For more than forty years, the prolific Brooklyn-based soul and funk artist Lee Fields has beguiled and exhilarated audiences with his signature brand of boisterous, full-figured brass arrangements. You don’t hear it so much as secure yourself to it, like some ensconced, funk-deprived parasite experiencing aural satisfaction for the very first time. On May 29, Fields gigged Bowery Ballroom with his seminal backing band the Expressions (the statuesque foundation behind the beatific booming) supporting the release of his newest LP Imogen on the Brooklyn imprint Truth and Soul Records; rest assured, they did little to disappoint.
The opening act, Ikebe Shakedown (also native New Yorkers) was a seven-piece instrumental ensemble whose musical penchants were rooted to the dance-centric, Afrobeat jive of the late 1970s—James Brown, Shuggie Otis, Fela Kuti among countless others. Ikebe Shakedown played as one irresistibly dynamic unit (a few musicians later joining Fields as Expressions), rarely disrupting the constant flow of salacious grooves to address the audience.
With no words, no catchy hooks—excluding the brooding licks spewed out by tenor and baritone saxophonist Mike Buckley and trumpet player Jason Colby— these punchy, polyrhythmic numbers were all the more aggressive. Ikebe Shakedown played songs from their most recent album Stone By Stone (Ubiquity Records), kicking off the set with album opener “The Offering.”
The stumbling swag of the album’s title track followed, bassist Vince Chiarito sputtering wild and guttural melodies which sharply complemented that of the baritone. On another new track, “By Hook or Crook,” the guitarist’s solo is stiff, staccato, hip-shaking madness, replacing the piano part that usually enacts the melody on the recording. Trombone player Nadav Nirenberg was a bandleader of sorts, commanding the ensemble with cherry red swollen cheeks and what was easily the most powerful instrument on stage.
New York City hosts a rich, long-standing narrative of such electrifying, instrumental dance music. Since the 1960s, recording techniques have drastically altered and advanced technologies have entirely streamlined the process of producing a record. But, quite stubbornly, the song remains the same. The groove persists.
It’s not so obvious at first glance. The Long Island-based Lafayette Afro Rock Band— one of the more innovative and vanguard funk outfits that relocated to Paris in 1971— eradicated a pillar of pop musical reference when they released a cover of Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” Spliced between the low-end, ravished ramblings exchanged by the alto and baritone saxophone, the husky growl of Bobby Boyd’s anchored speak-talk refrain was later sampled in the bridge of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,’” which would eventually be sampled for the indelible hook on Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music.”
The first visible traces of this new musical tributary, however, occurred in Brooklyn during 1968, when three Panama-born brothers (raised in Bedford Stuyvesant) formed the prodigious and oft-overlooked latin-soul fusion group Mandrill. After amassing an additional six members, Mandrill (named after the West African coast-abiding primate that adorns most of their album artwork) released their debut in 1970 via. Polydor Records.
The first long-player kicks off with a track called “Mandrill,” a wild, unprecedented synthesis of afrobeat textures and a definitive polyrhythmic latin pulse, too tremendous for literal expression, too leviathan for words. The following three songs, “Rolling Blues,” “Symphonic Revolution,” and “Rollin’ On,” contain lyrics the same way a riveting gospel melody might attach itself to a single, frequently perpetuated refrain (“Keep on rollin’/Keep on rollin’”). The words are used sparsely, as a tool to navigate and contain the conceptually endless groove. When lyrics are not employed, it opens up a very particular creative space for the band to delineate from the traditional pop song format, reaching toward more avant-garde sensibilities. The five-part suite “Peace and Love” is one rambling, restless, variation on a sultry theme of free-wheeling jazz and harrowing, cinematic soul. When lyrics are fitted to the sonic space, they take on a deeper significance and greater purpose: “Progress, it’s said, makes for a softer bed mmm../But no one will lie easy if everyone lies dead.”
It’s difficult to ascribe this act as the definitive catalyst to this burgeoning movement, but Mandrill was indeed the proverbial tipping point, effortlessly disrupting a generation of disgruntled youths who detested the latin jazz, merengue and latin Bungaloo of their parents’ generation. Prior to the release of their self-titled debut, most genres or definitive stylistic subsets of music like rock n’ roll and jazz were explored and enjoyed within their respective venues. Mandrill, in their reckless abandon for cross-cultural, interdisciplinary musical form, severely complicated things.
