CYMANDE / “Cymande Mixtape”
If anyone doubts that the seventies were the sixties and seventies was the golden age for black music in the 20th century then clearly we have a failure to communicate. The staggering amount of classic music that was produced between 1959 (remember that in jazz, the sixties started in 1959) and 1979 is unequalled, unparalleled, and beyond comparison to any other period last century. But just in case there are those who still need convincing, I give you Cymande, a London-based band composed of musicians from Jamaica, Guyana and St. Vincent. Founded in 1971, they produced three albums before the breakup of the founding band and one album in the early eighties: Cymande – 1972, Second Time Round – 1973, Promised Heights – 1974, and Arrival – 1981. Arrival is more a generique R&B album than a true representation of the Cymande sound. On the other hand, one might argue that Arrival represents what happens to a roots band that tries to go commercial. Over the years the members of Cymande were: Ray King - Vocals/Percussion Steve Scipio - Bass Derek Gibbs - Soprano/Alto Pablo Gonsales - Congas Joey Dee - Vocals/Percussion Peter Serreo - Tenor Sam Kelly - Drums Mike Rose - Alto/Flute/Bongos Patrick Patterson – Guitar Jimmy Lindsey - Vocals/ Percussion (Promised Heights LP) The band name was derived from a calypso term for “dove,” the image for the band that symbolized “peace and love.” After a long period of obscurity in the eighties, Cymande became a favorite of crate diggers and hip hop producers looking for fresh beats to sample. Cymande’s limited output of recordings have been re-released, gone out of print, and re-re-released. They may never perch atop the charts but there seems to be no way to stop the recognition of a major musical force. I have my own theories about why Cymande is important and why they never became massively popular and it all revolves around their relation to the American music industry. Once the Beatles hit in the sixties, the die was cast: the route to worldwide recognition for popular music had to go through the United States. Until one made it in New York City or Hollywood (preferably both), one could not be considered a superstar. The Arrival album not withstanding, pop success did not seem to be Cymande’s goal. During the seventies there were numerous artists who aimed their work at the black communities of Africa and the diaspora. The emergence of blackness was both international and simultaneously insular. The international thrust was countered by American parochialism, a myopic viewpoint that affected not just whites but also the minority peoples in the United States. The tendency toward being absorbed with one’s own views and values was countered by the internationalist attitudes of the leading political figures of that period. There was a major tug of war going on and that push/pull dynamic was reflected in the musical sphere. Cymande achieved its major success in the United States after their first album was released. They toured with Al Green, appeared at both the Apollo and on Soul Train and seemed to be headed for a brilliant career. Their most popular track, “Brothers On The Slide” was released on their third album, Promised Heights. But then something happened. I don’t know the internal details and I don’t think it is appropriate to make guesses or assumptions, especially considering that there are other compelling factors to consider. The Cymande sound was distinctly un-American. The music was loose and reflective, unlike the popular funk of that period. Rather than a strong backbeat, Cymande gyrated to polyrhythms produced by hand percussion. But beyond the exotic rhythms there was also the patois of the lyrics—sometimes we had to listen hard just to catch the drift of what was being said. I believe the rhythms and language were off-putting to an American audience used to getting things their way. There was, of course, a core Pan-Africanist audience who enjoyed and celebrated Cymande but to reach the top of the charts, Cymande would have to have a much larger appeal. Those considerations notwithstanding, I believe what really kept Cymande from major success was the content of their message. While it is true that reggae achieved worldwide popularity and gained a measure of cultural respect for Rasta views and values, Cymande’s message was also one of class struggle. In the final analysis, class struggle was more verboten than talk of blackness or even Rasta as a new religion. When you listen closely to Cymande’s lyrics, you hear a critique of assimilation into the Babylon system, a critique of the adoption of Babylon philosophies. “Brothers On The Slide” is not a celebratory dance song but rather a very incisive warning that many of us are headed in the wrong direction. This emphasis on class struggle and an equally alarming absence of romantic love songs insured that Cymande would never achieve superstardom within the American entertainment industry. Even almost forty years later, Cymande has a fresh sound. Sincere musical statements sung over roots grooves featuring light percussion and in the pocket bass lines; impassioned vocal choruses with solid horn support. By the way, those bass lines are world class. Cymande was a true Pan-Africanist outfit who drew on the various musical styles throughout the diaspora. Perhaps, because they were literally in exile they innately understood the struggle to hold on to a rooted sense of self while living an uprooted existence. By the eighties, the contradictions had been sort of resolved in that most people of African descent either actively or passively identified themselves with the nationality of their physical location. To be British or American, Jamaican or Ghanaian eventually and reductively resulted in the demise of Pan-Africanism. By the eighties blackness as an identity was in remission, a capitalist based-nationalism took over. I believe the reason bands like Cymande are important is because they represent a counter to Euro-centric cultural hegemony. Cymande was not a knee-jerk anti-white music, nor was it a romantic black is beautiful music. Cymande was an alternative, literally another way, a way that embraced the totality of African heritage musics and, at the same time, put forth an incisive critique of the status quo and our participation in that status quo. It is significant that Cymande was composed of self-taught musicians, musicians who made music because they wanted to, based on their own will and imagination. While we cannot argue that Cymande was a trend-setter, we can persuasively demonstrate that they were not follow-fashion monkeys. They were not on the slide. They were straight up reaching for higher heights. Cymande. A message to our people. Know yourselves. Be yourselves. Love yourselves. —Kalamu ya Salaam Cymande Mixtape Playlist 01 “Bra” - The Best Of Cymande 02 “The Message” - The Best Of Cymande 03 “Listen” - The Best Of Cymande 04 “Leavert” - Promised Heights 05 “Equitorial Forest” - The Best Of Cymande 06 “The Recluse” - Promised Heights 07 “Brothers On The Slide” - The Best Of Cymande 08 “Pon De Jungle" - The Best Of Cymande 09 “Rastafarian Folk Song” - The Best Of Cymande 10 “Losin' Ground” - Promised Heights 11 “Zion I” - The Best Of Cymande 12 “For Baby Who” - The Best Of Cymande 13 “Breezemen” - Promised Heights 14 “Promised Heights” - Promised Heights
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