Tag Archives: Afro Beat

Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Edition III: “Bra” by Cymande

One outstanding aspect of the musical climate of the late ’60s and early ’70s was the flowering in popularity of Black musical groups from parts of the Diaspora outside of the U.S.A. This trend was exemplified by acts and groups such as Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Manu Dibango, The Beginning of the End, Mandrill, T-Connection, Fela Kuti, Osibisa, Hugh Masekela, and today’s subject, the Caribbean funk group Cymande. These groups, through their expansive African based rhythms and the incorporation of other grooves cultivated by Africans estranged from Africa, both paid tribute to deep African roots as well as exemplified the new flavors that had picked up in the numerous ports of call along the Transatlantic slave trade. Today’s song from Cymande, their classic “Bra”, is a song that has stood the test of time as a unique example of Caribbean Funk.

“Bra” is a song that derives it’s unique rhythmic effect from contrasting rhythmic feels. While the tempo is brisk, Steve Scipio played a bass line that pulled back on the time, while the horns long sustained notes create another feeling on top of that. You’re grabbed from the first notes of the intro, as Scipio plays a firm note on the first beat and another beat on the upbeat of beat 2. He’s only playing TWO notes in the fist bar of the pattern, but the feel and placement of them is enough to create a baseline the listener won’t soon forget. Immediately after the bass hits hard on the first beat, guitarist Patrick Patterson plays a sweet toned guitar slide followed by some fluttering trills, in a style very similar to the Curtis Mayfield guitar ballad style. The horn section then comes in on the upbeats, playing a very sharp, staccato arpeggio, walking up the notes of a major chord, then holding the top note of the chord for a whole two bars, before working their way down and sustaining another note. All of this is laid on top of Sam Kelly’s drums, which are playing a variation of Clyde Stubblefield’s stop and start drum groove made famous on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”, with the rhythmic gaps/rests lining up with Scipio’s bass line. Working in concert with that are the conga drums of Pablo Gonsales. The result is a dipping, bouncing Caribbean funk groove with all the jerkiness of Island music, yet the pronounced “One” of mainland funk, with a sweet coating of melodic horns on top.

When the vocal comes in, the horns stop playing to give the vocals center stage. Joey Dee sings a tale of African redemption with a slight West Indian accent, with heavy reverb on his mic. “Time Has been lost for trying/we have been left outside/looking at passions dying/Emotions grow strong on time.” After which, the famous sing a long chorus is introduced, “But its all right/we can still go on.” Underneath the chorus the rhythm begins to get more active, as Scipio expands his bass line with class Jamerson/Rainey/Jemmont rhythmic business as Patterson also becomes more aggressive in his rhythm guitar strumming. The horn riff returns and on top of it all the percussionists start to spice up the groove with small rhythmic instruments, with the tambourine rattling like a snake for an instant. After the chorus the vital rhythmic bed continues on for a saxophone solo, under which the rhythm players introduce more variations. Midway through the song, the song breaks down to just bass playing along with percussion. The bassline on the break is an incredibly funky variation on the main rhythm, with the drums playing kick drums on all four beats and the percussionist teasing out melodic rhythms. The groove slowly builds up layer by layer until we get back to the top of the song for one last repetition of the main verse until the song comes to a close on a hard stomped out, “But its ALL RIGHT!”

“Bra” is a song that for a time I thought only my Dad and family knew, and I thought the group was African for the longest. Then in the ’90s Spike Lee used their songs on several movies of his that I enjoyed very much, including “Crooklyn” and “The 25th Hour.” I remember the first time I heard it on one of his films, excitedly showing it to my Dad and asking him what the name of that song was, because I’d heard it all my life but never knew anything about the group. It was later I found out Spike Lee’s connection to them made sense, because being a pan-Carribean group, with New York City’s strong Carribean influence, their music was very popular during the early day’s of Hip Hop, and “Bra” and their other fantastic hit, “The Message”, were considered early Hip Hop breakbeats that had even occasionally been sampled. Both songs are excellent examples of Post Civil Rights and Black Power era ’70s solidarity music, done by a group of Rastafarian funksters in England who’s origins spanned the Carribean. Their music as a whole very uniquely pulled together the Caribbean rhythms and Rastafarian ideology of Reggae with the hard edged vibe of American funk. Also there is much confusion over the title of this song, but “Bra” is simply the old school way of spelling a word that has been popular among Black people again in recent years, the shorthand “Bruh” for the word, “Brother.” This word is not only popular among American blacks (and now everybody else as well) but is also almost an official term of address in other Black countries, such as the great South African Hugh Masekela’s nickname, “Bra Hugh.” Also in Liberia where my mother is from it was a term of endearment, followed by the given name, for males you were close to. So the title of the song is in itself an example of the unique unifying ability of Cymande as a musical group that mustn’t be forgotten!

