Cymande is one of those bands that defy easy description. Though their records are coveted by the funky crate diggers of the world, they are not really a funk band (though they were certainly capable of creating some very funky music).
Those of you that had your ears pressed to the radio in 1973 may recall that they actually had a Top 40 hit that year, with ‘The Message’ and their follow up (and coincidentally the selection du jour) ‘Bra’ made it to number 51 on the R&B charts. To most others – aside from the aforementioned crate diggers, DJ types* and other associated members of the cognoscenti – who generally happen to be possessed of a certain musical hipness not found in the general population – they are pretty much an unknown commodity, which once you’ve listened to ‘Bra’ you will likely agree is a damn shame.
The band Cymande was formed in the UK in the early 70’s by a group of West Indian immigrants (hailing from Jamaica, Guyana and St. Vincent among other locales), who described their sound as NYAH-ROCK (the NYAH no doubt derived from the nyahbingi chants of the Rastafarians**).
Despite the invocation of Rasta, Cymande were hardly a reggae band. Their music was a sophisticated mixture of American soul and funk, African pop, Latin sounds, rock and all of the various and sundry intersections of those sounds. A close listen to their first LP is like a drive through Harlem in the early 70’s with your car windows down, letting snatches of Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Santana and a thousand lesser groups (woven securely into the fabric, but essentially lost to the ages) drift through the windows and into your ears.
There are elements of early-70’s prog-cum-stoner rock guitar, hard drums, jazzy bass and horns as well as a bedrock of polyrhythmic percussion.
The most important element of their sound, and the one that runs through almost every one of their songs (whether fast or slow) is the groove. There are elements (similar in some ways to the sounds of Manu Dibango and Fela) that presage the more interesting aspects of disco, but unlike those artists Cymande were essentially a rock band, in the way that the Band of Gypsys was a “rock” band, i.e. working with rock-based motifs and settings but always infused with an essential “blackness” you’d never be able to locate on a Pink Floyd record (no matter how many times you played it backward or changed the speed).
It was the kind of blend that was all over the place in the wake of the 1960’s (employing different elements of course, but in essentially the same spirit) yet is rarely heard today, unless you’re familiar with the stylistically fragmented “jam band” scene in which a seriously diluted but no doubt related vibe rears its head now and again.
Though Cymande hailed by and large from the West Indies, they did come together in the UK, in an atmosphere in which groups like the Soft Machine and Mighty Baby were building with similar materials (those including but not restricted to marijuana, borrowed copies of Bitches Brew, sax-o-ma-phone freakout and a certain all encompassing mellowness we may never see the likes of again). Where those groups leaned in a largely soul-less direction (often dominated by pretension and artistic over-reach), Cymande were always soulful, buttering their popcorn with groovy Mayfield-isms (JEEBUS…check out ‘Brothers on the Slide’ from their third LP which sounds like Curtis himself) viewed through a ganja haze.
If you haven’t already scored the LPs, Castle/Sequel in the UK put out a 2CD set that includes all three of their LPs (Cymande, Second Time Round and Promised Heights as well as a couple of previously unissued tracks) and is absolutely essential, and you should get it while you can.
click below to listen