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!