When I reached out to Pablo Guzman, the veteran reporter for WNBC-TV and founding member of the Puerto Rican nationalist party the Young Lords, he explained the years between 1967 and 1972 as a product of new-found influences “more than an emerging Afropop band scene in Brooklyn. Sounds that were ‘new’ (to most) were eagerly spread around. A lot of this involved Latin, because of the polyrhythms. And the percussion. The things New York Latinos took for granted (or often, dismissed as ‘their parents’ stuff’ only to ‘re-discover’ it later).”
The gears of Latin influence upon the Afropop sound were loosely set in motion by the Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria who, both conceptually and pointedly, married the ideas of African and Latin musics in his 1959 instrumental jazz standard “Afro Blue,” famously preserved in the interpretation later released by John Coltrane.
Pablo Guzman corresponded with Santamaria about the curious divide set up between these two opposing forces. “The reason why Afro-Cuban drumming appeals to the African ear more than what African-Americans do, say on traps, is because of the difference between slavery under the Spanish–versus slavery under the Dutch or British. The Dutch and British viewed drumming by the slaves as a threat. As sending coded messages to revolt (which sometimes was true). They ordered drumming stopped, and cut off hands to enforce it.
“The Spanish tried a co-optation method. This was not ‘a better form of slavery.’ It’s all still slavery. But the Spanish thought they could reduce tensions by just letting the slaves play. And so in the Spanish colonies, you have a line of drumming that grew directly from Africa. When we go back to play in Africa, they ‘get it.’ They understand the message on our drums. The patterns are basically the same.”
The brassy, Afro-Caribbean prog rock of Osibisa similarly evoked this cultural synergy. The London-based group formed in 1969 from seven expatriate musicians: four from Ghana and three from the Caribbeans. Their idiosyncratic embellishment of highlife (a century-old genre assembled along the African west coast characterized by multi-track, arpeggiated guitar lines and explosive horns) infused with various other musical forms, made their contributions to this era noteworthy. In 1971, their debut self-titled album hit #55 on the US Billboard Top 100 and soared #11 in the UK. What makes Osibisa explemary of the genre, however, is their incidental revelation of how hopelessly convoluted this whole mess of influence really is.
This music–deliciously brackish, high-flying, vibrant and perpetually ascending–has an ostensible integrity: blackness. But, upon further examination, the implication dissolves under the weight of absolute truth.
As the first commercially successful act of their kind, Osibisa set the standard and established the pervasive mood that would extend into a new wave of similar groups in the 21st century. What most fail to recognize is that Osibisa, even in their rambunctious energies and noble preservations of traditional African forms, was inextricably linked to European culture. The genre of highlife, nearly seventy years Osibisa’s senior, was primarily motivated by Western instruments and proliferated specifically in English-speaking countries along the West coastline. In addition, the famed psych-rock illustrator Roger Dean was commissioned for several Osibisa album artworks, a sly ploy by the record label to make the group’s releases more readily approachable for their younger, white audiences. In this era, Osibisa represented an indisputable pinnacle of blackness, one which only ran skin-deep.
Midway through the 70s, the proliferation of hip-hop, the uprising of b-boy culture and the creative liberation inspired by the invention of the turntable all heightened the significance of this rhythmically determined dance music. The instrumental B-sides of considerable funk and soul records provided DJs with a proverbial blank canvas. They could extend the duration of a well-received dance jam and manipulate the tempo and pitch of the record without the risk of distorting the vocal track. In retrospect, several New York funk acts like Cosmic Force would become more acknowledged for instrumental cuts of songs “Zulu Nation Throwdown” and “Harlem Underground Band Volume 1” (the former strips out Afrika Bambaataa’s trifling verses of brash rhymes to expose a taut underbelly of salient, syncopated guitar licks) than the lyrically aided material of their posterior catalogue.
Just as hip-hop was struggling to define and orient itself during its genesis, so was this unique and generally difficult to define category of music. And beyond New York, instrumental ensembles of dance-derived soul, funk and afrobeat sprouted from other cosmopolitan locales like Detroit, Chicago but most notably San Francisco.
The bay area was home to groups like Blood, Sweat, & Tears and Tower of Power; the latter expounded upon Motown soul-centric dimensions with the rampant, free-flying funk of tracks like the notorious 1974 cut “Squib Cakes” on Back to Oakland (Trumpeter Mic Gillette coined the song’s title as slang to describe the backsides of good-looking ladies.). “Squib Cakes” is highly representative of the era: It’s a nearly eight-minute assault of alternately protracted and augmented dynamics and dizzying sonic embellishments on the keys and trumpet, tinged with electric gospeldelia and soaked in mad-dash jazz hysteria.