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Music for the Next ONE 10/17/15 : “Fela 1” by Nicholas Payton

This weekends post is in honor of the worldwide celebration of Fela Kuti’s life, music and political activism known as the “Felabration” which falls yearly around his birthday of October the 15th. This celebration was inaugurated by his daughter Yeni a year after his death, in 1998. It has been exciting to see this festival grow in Africa, Europe, and The United States as the legend of Fela has continued to grow bigger and broader. Today’s tribute recording, “Fela 1” is the first part of a two part Fela suite on Nicholas Payton’s 2003 album “Sonic Trance.” Payton is one of my favorite musicians and he shares the sign of Libra with Fela. The song also will remind you of a man who was an influence on Fela and Nick, and who was himself inspired by Fela’s music later on, Miles Davis. “Fela 1” combines a Fela Kuti inspired rhythmic setting with a texture based environment that recalls the fusion work of Miles Davis and his bands on albums such as “Bitches Brew”, “Get Up With It”, “Jack Johnson”, and other now legendary records. The album marks an ever ongoing broadness in Payton’s work and worldview, in which he has substituted the term jazz for the term “Black American Music”, or #BAM.

The tune starts off with Vicente Archer playing a strong, archetypical Fela Kuti bassline on acoustic bass. I must say right off the bat, this is what hooked me on the song first, the incorporation of Fela Kuti’s style of funky African bass, being played with the timbre of the acoustic bass, which we associate with “jazz”, is a new sonic texture that opens new possibilities in sound. The funky strut of the bassline is soon joined by sizzling, consistent hi hat/cymbal work from Adonis Rose on drums. The piano gets going with some dark sounding, minor key/whole tone sounding arpeggios that capture the dark Miles Davis type melodic flavor of the piece. The percussion work by Daniel Sedownick adds to the rhythmic foundation, as the drums come in with kick drums placed in a manner similar to Africa 70 drummer Tony Allen.

After the rhythm is set, the horns play a short, dark blue melody that’s is kind of Monkish, kind of Milesian. Saxophonist Tim Warfield then goes I to a ex tended solo on soprano sax that recalls Miles’ saxophonists of the fusion period, such as Steve Grossman, Wayne Shorter, and Gary Bartz. The Fender Rhodes piano, overdriven here to “Bitches Brew” darkness as opposed to Ohio Players lushness, makes statements and comps in the back, with the horn sometimes answering the piano. As the solo reaches it’s peak and falls, a Clavinet line is introduced that doubles the Afro-Beat bass line. The Rhodes adds texture as Nicholas Payton comes in on wah wah trumpet. The solo he plays is more atmospheric, based more on manipulation of the wah wah and it’s rhythms than on telling a story by running through the scales. He hits low growl notes and ends his solo with the wah wah opening up slowly as he manipulates the notes to color the groove.

“Fela 1” uses the mighty musical ancestory of Fela Kuti and Miles Davis to provide Nicholas Payton with a way to escape the prison that he regards the term “jazz” as. It’s thrilling to hear Afro Beat rhythms enrich improvisational music. Jelly Roll Morton often spoke of “The Spanish Tinge”, a rhythmic flavor that was essential to jazz. Well, Jelly Roll’s era was so racist it could not acknowledge the African roots of this “Spanish Tinge”, with it’s congas, shakers, clave’s and dance rhythms. The inclusion of Baba Fela’s beat, which itself was inspired to become more African by musicians such as James Brown and Miles Davis, is a wonderful expansion of the transatlantic conversation of the African diaspora. It’s my firm belief that if more “jazz” took on this funky challenge, it would receive it’s rightful credit as the soul moving music it is. But it needs a new dance beat. My man Nick Payton finds it here with Fela Kuti and Tony Allen, letting Miles oversee it all! “Fela 1” is a fine tribute song for this weekends “Felabration” as well as an example of how Fela’s music can help the world of music as a whole move forward.

