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
by: Deb Grant
25 Mar 2022
Photo: PARTISAN RECORDS
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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