Tag Archives: Spike Lee

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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Filed under Black Issues, FUNK, Liberia/Africa, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Quick Thoughts on Chuck Brown UnSung

Washington D.C Go-Go music has always fascinated me. It’s amazing to me that in the 1980s, while New York D.Js and producers were making records off records, Miami, L.A and Detroit musicians were making music with drum machines and synths, and Prince and his comrades in Minneapolis were paring their funk down to the essentials, there was a full live band funk sound flourishing in Washington D.C. This sound was also probably one of the most Afrocentric musical offshoots that ever existed in the northern hemisphere as well, featuring long extended dance jams, with percolating percussion and soulful party chants on top. And to top it off, the DMV area seemed strong enough for these live bands to make a living and sustain themselves with recording and live shows without really making too much noise in the rest of the country. That said something to me about the strength of the black community in D.C, Maryland and Virginia. The late Chuck Brown was the undisputed father of Go-Go music and the UnSung episode based on his life was a good introduction to his work. What took the episode a little bit further was it also attempted to provide an introduction to the whole D.C Go-Go scene as well.

One moment that was captured on camera that was important for musicologist purposes was to have Chuck Brown tell the story of how the Grover Washington Jr classic “Mr. Magic”, with a drum beat played by legendary studio drummer Harvey Mason, provided the original inspiration for the Go-Go beat. The episode had various D.C community and political figures such as Mayor Marion Berry talking about the social forces in Washington D.C that helped create the spawning ground for Go-Go music. The negative side of those conditions predominated on the Island Records film that was intended to take the music national. That film ended up being one that focused on crime more than the music, which made it hard for the music to thrive.

Spike Lee comes off good here as the loving chronicler of Black American culture that he has been through his career. The music and scene were shown in a negative light in the “Good to Go” film, but got some of it’s highest and most positive exposure ever came from the “Pajama Jam” scene in Lee’s “School Daze.” D.C band E.U collaborated with Spike on the title and dance, and super bassist and producer Marcus Miller for the classic, “Da Butt”, one of the biggest Hits in the music’s history, right alongside Chuck Brown’s “Bustin Loose.”

The episode ends with scenes from the current bands keeping Go-Go music alive today. One thing people forget, when they view Go-Go music as an isolated anomaly belonging solely in the DMV, is how vital it has been to the rest of Black music. Go-Go music was a live funk band sound thriving in the 1980s era of sampling and Hip Hop. From the beginning, it was a fresh, contemporary source of sounds for Hip Hop, with Trouble Funk’s classic record, “Drop the Bomb” being one of the most heavily sampled records of its day. There was something about the slow, percussion heavy Go-Go beats that were as ideal for rapping over as any music that’s ever been created. The list of Hip Hop songs made with Go-Go in mind goes on and on, from Big Daddy Kane’s “I get the Job Done”, to Kid N Play’s “Rollin with Kid n Play”, from Public Enemy’s “Rightstarter”, to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” to a bonafide Hip Hop classic like Doug E Fresh & Slick Rick’s “The Show.” “The Show” of course had musical contributions from Teddy Riley, who had that unique DMV flavor in his music from the beginning. Of course, New Jack Swing basically gets it’s rhythmic juice from Go-Go’s funky, shuffling, jazzy slow funk feel. That feel was taken by Riley to records as big as Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous.” The episode also touched on what Jill Scott did for the music when she recorded “It’s Love” with D.C Go-Go figures. I could go on and on but I’m really happy the music got some shine here because it’s really been one of the best things going for a long time. When Chuck Brown gets to chanting and rapping over a 15 minute groove he reaches a deep African place like Fela Kuti on his extended Afro beat suites. James Brown occasionally touched that on records like “Doin it to Death” and “Time is Running out Fast”, and George Clinton definitely used to reach it on stage, but that was Chuck Brown’s basic mode of musical expression! For bringing that level of culture and roots to a popular musical form, Chuck Brown and the Go-Go bands still going today are worthy of all the praise and support we can give them and then some!

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Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, All That Jazz, FUNK, Music Matters