Cymande – Bra

3rd August 2021 · 1970s, 1972, Funk, Music, Soul

The cowbell is not an instrument you naturally associate with funk. And cowbell solos are as rare as hens’ teeth… unless you’re listening to this smooth groove by British funksters Cymande.

They released three cult albums in a three-year spurt of activity in the early 1970s, taking funk and soul and stirring in all sorts of other influences – West African and Rastafarian rhythms, rock and reggae, jazz and calypso.

It was a heady brew they called Nyah Rock.

The nine-man lineup, formed in 1971 by Steve Scipio (bass) and Patrick Patterson (guitar) from the ashes of a jazz quartet called Meta, also comprised Sam Kelly (drums), and Mike Rose (alto, flute, bongos), Pablo Gonsales (congas) and Derek Gibbs (alto/soprano sax), Peter Serreo (tenor sax), Joey Dee (vocals, percussion) and Ray King (vocals, percussion), who left after their debut album – from where this track is taken.

Their style appealed more naturally to black audiences in America, where their albums made the charts, and they made history in 1973 by becoming the first British band to headline the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, going on to appear on Soul Train and touring with Al Green, Mandrill, Kool & The Gang and jazz man Ramsey Lewis.

Back home in Britain, by contrast, audiences remained largely immune to their increasingly politicised brand of funk and they broke up in 1974, disilllusioned by their failure to break through here and unwilling to relocate to America with their families.

There’s a happy ending though: they were rediscovered in the Eighties, both by Britain’s rare groove scene and by early hip hop DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc who chopped some of their tunes and used them as breakbeats.

They went on to be sampled by other rap acts, most famously De La Soul on Change In Speak on their landmark album 3 Feet High And Rising and – illegally – by The Fugees, earning founders Scipio and Patterson a lucrative settlement.

Inspired by their new-found recognition, the band re-formed a decade ago with most of the original members and released a new album in 2015 – their first in 41 years – and toured the USA for the first time since 1973. They’re still together today, though Gonsales and early member Trevor White both died in 2020.

It’s been hard to choose a tune as their music spans so many genres – Zion I is a Rastafarian chant that could have been made by The Congos, and Dove is an extraordinary concoction of electric guitar, tambourines and percussion that sounds like it was recorded by a completely different group, while The Message (not that one) is a genuine funk workout.