Advertisement
Music

Cymande – the most influential band you’ve never heard of

A new documentary means Cymande will finally reach a mass audience after decades of being a well-kept secret

One sweltering summer years ago, I set off on a month-long pilgrimage around the southern states of America, hoping to expand my musical horizons in proximity to the jazz and soul music I loved and, more importantly, to bring home a stack of great records.

Most days it was over 40 degrees in Tennessee and Louisiana but I found relief, shade and occasionally air conditioning in dark dusty corners digging through crates of vinyl. There’s a sense of destiny that comes with record hunting; you may not be sure what you’re looking for but you know there is buried treasure waiting for you somewhere, if you have the patience to sift through the topsoil of a thousand James Last and Peter Frampton albums.

It was in Memphis, in a shop called Shangri-La after hours of digging, that I came across Cymande for the first time. Struck by the unusual name, I took the record over to the listening deck and dropped the needle on a track called Anthracite. Furious bongos, a forceful bassline, a jittery flute solo, within a few seconds I knew I’d found something special. This is the music I came to America for, I thought. 

The irony, as I soon discovered on my return, is that Cymande are a British band.

As I dug through their back catalogue, spellbound by their blend of Rastafari influences, jazz, funk, rock and calypso I couldn’t quite believe that a homegrown group as accomplished as this could have passed me by.

A new film, Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande, which premiered this month at SXSW Festival, is full of stories like mine; DJs and crate diggers from Mark Ronson to Jazzie B waxing lyrical about the moment they first discovered one of British music’s best-kept secrets.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Lovingly directed by documentary filmmaker and committed Cymande fanatic Tim Mackenzie-Smith, Getting It Back interrogates the band’s famous fans and gives some insight into why it’s taken 40 years for them to receive the credit they’re due. 

Subscribe to The Big Issue

From just £3 per week

Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work. With each subscription we invest every penny back into supporting the network of sellers across the UK. A subscription also means you'll never miss the weekly editions of an award-winning publication, with each issue featuring the leading voices on life, culture, politics and social activism.

Featuring up to nine members, many of them children of the Windrush generation, Cymande formed in the early 1970s, blending percussive music of the Africa diaspora with more contemporary sounds. The effect is multi-layered, funky and hypnotic, combining the spirituality of Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders with build-ups and breaks that wouldn’t sound out of place backing up James Brown. 

Composer and producer John Schroeder first heard them live by chance in 1972 and insisted on recording and producing their debut album. The self-titled LP, with its iconic illustrated cover, featured tracks like Dove, The Message and Bra. These would later be mined for samples by the likes of De La Soul, Fugees, Wu-Tang Clan, MC Solaar and Ruthless Rap Assassins, many of whom feature in the documentary sharing their infatuation with the group. DJ Cut Chemist calls Cymande the “secret password”. 

Despite the excitement that has built up around it since, the album’s original release in the UK failed to make waves – their music didn’t fit any archetypal genre, and without radio airplay and TV exposure they struggled to break through. America, however, got the message. Cymande’s debut climbed the Billboard chart, leading to invitations to tour with Al Green and headline New York’s Apollo theatre. Two more albums followed, but the British music industry remained unmoved. 

With families to support and bills to pay, the group decided to break up. Founding members Patrick Patterson and Steve Scipio went on to become lawyers, drummer Sam Kelly and flautist Mike Rose became session musicians. Saxophonist Derek Gibbs retired his instrument and became an electrician. Percussionist Pablo Gonsales, as he explains in the film, waited, feeling that a reunion was inevitable, knowing that in time Cymande would come to be appreciated in Britain and across the globe.

It took decades, but during their long hiatus Cymande’s legend grew. DJs kept playing them, producers kept sampling them, and, with the aid of YouTube and Spotify, curious listeners began tracing those samples back to their source. They reformed in 2015, releasing a new album and touring the UK, introducing a new generation to their unique sound and uniting the fans who had been waiting to see them live for 40 years. 

Support The Big Issue

Give your local vendor a hand up and buy the magazine

Each of our vendors buy their copies of the mag for £1.50 each, selling them for £3 and keeping the difference. Visit our interactive map to find your nearest vendor.

Mackenzie-Smith’s documentary, and an imminent plan to reissue their back catalogue, will help to secure Cymande’s place in music history, and many more listeners will experience the thrill of hearing them for the first time.

Deb Grant is a radio host and writer

@djdebgrant

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Advertisement

Support your local vendor

Want to buy a copy of the magazine? We have over 1,200 Big Issue vendors in the UK. Each vendor buys a copy of the mag for £1.50 and sells it for £3, keeping the difference. Visit our interactive map to find your nearest vendor and support them today!

Recommended for you

Read All
The Big Issue 2022 festival guide
Festival Guide 22

The Big Issue 2022 festival guide

Six months on, as music festivals begin again, it’s like the Astroworld disaster never happened
gig safety

Six months on, as music festivals begin again, it’s like the Astroworld disaster never happened

Kathy Sledge: ‘Seeing everyone come together for Black Lives Matter meant so much to me’
Music

Kathy Sledge: ‘Seeing everyone come together for Black Lives Matter meant so much to me’

Play it again: The remarkable revival of cassettes
Music

Play it again: The remarkable revival of cassettes

Most Popular

Read All
Homeless man who built wooden house on pavement: 'People understand I'm just in a bad situation'
1.

Homeless man who built wooden house on pavement: 'People understand I'm just in a bad situation'

The remarkable rise of Ncuti Gatwa: From sofa surfing and Sex Education to Doctor Who
2.

The remarkable rise of Ncuti Gatwa: From sofa surfing and Sex Education to Doctor Who

Exclusive: The UK's rarest and most threatened wildlife sites are not being protected properly
3.

Exclusive: The UK's rarest and most threatened wildlife sites are not being protected properly

Martin Lewis: 'The link between money problems and mental health problems is just so strong'
4.

Martin Lewis: 'The link between money problems and mental health problems is just so strong'

Keep up to date with The Big Issue. The leading voice on life, politics, culture and social activism direct to your inbox.