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Cymande | An Interview With The Legendary British Funk Band

Taking inspiration from African rhythms, Caribbean Calypso, jazz and funk, Cymande’s music blends a myriad of sounds together from all corners of world music, amalgamating into a soulful melting pot defined by groove and rhythm.

The music of the London-based band – comprised of artists from Guyana and Jamaica – provides an immutable melting pot of cultures and music, delivering a truly unique auditory aesthetic. Forming in 1971, Cymande were nine Caribbean-born, London-based musicians who pioneered their own blend of reggae and rastafarian rhythms with soul, funk, rock and jazz at the heart of their grooves.

Cymande were discovered by the infamous English producer John Schroeder, who stumbled upon the West Indian musicians in a Soho, London club whilst were rehearsing. He soon signed them and recorded the single “The Message”, which was was released in the US to great acclaim, setting the stage for the Cymande’s inaugural self-titled LP release in 1972. After the highs of the first album, Cymande travelled to New York and began touring throughout the US with Al Green, Ramsey Lewis, Kool & The Gang and Mandrill, and made history by becoming the first British band to perform at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Cymande were simply one of the biggest bands to come out of the British black music scene in the 1970s, recognised for their rhythmically distinct blend of African-Caribbean and African-American styles. After releasing three albums – Cymande, Second Time Around and Promised Heights – they decided to make the tough decision to take the band off the road in 1975.

Tracks such as ‘Bra’ and ‘Dove’ touched the hearts and minds of inner-city youths across the UK. Recognisably, their music is from a time when civil rights was important; apart from meticulously working syncopated groove, rasta rhythms and jazz elements with natural soul and harmonious melody to their music, Cymande were simultaneously laying statements about the things that resonated most importantly to them and their community. It’s also no surprise that since the releases of their music, they’ve been much sampled by the likes of The Fugees, De La Soul and EPMD, a testament to their timeless sound.

All members of Cymande are now back playing together again, with a new album set for release as well as a series of special concerts celebrating their work. In light of their recent revival, we caught up with founding members Steve Scipio and Patrick Patterson ahead of their show at the Barbican Centre last Tuesday to revisit their enduring story.

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I think a good place to begin with tonight’s show – how are you both feeling about your show at the Barbican?

“We’re very excited, we haven’t played the Barbican before – years ago we did the Roundhouse and what used to be the Rainbow Theatre and a couple of big venues, but Barbican is a new venture and it’s very exciting”

The Barbican is a great setting for live music, we watched Strata East there a couple of weeks ago and it really creates a special and intimate atmosphere,

“It’s a lovely venue, we saw Toots & Maytals there a couple years ago and it has a great sound and ambience, and the fact that’s it’s an educated crowd in terms of appreciation of the music adds to that.”

So for those who don’t know let’s go back a bit, how did you two first cross paths?

We were childhood friends, our family are friends and we first met when I was here in England and we’ve been friends ever since, from way way back in the dark ages, when there was no central heating!”

I know you two were in a jazz band together before Cymande called Meter – what can you tell us about Meter?

“So Meter, the name came from a ‘time signature’ and a lot of the material that Steve and me were doing was leaning towards jazz so we wanted a name to reflect that”

Keeping on the topic of time signatures, you did an interview not too long ago with Red Bull Music academy and you touched on Dave Brubeck’s timeless ‘Take Five’ track, which was revolutionary in terms of experimenting with time signatures.

“Yeah, it was a huge record. It was early 60’s and one of the first purely jazz songs that went to number 1; it had a huge impact on us as young musicians, particularly at a time when we were entering into the Jazz sphere in those early days. You also had other musicians like Miles Davis who was experimenting with time signatures, he did a track called ‘Footprints’ which was a 6/8 time signature. We were very much experimenting with Time signatures in our younger days, which naturally carried though to Cymande. In our second album – ‘Second Time Around’ – we did a 5/4 song called “Willies Headache” which was a similar kind of time signature as ‘Take Five’”

It was International Jazz Day recently and to commemorate we’re putting together a feature around our Top 10 Influential Jazz Tracks. A notoriously difficult question to ask in any realm of music, but if you could pick a jazz record that has had the biggest impact on you, what would it be?

