thought, too. On “Still,” Moka breaks out its jazzy side and proves that it can excel in this realm, with splashing cymbals and some delicate keyboard playing.
“Dance With Me” is one of the album’s more rocking numbers, with an exotic backbeat and some truly solid guitar playing by McCall and the complement of Houston’s bold vocals. And, while Time is Now does indeed capture the great musical vision of Moka, seeing the ensemble live is a whole other experience.
Houston is an animated presence who can’t help but enrapture the crowd with her fervent dancing and imploring vocals. And the boys, well, let’s just say that they get sucked into some pretty wild improvisational rock-outs that really take the Moka songs to a new level.
Later this spring, the band will embark on a European tour to show the folks on that side of the world what we already know: Philly Soul is alive and well, and it’s being given a new edge by Moka.
An Updated Take on Philly Soul
Kevin McKeon, The Compendium (Vol. 3, Issue 12)
MOKA offers an updated take on Philly Soul that could win over just about any listener. There are plenty of styles to offer: funk, rap, world music, and more, but when it comes down to it, these songs stay with the listener. "Whole New Kind of Love" and "Still" are radio hits in the making (unless this sentence ends up jinxing them.) Album highlight "Unchain My Soul" brings in a choir to great effect. Opener "Lies & Alibis" does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the album. Lyrical topics range from the political to the personal. Vocalist Pauline Houston delivers a stunning performance throughout, but the rest of the band's efforts cannot be diminished. This is a surprisingly powerful first effort. In a just world, MOKA would be making waves in the near future. And who knows, that might even happen in this world.
Helen Leight, WXPN
Pick of the Month, November 2007
"With the release of their debut album, Time Is Now, Moka has been rapidly drawing attention with their refreshing take on a classic Philly Soul sound. Their music hints at some political and social messages like the aftermath of Katrina and violence in Philadelphia, but then eases you down with a cool beat and warm, funky rhythms. The band was founded about 3 years ago by vocalist Pauline Houston and guitarist Robb McCall and further developed with the addition of Luis DiCupe on percussion, Damon Bennett on the keys, Tone Whitfield on bass, and Jimmy Coleman on drums. The full sound comes together to produce a unique combination of cool jazz, funky melodies, powerful lyrics, and a touch of latin beat to create a brand new type of Soul. Their album is for sale on CDBaby, Itunes, and Amazon so go check them out. Trust us, you wouldn't wanna miss these guys!" – Helen Leight, WXPN