Tower of Power, Sly & the Family Stone, and Graham Central Station were all formidable funk acts in the 70s who retained integrity for analog sounds by recording the majority of their studio material live. The following decades had subsequent generations of funk musicians abandoning these principles for the brighter-sounding, crisp production that often accompanied songs using synthesizers. Funk icons like Prince and Rick James changed their game, and acts like the kitschy electro-funk of Con Funk Shun, the P-Funk byproduct hip-hop group Digital Underground, and the heavy-handed thrash funk of Psychefunkapus followed suit. The latter group released a song called “Same Song,” following the initial acclaim of their 1991 single “The Humpty Dance,” which not so subtly comments on the natural derivative contours of the genre.
Following Y2K, a certain kind of nostalgia has permeated in black music, a ubiquitous desire for things to return to the way they once were—whatever that might entail. It’s happened in San Francisco, where bands like the Monophonics have reverted to a blues-heckled, purist vein of soul and funk (The introductory drum cadence on “Goliath” is so timid and restrained, that it could easily be the clatter of keypads opening and closing on a stagnant saxophone.). Furthermore, record imprints like the independently operated Ubiquity Records began reissuing singles by the New York disco-soul act Hokis Pokis and releasing LPs from Brooklyn’s Ikebe Shakedown.
The resurgence of instrumental and dance-oriented soul ensembles has no singular point of origin—the past fifteen years have seen the ascension of the New Mastersounds and the Haggis Horns, two primarily Caucasian groups based in England—but, incontestably, the closest thing to this movement’s geographic epicenter is Brooklyn. Within the small community of musicians that navigates this recapitulating trend, Brooklyn is regarded with reverence and a certain amount of mythical allure.
Melbourne, Australia’s the Shaolin Afronauts named their callous, breakout 2012 single “Brooklyn,” as well as the Wisconsin-based punk jazz collective Youngblood Brass Band, who muster up a seven-minute homage to the NYC borough as radiant, tenacious and daunting as any given half-illuminated block between Sunset Park and East New York. Brooklyn is home to two seminal record labels devoted to soul and funk music: Truth & Soul Records founded by El Michels Affair frontman Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman in 2004; Daptone Records stemmed from the now discontinued label Desco, founded by Gabriel Roth and the Sugarman 3 frontman Neal Sugarman.
Both Truth & Soul and Daptone have paved the way for a very vibrant, very tangible scene of like-minded musicians and songwriters in Brooklyn. The musical ten-piece behemoth behind El Michels Affair distill their proclivities in musical reference, paying homage to influential tributaries of the genre with 2008’s Walk On By…A Tribute to Issac Hayes or the full-circle allusion of their 2009 Wu-Tang cover album Enter the 37th Chamber. The Sugarman 3 collaborated with Lee Fields on a handful of tracks, one of which, “You Don’t Know What You Mean (To a Lover Like Me),” was featured in Samuel Jackson and Bernie Mac starring 2008 film Soul Men. Since 1998, however, the lump sum of the Sugarman 3’s material has been retrofitted dance music, guileless, flustered and stark naked like the whiskey-drunk “Soul Donkey.
Adjacent to the aesthetic sway of contemporary music (i.e. cultural appropriation), this musical renaissance, though earnestly conceived and reverently expressed, is often the product of middle class white men rearticulating the same message imagined by oppressed African natives fighting against, or relinquishing to, European imperialism. In 1967, it was the political-musical action of Fela Kuti and his integral drummer of 20 years Tony Allen who originally fostered the definitive Afrobeat sound in low-lit Ghanaian nightclubs. In 2014, Afrobeat, expunged of its political immediacy, substantially informs the all-white Brooklyn-based ensembles Ikebe Shakedown, Budos Band, Menahan Street Band, Emefe, and the three, sometimes four, members of the Sugarman 3, who regularly appear as if they’ve just stepped out a jazz club or smoke joint circa 1967, Paddy caps in tow.
Two years before the first apocalyptic scare of the new millennium, in tandem with the conception of the Sugarman 3, a Brooklyn funk revival group named the Daktaris (Swahili for “doctors”) recorded Soul Explosion, an original album that feigned African authenticity. In 1998, the LP released on Desco with a deceptive vintage-style artwork, band members credited through made-up Nigerian aliases and a ballsy “Produced in Nigeria” label. The kicker: Not even one contributor to Soul Explosion was of color.
The band and label subsequently dissipated, which very well may be attributed to their deceitful debut, but the energy was rekindled in the form of Antibalas (Spanish for “bulletproof”). Founded by Martín Perna, who at the time taught at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, the group acquired eleven core members, pooling from musicians in the Latin ska band King Changó, the underrated collective the Soul Providers and the defunct Daktaris.