“(Patrick) For me I would say the record that had the greatest impact on me was from Miles Davis’ first album, Filles De Kilimanjaro – I like what he was doing with the rhythmic structure of the track, really that was the start of his movement into a new phase, he moved from straight jazz and graduated into a more funky style. I remember being in the West End and I just walked into a record store, the track was playing and it blew me away because I had never heard anything like that before – it massively influenced me in my bass playing”

What were the venues and clubs like where you were performing and where you music would be played?

“For both ‘Meter’ and ‘Cymande’ there was kind of a local scene you know, and Oval House was at its centre, it used to be very important to us and for a band like ours in those days. There was also upstairs at Ronnies (Scotts) which had the sort of music that we played”

What was the reaction like in the UK to your music?

“We had a cult following put it that way! I think that people who became knowledgeable about Cymande liked Cymande, but you know like all British black acts of that time there was no mass exposure of our music and we didn’t see major exposure until John Schroeder produced our first album, which then got released on Janous Records in America, and we subsequently started to get massive airplay around the United States”

The roots of African-American music must evoke a greater sense of receptiveness in the US

“America has always been that way, not only much more receptive to black music but there are different channels of operation so that black music got exposure, not just through the mainstream but also through its own channels which we didn’t have in the UK.

Also America has a very big college circuit, and their colleges/university’s all had radio stations that were located on campus playing music to the students. Because of the size of those colleges, acts could actually break through via the college DJ’s playing those records. I’m not sure if that’s how we might have broken through but we certainly had a strong following in the college circuit in America, and so was very important for us.

 

John Schroeder produced the albums but how important was he to the music of Cymande?

John Schroeder’s importance stems from the fact that he had confidence in the band, he believed in the music and he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was  – but what separates him from many producers and people that we dealt with in the music industry, was that he was very courageous. He liked that our music was original and out there, and I don’t think you would have found any other bands playing music like Cymande; he heard it, believed in it and followed through with it, not only here but also in the United States

Was it John’s influence that got you guys back together now?

“It came about kind of strangely, we’ve been thinking about making an album together for some time and we had to do something contractually with John over our back catalogue; we floated the idea to him and he was encouraged by the material we had in mind to use, so he came on-board and that was it”

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So let’s go back to 1975. Just off the back of a very successful tour of America, supporting the likes of Al Green and Kool And The Gang and after only four years together as group, you decided to give Cymande a break, why was that decision made?

“It’s not that short of a period when you think about, 5 years in the life of a band is quite a long time, the thing that had the most impact on us in terms of us taking Cyamde off the road was the difference in reception that we got in the US compared to here in the UK, we were playing in front of audiences of 20-60 thousand people, especially the college stadiums which were massive, then you come to the UK and you find that the reception is a lot more muted than what we were used to in the States. It got to a point where we felt like, why are we doing this? We were fighting the music industry trying to sell something original, we created something we believed in and the reception could never be the same as it was in the States because of the pure size of the states as a potential venue to expose our music.

The industry here at that time, and to an extent even now, has never been able to and still isn’t able to accommodate British black music, it’s never had the status or the respect that a lot of it should receive. We had options but at the time we decided to take the band off the road but we  knew we were always able to bring it back together when we wanted to.

What has happened here with the British music industry is that a lot of really great creative and solid music was thrown under the bus, thrown by the way side, disrespected, disregarding, not giving an opportunity, which is really unfortunate for music in general and makes you wonder to yourself, why didn’t some of these musicians make it?