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Music for The Next ONE 9-12-15: “Fear Not of Men” by Mos Def (Yasiin Bey)

The explosion in Fela Kuti’s popularity in the early ’00s, just a few years after his death from AIDs in 1997, has been for me, one of the very best musical developments of the millenium, one that both keeps funky music on people’s radar, as well as it creates a greater awareness of a richly deserving artist. I was already well familiar with Fela Kuti and his music when I first heard today’s “Music for the Next ONE” selection, “Fear Not of Man” by Yasiin Bey, then known as Mos Def, back in 1999. My family was in Africa during the 1970s, and my dad had copies of Fela Kuti & Africa 70 albums like “Shakara.” Around 1989 or so I remember my brother in law, Joe, gifting Fela’s then current album, “Beasts of No Nation”, to my father on CD, and pops playing it over and over and over again, with that album serving as my contemporary introduction to Fela. I rememeber when Fela passed in ’97, being hurt by it and contemplating how much more I wanted to know about him and his music. Mos Def’s “Black on Both Sides” released in fall of 1999 is one of my favorite albums of all time, a diverse masterwork of Hip Hop and other black musical styles, including Funk, Soul, Jazz-Soul, Rock, and on “Fear Not of Men”, Afro Beat. Mos Def here does a masterful interpolation, or cover version of Fela’s 1977 “Fear Not for Man”, a song expressing his fearlessness in the face of the represson he was facing at home in Nigeria. Mos Def mixes some samples with live playing from himself and a musical legend, Weldon Irvine, to spin a tale of fearlessness and human resistance at the dawn of the 21st century.

The song begins with Mos whispering “Bismillahirahmanirraheim” which means “In the name of Allah, the beneficient, the merciful” which is the beginning of Muslim prayer. After which the funky Tony Allen sampled Afro Beat drum programming kicks in, a unique for us but proto Afro Beat drum part, with the snare drum delayed off beat 2 but landing dead on beat 4. Its very similar to the Afro Beat drum sample Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” is based on, with the “late” snare drum playing with the listener/dancers expectations and creating a unique kind of pattern and rhytmic dip. The beat plays for a full 16 bars while Mos gives his introductions. After the drum introduces itself fully, Mos brings the “Fear Not for Man” bassline in, which he plays himself. The bassline is a very busy one, full of sixteenth notes, comprising a nine note pattern. But before it gets too Jaco, Rocco, or Larry on us, the bass repeats over and over, just a one bar pattern that seems to get energy every time it begins again. Mos also introduces percussion at this point.

Mos gave a spoken introduction to the song that spoke to me a great deal when I heard this song originally. He spoke of the coming milenium and the tension surrounding it. Then he spoke specifically of Hip Hop during that time period, and he dispensed some wisdom that has become central to my understanding of Black Music. He said that if the people who comprise Hip Hop, listeners and creators, were alright and moving in a postive direction, than the music would as well. The music was not some outside force influencing the people, it was the music of the people, and it would become more serious and level headed when the people themselves were that. That was a great comfort and a call to responsibility for me when this record dropped. As he talks, Weldon Irvine begins to play the organ riff, which is a condensed version of the rhythmic melodic riffs Fela played on the 1977 original. He then proposed self worth and value from an eternal source.

Then Mos goes on to speak to some things that are even more of a concern right now, Post 9/11 than they were when he was saying it. As Fela horn samples are incorporated into the track, he speaks of the new electronic methods of survelliance, just beginning at that time, but which would be a regular fact of life during the “War on Terror.” Mos saw this as man trying to be like God, as sampled sirens and Mos’ own human beatbox sirens play in the background. He says he’s not concerned with that because he feels there will always be limits to man’s ability to observe and control humanity. After that he delivers a rap verse, with the full beat kicking back in. He puts all his faith in God and humanity, because men, no matter how powerful they seem, “must die.” His rap verse serves more as a rap style chorus, becuase he repeats it again on the fade out of the song, which is one of Mos particular trademarks, taking rap and repeating them in the manner of songs/poems.

“Fear Not of Man” did exactly for me what Fela did in his music and what Mos hoped it would do. It encouraged me during a relatively dark time of pre milenial tension. I was concerned about the Illuminati and The “New World Order” far before it became fashionable, and educated by Hip Hop records like The Goodie Mob’s masterfully spooky “Cell Therapy.” Fela continued to make funky music that opposed one of the most repressive systems you could imagine in newly oil rich 1970s Nigeria, ruled by a succession of military dictators (“soldier go/soldier come”). Mos picked up on that courage here for a situation that potentially could mean that type of repression for the whole world. Two years after this record was released the 9/11 tragedy would happen and freedom would be exchanged for saftey in the United States. But this song and Mos entire “Black on Both Sides” album would always serve as a comfort for me, especially with Mos following the template laid down in the ’90s by The Roots, Lauryn Hill and Outkast and playing instruments himself, while handling most of the production duties on the album. It was also very special that he reached out to Weldon Irvine, who’s music has formed a foundation for much of Hip Hop, to play on this and other songs of the album. So this song then is a collboration between Fela Kuti as songwriter, with the Africa 70 and Tony Allen playing on the record through samples, the great Weldon Irvine, and the great Yasiin Bey/Mos Def as musician and M.C. Who can be afraid with that much power behind them? Not me!