The first Antibalas album, Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1, was striking, game-changing, effortlessly merging America soul, Nigerian Afrobeat, and Latin dance rhythms for a densely arranged and instantly distinguishable sound. Tracks like “Uprising,” “World War IV,” and “N.E.S.T.A. (Never Ever Submit to Authority)” incontrovertibly engaged in the same issues of humanity that first inspired the sound, beats with critical implications and rhythms with absolute purpose. Antibalas members were white, brown, black and every color in between, but it wasn’t something you could hear so much as feel.
Antibalas’ third album, 2004’s Who Is This America?, first introduced vocalist Amayo; he occasionally offers reedy refrains on “Elephant” and “Who Is This America Dem Speak of Today,” but the more resilient, stand-alone tracks “Pay Back Africa” and “Indictment” remain instrumental. The artwork is a cartoonish vector of a man, in suit and tie, running from smoke, the White House nestled in the bottom left corner. The subject’s hands and ankle region are shock red (socks and gloves?) and his face (a striped ski mask?) is red and white with big, five-pointed stars for eye sockets; the deliberate choice to make his identity anonymous directly, or indirectly, comments on pre-existing tensions of race and authenticity. It seems to reply, “Keep your eyes shut and your ears wide open.”
Visually their follow-up album, 2007’s Security, restates this idea: A jumbled watercolor of a large outdoor stadium, with a line of various national flags cutting against the foreground, the crowd nothing more than menial and indistinguishable smeared hues. The standout, opening track, “Beaten Metal,” with its reductive melodies and violent releases of hypnotic and alloyed polyrhythms, knocks the wind right out of you.
Brooklyn is the fulcrum of Antibalas. The group’s vocalist Amayo, who occasionally satiates the groove with walloping refrains, made personal statements during a Soundtracks PBS Interview about the relationship between the music of Antibalas and the locale it started from. “Bed-stuy and Bushwick merged together as one place for me with an area of a lot of problems. It might look a little better, the streets are a little cleaner, but compared to Lagos I can feel the same tension. I feel the same joblessness and I see a lot more kids on the street. I was attacked a couple of times, not because the kids were upset. It was just the thing that was going on… These days, everything is pointing toward what the teenagers are feeling.”
One inspired individual, still a teenager himself, felt something during his freshman year at NYU. Now, having just graduated in May, Miles Arntzen–as the drummer of Antibalas and the founding member of the Afropop offshoot Emefe–is the torchbearer for a new wave of young musicians who are rediscovering this age-old musical mystique. “My first year, within a few months I had met all these people and I was writing this music,” said Miles when interviewed during a live performance at the Seattle KEXP studio. “I had just discovered Fela and Antibalas and that whole genre and it just kind of took over my life in the best of ways.
Emefe, which means “music frees all,” recorded their debut album, Good Future, in Brooklyn at Mason Jar Studios and self-released the nine hulking tracksin the summer of 2012. On the salacious, grab-you-by-the-collar opener “Stutter,” guitars are clipped but long-winded and multiple baritone saxophones flourish and unfurl with a careening, calculated verocity. There’s some Fela. There’s inherently some Antibalas in the rhythmic backbone. But there’s also a seminal ingredient that cannot be so simply annexed–a dauntless and youthful vitality that spurts forth in the form of progressive guest appearances by vocalists Chico Mann and Gabriel Garzon-Montano. (It might be best pronounced in Miles Arntzen’s remix of Kanye West’s “New Slaves.”)
There are other, more seasoned acts like Menahan Street Band and Budos Band who actively stimulate the scene with live performances and regular studio releases. The 2012 release of MSB’s most recent LP, The Crossing, is one of my most coveted musical discoveries of the past year. The record drifts languid but with outright purpose, a foggy vision of sensuous cinematic soul. Each song concludes with unheralded technical embellishments, brief nuggets of brilliance that make your heart murmur and your eyes flash.
This music, removed from tangible moments of rhetoric, makes it impossible to discern anything other than disorderly, inexplicable sensations. They take shape in the pit of your belly, like some wonderful psychedelic dyspepsia, and sprout out through your limbs in jerky, spontaneous motions. It begs to pose the questions I’ve been teasing out for more than 3,000 words: At what point is soul required to transcend the literal and lyrical; when and why is it deemed superfluous or reductive to the music being expressed; how does it all boil down into words? It doesn’t. The only truth we can surmise–the truth in soul–lies in the terrific, tongue-tied, technicolor vibrations inundating through our skulls.