“The 70’s was a very creative period for music generally worldwide, if you think of the kind of artists and what was happening, people like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder were changing the direction and scope, and all being influenced by each other. The same thing was happening here, there was a lot of creative things going with the music scene and a lot of very good black bands around in the 70’s, bands you would not be aware of, bands like Dante, excellent black bands but the exposure for that music was not there for us as young black musicians – you were always fighting and trying to get over hurdle after hurdle and it became very difficult as a musicians in those days. Ultimately you don’t want to continue as a professional musician playing the same small circuits, same small venues, you want to grow which is the purpose of being a musician”

With all that in mind was there never a temptation to move Cymande to America and live in the States?

“When we think about that now this would have been an enormous upheaval, I can look back now and think maybe this is something that we could have thought about doing but we were all British based, our families were located here and even putting ourselves through tours of the US for months at a time was quite traumatic for the families – you might say so relocating didn’t really present itself to us as something to fiercely pursue”

‘Dove’ is a significant symbol of the band and is on all of your album sleeves, why is it so important?

“Well first of all the Dove is a universal symbol of peace and when we were looking for the name, we wanted a name that would be extraordinary, unique, and a name that when you would hear it, it would grab your attention. 

We got Cymande out of a Caribbean calypso at the time, there was no known spelling for it but it was a calypso about a competition between a dove and a pigeon, and the dove was the smarter of the two, so looking at the calypso we felt connected to our Caribbean routes, and it also connected with the image of peace which was a big part of the music we were playing at the time, so excuse the pun but it all kind of dove tailed nicely and we decided to name the band Cymande”

The music of Cymande seem to operate as a social commentary to what was happening at the time – why were you so passionate about promoting the message of calm, peace and love?

“We were socially conscious, we were speaking about things that were happening to black people not just in this country but in other places. As you know social harmony is important, but so too is speaking about factors  causing disharmony, so our message was about both sides”

Your second album ‘ Second Time Around’ for us had a much more African, high life, afro-beat feel to it, and tracks like ‘FUG’, lyrically had a strong message behind them – was that a conscious process with what was going on in Africa, particularly with what was happening in Nigeria and south Africa?

“Cymandes music is a blend of music, we took inspirations from all corners, from African rhythms, jazz and our heritage of Caribbean calypso; we managed to bring all of those elements together and utilise them in distributing the message, lyrically and musically – a lot of it was conscious and a lot of it was sub conscious, but ultimately was intended to portray a unique expression “

What’s it been like back in the studio together working on the new album “Crazy Game”? Has it been as natural as it was when you first were making music together?

“Although the band came of the road we kept contact we each other, so when we decided to get the band back together, this is a project that has been in the making for 6 or 7 years and getting the six core members back together was not a problem and everyone was really interested in pursuing this as a project, and john Schroder produced the album and we had the same engineer as we had back then so the whole team was back together”

What do you aim to achieve with your music now?

“With the new album we’ve tried to bring the sounds of Cymande into the 2015, it’s an update body of music and it’s not going back into 1970’s as we’ve all developed as musicians, as people and we’ve all travelled around the world and we have different ideas but we had to bring our music to 2015”

Are you looking to target a new audience or is this music for existing Cymande fans?

“Well that has been the difficulty with the new album. We recognise that with doing a new album we needed to form a bridge with the 1970’s, appealing still to our old audience while making the band appealing to a new audience….

But in fact it may not have been as difficult as it once could have been, as I’m sure your aware of the rare groove scene in the 80’s, a lot of younger people then and now are tapping into a lot music of our time, you also have the sampling, where a lot of music is being exposed”

Has it been as enjoyable recording this album?

“It has been a great experience actually, what we did before going into the studio was re-group, re-socialise, if you like. We needed to get back to interacting with each other, we broke the ice with a lot of rehearsals and with the short tour we we feel recharged..”

So can we expect some more albums from Cymande in the future?

“We’ve got enough material,”

So your here to stay?

“We’ve never been away…”