‘Black musicians in their own country were not listened to’


The band Cymande in the early 1970s.Image Getty

The story of British funk and soul band Cymande is one of hope, success, deception, oblivion, re-evaluation and a second life. In the first half of the 1970s, Cymande, consisting of six British migrant children from the Caribbean, recorded three albums which did particularly well in the US. But in their own country the band had so little success that Cymande quit in 1974. “Ho ho, we never really stopped, we just went and did something else in between,” says guitarist Patrick Patterson (72), who founded Cymande in 1971 with his friend Steve Scipio.

That ‘while’ lasted about forty years, but Cymande has been active again since 2012. And now there is a nice documentary, Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande, created by Tim Mackenzie-Smith, which premiered at the US SXSW Festival in March this year. The accompanying shows gave the band enthusiastic reactions and various performances, such as at the weekend during the festival Into The Great Wide Open in Vlieland.

“Yes, it’s fantastic, but we knew we were good. And also that we would come back one day,” Patterson says via Zoom from Florida, where he combines “business with visiting friends.”

Dignity

Like bassist Scipio, he entered the legal profession in the 1970s, they did well and both moved to Anguilla, an island near Sint Maarten in the Antilles. “Forty years ago, we were not taken seriously in our own country. So we put Cymande on hiatus to do something else. We wanted to build our own existence, and if it didn’t work with our music, then with something else. One set up an electricity company and we went straight. We never considered disbanding Cymande and demanding benefits, which was far below our dignity.’

The word dignity comes up often with Patterson. ‘Dignity is for me the key word in Cymande’s story, or rather the deprivation of it. We, black musicians, were not listened to at all in our own country. Then we’d come back from an American tour, we’d be supporting Al Green in front of 30,000 people, and then we couldn’t even get into the smallest rooms here. Radio and television were not waiting for us in Britain in the early 1970s. It was tight for British black musicians.’

That would change when Bob Marley broke through from the same Caribbean in the late 1970s. ‘But reggae wasn’t that well known when we started, not even in London. You saw Rastas, and Cymande also knew Jamaican reggae influences, but it wasn’t much.’

From the beginning, the band brought a beautiful sounding symbiosis of jazz, funk and soul, live and on record. Warm, rhythmically smooth, with room for extended Patterson guitar solos, as in deafone of the prize songs on the classic debut album.

Connections in the United States

Cymande owed much to producer John Schroeder, who saw the men play in 1971 and wanted to make a record with them. ‘He had the right contacts in America and before we knew it we had an album on an American label and we were allowed to play there too.’

It was a gift to Patterson and the rest of the band. “Perhaps those two tours were the best weeks of our lives. First as support for Al Green, and then as the first British band to play a week at the Apollo in the New York district of Harlem, supporting Jerry Butler. We had never seen the audience dance so well to our music.’

Cymande today, with Patrick Patterson bottom right.  Picture

Cymande today, with Patrick Patterson bottom right.

But then they returned to cold London in 1973 and nothing seemed to have changed. “The media still pretended we didn’t exist. Black music was doing really well, but only American. O’Jays, Stevie Wonder, Three Degrees, it works. No one would know there were Brits who could make good black music.’

Did Cymande quit after three albums in four years out of frustration? ‘No, we just saw it as a logical development. We had run into all kinds of blockades in England for years. Basically, the entire music establishment was just as racist as the police and the rest of the government. We learned to deal with that early on.

‘Okay, they didn’t want our music? Now let’s do something else. Cymande’s time had not yet come.’

Pioneering work

What Patterson and the other band members didn’t know is that, meanwhile, the DJs in New York’s clubs are playing their song brac had discovered. The five minute track had a great funky break that you could stretch infinitely by holding it to the same break you chose from another copy of the same record. By numbers like brac DJs developed the endless disco mix and laid the foundation for breakdancing and hip-hop.

‘Actually, it only became clear to me that our music was groundbreaking when we saw the documentary. In it, all the DJs from then and now who used our music as a tool for their sets give their opinion.’

Samples from brac and The message appeared in hip hop songs by De La Soul, The Fugees and MC Solaar. ‘Our children made it up, we didn’t know anything about it.’

That Cymande’s records in the late eighties and early nineties were highly sought after by British DJs in the so-called strange groovescene, Patterson knew. ‘Hip-hop wasn’t that big in the UK at the time. There was a lot of dancing in trendy clubs for old, obscure souls. The lesser known James Brown tracks and funk from us too. Weird groove was the hippest dance music before the hip-hop and house breakthrough around 1990.’

Patterson liked that songs liked The message landed on compilation LPs with weird groove songs. He is still waiting for the statement.

Try again

‘I just carried on with my work and occasionally played in a band. But I thought it was hopeful that a whole new generation had taken up our music after all. So when we were all heading towards retirement I thought let’s try again as Cymande.’

It was around 2012, almost 40 years after the last performances. “Now the small clubs wanted us. And we also made another record’. this album A simple act of faith (2015), according to Patterson, we should immediately forget. “We needed a few more hours of play, it went too fast.”

More gave Cymande the meeting with director Mackenzie-Smith. “He had made a documentary for the BBC in 2017 about the boxer Anthony Joshua, which featured our music. I liked it so much that we approached him. He was a fan of our music and wanted to do a documentary with us, so everything came together nicely.’

Working on the film, which was greatly delayed by corona, Patterson was reinforced in the idea that Cymande’s music is truly special. “I knew our time would come. But that our music is still so isolated and that the young people are now going crazy Brothers on the slide or The message I think beautiful. It’s so nice to get people dancing after all these years to music that nobody wanted forty years ago. Cymande is back. We will be in the studio with a very famous producer at the end of this year. I won’t say who, but believe me, we’re going to make a very nice record.’

Cymande plays this weekend at the Into The Great Wide Open in Vlieland.

The documentary Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande has already been shown in some art houses and will also be shown at Into The Great Wide Open.

To listen to again and again

De La Soul used Cymande’s song Bra in 1989 on their (unfortunately not available for streaming) Change in Speak. And in 1996 The Fugees borrowed deaf for the title track of the album The score. Both songs are from the great debut album cymande from 1972. It’s a beloved but also hard-to-find record for DJs and funk lovers. Partisan, Cymande’s new label, promises not only new work, but well-kept reissues of the first three albums, now collectibles.

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