Cymande in the early 1970s

Why did the music industry ignore some of the brightest black talent in Britain for years? That’s the key question behind a new documentary film about south London funk outfit Cymande.

In the early 1970s, the six-piece band knocked out soul music so heavy that nearly everyone who heard them thought they must be from the US.

But it was distinctive too. Steve Scipio’s basslines brought something new to funk—an intricate playing style incorporating his Caribbean and African heritage.

Cymande was considered so “authentic” that it toured the biggest venues in the US, warming up for some of the foremost soul acts in the world.

But back home the band was barely recognised. Music executives here hardly concealed their contempt for black Britain.

They saw little commercial value in artists such as Cymande and wrote off whole genres, including reggae, entirely.

And the political climate here was just as sour. The fascist National Front was on the march–even through Cymande’s native Brixton.

Meanwhile, official politics settled on the belief that migrants were a “problem” that needed to be “controlled”.

In these circumstances Cymande, a band forged by migration, decided to call it a day in 1973. It had recorded just three albums, all of them brilliant.

That might have been the end of the story–but it wasn’t.

More than a decade after  it split Cymande’s music found a new audience in an underground funk scene that spread from London.

Tracks such as Bra, The Message and Fug were now to be heard at rare groove clubs and illegal warehouse parties.

One track in particular, Brothers On The Slide, caught the imagination of both enthusiasts and dancers.

It’s widely interpreted as an attack on those black people who undermined the struggle for liberation by collaborating with the state.

The track’s bass intro was massively popular, and director Tim MacKenzie-Smith has turned it into something of a motif in his film.

His film follows the renewed popularity of Cymande’s music as it spread to hip hop DJs and producers that had recently embraced sampling.

There’s a great interview with Manchester rappers The Ruthless Rap Assassins.

In 1990, it looped the opening bars of The Message and used it to tell a devasting tale of how racism destroyed the lives of their parent’s generation.

The track, And It Wasn’t A Dream was a British hip hop hit. But it was New York’s De La Soul that put Cymande back in the big time.

It sampled the bass and percussion from the opening of Bra for its track Change In Speak. It featured on its first album, which sold in the millions.

With its leftfield lyrics and unusual samples, the album transformed hip hop and brought it to a whole new audience.

And suddenly, a lot of people wanted to know about Cymande. The film takes up the story as the band members find that once again, they are in demand.

And it is here that the story is at its most touching. Some of them had moved on from music entirely. All had reconciled themselves to the idea that their work was lost in history.

But by the documentary’s end they are reunited on stage at festivals, including in their own Lambeth. Like every soul fan, I’m overjoyed at the recognition, however belated, for Cymande.

But I also want to remember the bitterness which the band expressed in Bra. “They might have said we’re lying.

“No matter how hard we try. “Those who have watched us crying. Can pray that the helpless die. “But it’s alright. We can still go on.”

Getting It Back: The Story Of Cymande is in cinemas now

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