Cymande growing old gracefully

  • Themes: Jazz

A new documentary charts the band’s journey from obscurity to unexpected success.

Cymande reunion.
Cymande reunion. Credit: Kingsley Davis / Alamy Stock Photo

Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande, 2024 directed by Tim MacKenzie-Smith

Musically, this is the age of the second act – sometimes even the third or fourth. The cultural exhaustion that leads the film industry to produce unoriginal remakes and seemingly endless biopics of pop stars from days gone by also plagues the music industry. It is haunted by the past, or what should be consigned to the past.

Nostalgia is lucrative. A substantial proportion of current arena tours involve washed-up acts from the latter half of the last century. The Rolling Stones still regularly sell out stadiums, as do Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Sting, U2, et al. A purpose-built stadium has been thrown up in London exclusively for interminable hologram ABBA concerts.

It certainly makes one wonder, do fans demand nostalgic slop or are the has-beens incapable of growing old gracefully?

For every band that got the recognition it deserved at the time and broke into the remake industry, there are many who remained under the radar. That is why Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande, a new documentary charting the band’s journey from obscurity to unexpected success, is a triumph of the second act: the second act as it should be. This is not a tired group touring in pursuit of gratuitous riches and worldly wealth, but a set of musicians finally receiving the praise and adulation they deserved at the time, from new generations who have come to their music through numerous and varied channels. I remember waking from the pleasant somnambulance of childhood with the realisation that I knew every Beatles song without actually knowing it was composed by Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and, occasionally, Starr. Fans of the concentric worlds of disco, hip-hop, rap and house will have the same dawning realisation with the work of Cymande.

Cymande (the calypso word for ‘dove’) was formed in the tense atmosphere of Brixton in south London in 1971. The Afro-Caribbean community, who had arrived on HMS Windrush after heeding the call to come and help rebuild the mother country after the Second World War, had met with cold weather and, all too often, a colder reception. That’s putting it mildly, as some particularly damning segments of this film prove. With evocative shots of London terraces in the 1960s and early 1970s shown over early calypso music, this film, directed by Tim Mackenzie-Smith, shrewdly juxtaposes Caribbean vibrancy with a monochromatic Britain. The Windrush passengers had been promised a better life; in many cases, quite the reverse unfolded. The band’s founding bassist Steve Scipio tells a toe-curling story about his father, who was a baker, being denied work because black hands were not allowed in the dough. Moments like this jolt the viewer out of the usual confines of a music documentary, and the musical element is more powerful for it.

Like so many great bands, the history of Cymande revolves around a basement and the magnetic hums reverberating from it. Scipio, along with guitarist Patrick Patterson – both of whom became lawyers when the music dried up – started to play with friends in the neighbourhood. Quickly, a regular small orchestra of nine or so musicians would congregate and the rhythms of calypso, the drive of funk, the melodic figurings of jazz would come resonating out of an unlikely London townhouse.

The private jams turned into club gigs around London and even in some working men’s clubs in the North; one can only imagine the reception they got. On top of Scipio and Patterson, the band was composed of singer Ray King, saxophonist Derek Gibbs, percussionist Joey Dee, saxophonist Peter Serreo, conga player Pablo Gonsales, drummer Sam Kelly, and flautist/percussionist Mike ‘Bami’ Rose. Kelly and Rose went on to have the most successful music careers, the former playing with everyone from Chaka Khan to Dr John. ‘Bami’ has been a staple in Jools Holland’s band since the late nineties.

Getting It Back does a good job of showing how Cymande’s music resists easy categorisation. Cymande is often called a ‘funk’ band. The ‘funk’ is a musical expression of the character of worship in African American Pentecostalism – feeling the ‘funk’ is much the same as feeling the holy spirit. This is what the literary and music critic Albert Murray called ‘paroxysms of ecstasy’ in the black church. Musician Teddy Pendergrass writes in his memoir: ‘We talk today about the innovations in rhythm made by great jazz musicians and pioneers like James Brown, but the truth is, they had nothing on a congregation going full force in praise of the Lord.’

In Groove Theory: The Blues Foundation of Funk, Tony Bolden, an associate professor of African American literature and culture at the University of Alabama, argues that ‘swing’ and ‘funk’ are as synonymous as the words ‘red’ and ‘crimson’. His thesis is that funk is art and its creators were intellectuals and artists. The details, unfortunately, descend into the postmodern pomposity of jargon like ‘alterity’, ‘axiology’ and have subheadings like ‘Balance: Contrariety as Aesthetic and Philosophical Inscription’. Duke Ellington and Irving Mills said it better: ‘It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing’.

This film exists because the work of Cymande was lost; it is billed as ‘a story of musical survival’. The three albums they released, Cymande (1972), Second Time Round (1973), Promised Heights (1974) stand like a trident as a testament to a truly original fusion of sounds. Lacking a neat term, ‘nyah rock’ emerged among some circles. Their eponymous debut album is an island hop through the Caribbean on an American boat. There are spots of land with reggae-infused bass lines and calypso congas and flutes as on ‘Zion I’. Then back on the boat to find Louisiana break beats like ‘The Message’ and tight Memphis horn sections as on the huge ‘Bra’. Hints of London come through when the melodies turn psychedelic or slow: the ‘Albatross’-like undulations of ‘One More’ or the ten-minute jam ‘Dove’.

Second Time Round, like the first, has beautiful artwork playing on the dove motif. The atmosphere is equally joyful, the beats are as danceable. There aren’t any outright hits but that’s not an issue. Promised Land contains their most notable hit ‘Brothers On The Slide’. Upon hearing it, you’d be surprised to learn that it’s not the theme of a titular Blaxploitation film left to obscurity, so American in feel is it.

Cymande made three albums and that was that. The band argue that Britain wasn’t ready for their sound and that racism played an important part in keeping it that way; they notoriously couldn’t make it onto British television. It wasn’t until hip-hop took off in the mid-to-late eighties that the world was reminded of Cymande. De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, The Fugees, Gang Starr were all deeply influenced by their originality. A stand out from Getting It Back is a scene where DJ Jazzy Jay shows how he would play Cymande’s ‘Bra’ in Brooklyn clubs. He would have two copies of the record and mix between the turntables to extend the break. It’s strange to think that such a simple discovery has changed music so profoundly. Almost all modern music is informed by the way hip-hop DJs used technology to synthesise sounds and create new music from old songs. Add to this the invention of drum machines and digital software that makes it easier than ever to record music and one can see where a lot of the ‘feel’ of modern music comes from. Unfortunately, this has often been to the detriment of complexity and a deep comprehension of musical dynamics. In many cases, the necessity of playing an instrument and understanding musical notation has been made redundant. But when DJs play Cymande, beautiful horns and intricate rhythms return along with the simplicity and vitality that gets people onto the dancefloor.

Philip Larkin, one of Britain’s greatest poets of the latter half of the 20th century, who also doubled up as the Daily Telegraph’s jazz critic from 1961-71, used this appropriate test of musical quality: ‘My critical principle has been Eddie Condon’s “As it enters the ear, does it come in like broken glass or does it come in like honey?”.’ By that yardstick, Cymande is straight from the comb. Larkin released his last poetry collection High Windows in the same year that Cymande released their last album. Clive James called High Windows ‘despair made beautiful’. The work of Cymande, transfiguring the difficulties of the Windrush generation into hopeful, powerful art rather than giving into cynicism, is much the same.


Max Mitchell