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Hugh Masekela and Swinging Seventies Monrovia : Liberian Stories 2

The section of Hugh Masekela’s epic 2004 biography, “Still Grazing”, which takes his wildin’ journey through music, sex, drugs, politics and life to 1970’s Monrovia, Liberia, is Section III, entitled “Africa.” Masekela’s return to the African continent found him at a bit of a crossroads in his journey. After leaving his native South Africa in the early ’60s, Masekela had married and divorced the great singer Miriam Makeba, released albums that flopped, studied music in New York City, met and be friended most of the great names of BeBop, Hard Bop & Soul Jazz, made love to scores of attractive women, and become both a role model and a patron of young South African musicians and students in exile in the United States. In 1968, Masekela’s recording of South African composer Philemon Hou’s song, “Grazing in the Grass” went to #1 on the pop charts, becoming an international smash. Masekela promptly got to enjoying his success, but he was not able to follow it up with a consistent stream of hits, as his personal life and partying began to dissipate his momentum. He had brief marriages that failed, consumed copious amounts of cognac, cocaine, weed and opium, and gave the world protest music after making them dance. It was the writer Quincy Troupe, who would go on to write the autobiography of one of Masekela’s heroes, Miles Davis, who suggested he go to West Africa to check out the post colonial growth of the continent. Masekela , ever the adventurer, a master at creating a life wherever he found himself, took him up on it, and it gave him a greater education in Africa than he’d ever had before.

Masekela was not exactly an expert on Africa at the time of this move, although he was one of the musicians most highly identified with Africa in the western mind. In his native South Africa he’d grown up a fan of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, of swing and bebop, which would only intensify when he traveled to the United States as a student. He was much more familiar at the time with the culture of African Americans than he was that of his neighboring African countries, many of which were still submerged in colonial dominion during his youth. The apartied government also had a part to play in this, as it could not afford to have the ideas and the spirit of freedom thriving in other African nations to mingle and inspire that already growing movement at home. People of African descent were seperated from South Africans, classified as “foreign natives.” When Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee went to South Africa to film “Cry, the Beloved Country”, they were listed as servants of the white director and kept away from the white population. “Isolating ethnic South Africans from Africans born outside the country drove a cultural and pshychological wedge between them that still exists today in the form of the most despicable xenophobia imaginable”, Masekela writes.

Masekela’s ex wife, Miriam Makeba, facillitated his pilgrimage to Africa just as she did that of Nina Simone. It was Masekela’s intention to form a group when he arrived, taking advantage of the new music being created on the continent. His first stop was Guinea, where Makeba and her husband Kwame Toure, known during the Civil Rights Movement as Stokely Carmichael. Guinea was a French West African country, dominated by Muslims, which had a communist governmental structure under President Sekou Toure. Toure was a gracious host, even showing tolerance toward Masekela and other artists marijuana smoking. Yet, in short order, Masekela began to spend an equal amount of time in a Monrovia which featured “round the clock bars, a thriving international tourist trade, and American currency.” This Liberia also possessed a typical enticement for musicians :”some of the most beautiful women I’d seen since my return to Africa.”

Masekela was invited by President Tolbert to Liberia to raise money for his “Higher Heights” project. “Total Involvement for Higher Heights” was one of the trademark programs of President Tolbert, taking over after the long reign of President Tubman. The program involved a fundraiser called “Rally Time”. The Makeba/Masekela concert was to be a fundraiser for that program. Masekela said they turned the football stadium out, with him playing several encores of “Grazing in the Grass” that kept folks dancing. Miriam Makeba had to repreat her smash hit “Pata Pata” several times for the Liberian audience on that day.

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Masekela was put up in a suite at the Ducor International Hotel, “on Monrovia’s highest hill, with a breathtaking view of the city and the Atlantic Ocean.” The Ducor Hotel and its fabulousness was one I’ve heard many stories about, both from my Liberian parents and even from people in the Bay Area who had visited pre war Liberia. Masekela also mentions several prominent Liberians of the time I grew up conscious of, everyone from Cecil Dennis, to “Chu Chu” Horton, who was a close friend of Masekela, to finance minister Steve Tolbert.

