Interview: Q&A with Cymande – ‘Rhythmic Caribbean Sensibility'(February 2019)

cymande

There are some bands in music that become established after they have been on the scene for a number of years, say one decade. Then there are other bands that become established through sheer genius and ingenuity. This was the case from the beginning with British funk band Cymande, who were uniquely popular in the United States, as well as Britain, in the 1970s.

Cymande derives from the calypso word for Dover, which in turn symbolises peace and love. The band’s demographic represents the legendary migration of people from the Caribbean to London from the 1950s, with members from Guyana, Jamaica and Saint Vincent. I believe that it was this particular flavour of rhythms that they brought with them in their musical ideology that made Cymande as irresistible as they are, mixing reggae, beautiful funk, afro and jazz into innovative catchy tracks.

It’s fun to note that Cymande are also one of the most sampled bands in British history, touching every corner of music – such as hip-hop innovator’s recovery of Cymande post ’75 by DJ Kool Here and Grandmaster Flash, onwards to De La Soul and The Fugees, to French-based Senegalese MC Solaar. The message their music produces is that of the black experience in ’70s racist London, through Brixton-based poly-rhythms, Caribbean inspired reggae, all smoothly jazzed through funk and soul.

The band left the road back in the mid to late ’70s, leaving behind three albums for the world to depict for the coming decades. However, low and behold, the collective reformed in 2014, and now in 2019, they are coming back to play in Ronnie Scotts, London on Friday 8th and Saturday 9th of March.

Ronnie’s is a legendary venue, one of the few in London worthy of hosting such an illustrious group.

We took the opportunity, knowing the guys were on the scene again, to shoot a few questions their way. Read on for the opinion and evolutions of Cymande’s music and members.

How would you introduce the music of Cymande to those that don’t know?

Our music is an original blend of funk, jazz and soul with an undercurrent of poly-rhythmic structures from the Caribbean and Africa.

How many members were initially in the band, and how has that differed to now?

The band started with six original members, which we refer to as the core members. They are Steve Scipio, Patrick Patterson, Mike Rose, Pablo Gonzales, Derrick Gibbs and Sam Kelly. We expanded the number over time to include an additional saxophone player Desmond Atwell, Ray King and Joey Dee (deceased). Following the second tour of America in 1973, we reverted to the original six structure, and that was the core of the band which returned in 2014, to which we added pianist Adrian Reid, vocalist Ray Simpson, and Ray Carless tenor and soprano saxes.

Can you describe the first time you all played together as a band, where and when and why?

If memory serves us well, our first gig might have been in 1971, at the Oval house in London, which was a prime music and arts venue at the time. There is no one reason for the formation and creation of Cymande music, but the aim has always been to play original music that combines elements of funk, jazz and soul, with our own special rhythmic Caribbean sensibility with a pronounced undercurrent of Rastafarian drumming.

How has Cymande’s music evolved in the years since it started to present day?

The music evolved a lot from the band’s formation in 1971 to when it came off the road in 1975. This is evident from listening to the musical progression in the three albums recorded over that period. Of course, there was the hiatus of some 35 years before the band reformed around 2010 to start planning the recording for the album, A Simple Act of Faith, but its core poly-rhythmic sense and original approach has remained constant. The evolution is probably best seen by comparing the nature of the songs, music and blend in the albums.

What was behind the decision to take the band off the road in the late 1970s?

There were a number of reasons, probably the most important was that, although we had been accepted and appreciated by American audiences in a wonderful way (which was unique for a UK black band playing funk and jazz), we found that when we returned to the UK, we were back in the land of the unseen and unheard, which was the place to which black music and black musicians had generally been confined in the UK music industry. It was dispiriting and devoid of dignity, and we all had other options, so we took a little respite. We prefer to describe the extended absence as a sabbatical. We took the band off the road, but never really split, and we have always remained connected and friends, working together on various projects over the years and discussing the idea of returning when the time was right.

You are one of the most sampled British bands in history: Why do you think the musicians in Cymande were capable of creating such innovative and desirable music?

It is difficult to point to any single factor that explains why the music developed in the way it did, but obviously, our background as Caribbean people and our experiences as second-generation immigrants in the UK served to create something unique and influential, with a great rhythmic sensibility that was infectious.

What do you think is the most important thing that happened to Cymande in the 40 years out of the limelight?

The recognition of Cymande as a historically important band in black music and the appreciation of our music, particularly by hip hop, rap and other audiences. Also, the fact that the band has managed to sustain a wonderful following by a knowledgeable and discerning audience.

As a band, who are some of your favourite artists to listen to and why?

We all have different favourites, players, bands and singers; Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight etc. The attraction they hold for us would be because of their musicianship, artistry and longevity. Most of these musicians (Miles Davis in particular) also put creativity and originality above commerciality, which was also the ethos followed by Cymande.

Is there anything that surprises you about the longevity of your band’s popularity?

The fact that the music has sustained itself, not simply in the United States, which is where we had our principal success but has spread far and wide to Europe and other places. Also, it was the modern younger generation who found something in our music that they could relate to.

What’s been the most rewarding part of getting on the road again?

The opportunity to be playing to great and wonderfully receptive audiences and making music for a new time period.

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