One of the things my mother was always proud of that rarely gets spoken is how much aid Liberia gave to black South Africans in the anti Apartied struggle. In this particular instance, Masekela was granted Liberian citizenship and a passport after his performances by President Tolbert. This was very crucial to Masekela at this time because after his defection from his country and his outspokenness against the oppresion occuring there, he was a man without a country to a large degree. Tolberts bestowal of Liberian citizenship on Masekela made it easier for him to travel and move about in the world.

Masekela quickly settled into the unique and bustling pre war Monrovia scene. He describes a city that never went to sleep, where people partied around the clock. He also had a large number of South African friends around him there, including the composer of his biggest hit, Philemon Hou. He also noted the conditions that would eventually lead to the calamnity Liberia would soon face, the deep social cleaveges between the descendants of the freed blacks from the United States and the indigenous African population. But at the same time he and other people observed this class division, it by no means stopped them from enjoying what he and other Africans of the time refered to as “Small America.”

The women he met there didn’t ask for taxi fare, like the Congolese women who’d come up disadvantaged under colonialism. The women he met had their own cars and jobs. Despite the class differences between the old “settler” families and the rest of the population, Masekela noticed that the country was informal and everybody knew the big shots, because rather than isolating themselves, they associated freely with everybody. Despite what he felt was oppresive, he met a society that seemed to have a sense of unity as well. He also made note of Liberian slangs such as referring to everybody as “my man!” or calling females “my child”, which makes me think of my dearly departed grandmother, and my dad, who’d always use “my man.”

While traveling to Nigeria, Congo, and several other African countries in search of band members, Masekela would split his time etween Monrovia and Conkaray, Guinea. While Guinea was a country of Islam and strict Marxism, Monrovia featured an African version of Westren freedom. Despite the difference in style however, he saw Toure and Tolbert as very similar, one capitalist, one communist, both autocratic.

Masekela was very influential in one of the greatest symbolic moments in the history of the African diaspora, the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title bout known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”, in Kinsasha, Zaire, and Liberian money was key in making it happen. Stephen Tolbert, the brother of President Tolbert, and finance minister, a man reputed to be Liberia’s richest self made man through his involvement in the fishing industry, provided $2 million to make the music concert happen. That music concert was featured a few years ago in the film “Soul Power”, and featured luminaries such as James Brown, BB King, The Crusaders, and Miriam Makeba. Amazingly, the Rumble In the Jungle, where Muhammed Ali proved himself once and for all the “greatest of all time” by defeating the heavily favored Foreman, was made possible by Liberian money, or should I say, Liberian U.S dollars. Tolbert never recouped his investment due to the trickery of the promoters and also ended up dying in a plane crash.

The African section of Masekela’s book is full of other interesting incidents in Liberia, adventures with ChuChu Horton, stories of his South African friends studying in Liberia, fights in Krutown, and general rabble rousing and hell raising. One of the most poignant however, is when he brought his mother to Liberia. Masekela had not seen his mother since he left South Africa, and he brought her to the U.S and then to meet his family and see his house in Liberia on the beach. She had the time of her life, and she was even able to meet President Tolbert. This was very special to her, because her own government in South Africa treated her as a non human, but in a black African country, she was able to meet the President due to the importance of her son. “My mother was very touched and inspired by the fact she had dined with an African President, something that was utterly impossible in her own country.” And that is something that I believe Liberia provided for many within the African diaspora, from parts of Africa and the New World as well, an example and hope to one day enjoy the self governance Liberia had been struggling to maintain since her founding.

Masekela’s time in Liberia ended as many people’s, when Seargent Samuel Doe took power in 1980. His wife and child remained there for some time, but Masekela ran out of the country when he was instructed to go see Doe at the Executive Mansion, knowing he’d been friends with so many people in the old order.

“Still Grazing” was a very important book for me personally. My family left Liberia shortly before the coup. I saw pictures of Liberia in the ’60s and ’70s and still have a great deal of family that lives there. The names I encountered in the book, I was surprised to find I knew all of them as if I was there. It seems somehow my parents stories about Liberia had seeped deeper into me than I’d realized. They always spoke of Liberia in joyful terms, as if they’d had the times of their lives living there and would never find such joy anywhere else. But for me, I’d never quite read a history of the particular times they’d lived in, especially that time period of the 1970s that led up to the war. “Grazing in the Grass” is an important book for Liberians to read, both young and old. It’s one thing to have a Liberian testify to how things used to be in the country, but it’s a whole other thing for a person who was a guest and naturalized citizen to speak to it. Though Liberia had its social and economic problems as governments and people do, it also had and has something very special. “Still Grazing” was the first book that captured the history of 1970s Liberia for me in a personal style and it’s as valuable for that as it is for its portraits of South Africa, the 1960s music scene and Hugh Masekela’s incredible life.

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