Interview: British Funk Icons Cymande

Steve Scipio and Patrick Patterson revisit their enduring story: from forging their brand of soulful nyah-rock to inspiring hip hop and dance music.

Forming in 1971, Cymande were nine Caribbean-born, London-based musicians who pioneered their own blend of reggae and rastafarian rhythms with soul, funk, rock and jazz to create a sound they called “nyah-rock.” Using the symbol of a dove to convey a message of togetherness in their music, Cymande’s self-titled debut album immediately became a stone cold classic. Their innovative grooves on tracks like “Bra,” “Dove,” and “The Message” touched the hearts and minds of inner-city youths across the UK and particularly the US.

Throughout the ’70s, Cymande toured America with Al Green, Ramsey Lewis, Kool & The Gang and Mandrill, and made history by becoming the first British band to perform at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Cymande have also been much-sampled by the b-boy and house generations, donating their weighty spiritual funk to The Fugees, EPMD, De La Soul, and even The KLF. Testament to their enduring sound, Cymande reformed to record new material and tour once again, bringing some much-needed light and love to the music world.

In this excerpt from their recent RBMA Radio interview, Sceve Scipio and Patrick Patterson revisit their enduring story: from forging their brand of soulful nyah-rock to inspiring hip hop and dance music.

I’d like a little bit of the story of how you met.

Patrick Patterson

Steve and I had a band that played jazz called Meta. It was a four-piece band and included two other members that subsequently left us. Cymande came out of Meta. I think what happened was that we had a show at a place called the Oval House. Meta’s drummer had left. Sam came into sub for us, and that’s how we met him. We subsequently met Mike Rose while playing in Ginger Johnson’s African Drummers; through Mike, we met Pablo, and through Sam, we met Derek, and that was the core of Cymande. After working initially as a six-piece, we brought in Joey Dee, who was the main vocalist; Peter Serreo, who was one of our sax players; and Desmond Atwell later came in.

Steve Scipio

Cymande was always essentially comprised of the six core members that were there right from the beginning. Three additional members were brought in to facilitate the recording, and we named it Cymande afterwards.

Patrick Patterson

I should mention – because sometimes we forget and it’s a bit unfair – an early member of Cymande was a chap called Ray King, who used to have a soul band. He was very active around the place, and he worked with us for a short period in the early days. He was also on the first album as one of the vocalists.

Dave Brubeck - Take Five

What were some of your influences at the time?

Steve Scipio

Our influences musically were varied. Patrick actually started playing at a very, very young age; he was proficient enough to be playing with quite mature and experienced musicians and also touring on the continent from his mid-teens. I started playing a little later, in my mid-to-late teens. Our influences at that time were soul and jazz, particularly Miles Davis and what he was doing around that time in the late ’60s.

When we formed our first band together, Meta, it was Patrick, myself, and a saxophonist. The focus was on playing jazz, and not just playing jazz but also playing lots of time signatures. Again, perhaps reflective of the time, you have “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck, which influenced us with the experimentation with time signatures. Miles Davis was also doing lots of 6/4 and 5/4 and things like that.

Towards the end of Meta, we also started to play with a Nigerian drummer called Ginger Johnson – in the early ’70s, I think; around that time there were a lot of the Nigerian rhythms, polyrhythmic rhythms.

Patrick Patterson

It was West African.

Steve Scipio

That was a big influence on Western music, and it was becoming very attractive to Western audiences. When our time with Ginger Johnson came to an end, we decided we wanted to put together another unit. Not so much a jazz-based unit but one that would be more…

Patrick Patterson

Wider-ranging music, but original all the same.

Steve Scipio

We then invited Mike to join us and he brought Pablo in as a congo player. In that period in the ’70s, there were numerous bands with congo players or percussionists. Sam brought the other saxophonist in, Derek Gibbs, and that comprised the core. We were all Caribbean, so the influences would be pretty much the same, although there may be slight little variations because some of the members were from Jamaica, some like myself and Patrick were from Guyana and St. Vincent. Peter Serreo, he is Trinidadian, so we had the different elements but also because we are all from the Caribbean region, the connectedness was there with the music.

Patrick Patterson

Steve mentioned Pablo. His percussion is quite different because it’s underpinned with rasta rhythms, and I think rasta was an important aspect of the way Cymande’s music evolved. Instead of just straight West African percussion, we had a different slant when it came to our percussive elements.

Can you tell me a little bit about the making of your first album?

Patrick Patterson

We came back from meeting John Schroeder. There are different versions as to how we met. I think he says that he discovered us in a basement. We were in a lot of basements – he might be right. Our album came about through the meeting with John, who loved what he saw and heard. John was an extremely well-known producer. He liked us. He thought that our music was well worth exposure. The great thing about having met John was that he was so committed to our music that he put his money where his mouth was and produced the album. We hadn’t done any real studio work before that and he did great justice to the energy that Cymande is about and the type of music that we played, without interfering with the structures of the sound. He just wanted to get the essence, and I think he managed to do that.

Cymande - Bra

Could you tell me a little bit about the track “Bra”?

Steve Scipio

“Bra” is a colloquial kind of West Indian kind of expression for brother. “Bra,” again, was influenced by some of what Miles Davis was doing; if you listen to the rhythm track, the bassline, it’s very syncopated. It was developed from the bass and rhythm, then the melody and the lyrics and so on were put on top.

Patrick Patterson

One of the things about “Bra,” and many of our tunes, that you might have recognized is that it’s music from a time when civil rights was important. Apart from the fact that we were working this syncopated groove and little jazz influences and elements, we were laying on top of that statements about things that were important to us, or important to our vital community.

Cymande - Dove

What about the track “Dove”?

Steve Scipio

“Dove,” as you know, is a symbol of the band. We have it on all the album sleeves. It really signifies peace and love, which was the kind of message we were trying to get across at the time. That symbol, and the choice of the name Cymande, also had a Caribbean connection because the word Cymande was used in an old Caribbean calypso; it was part of the hook line of that calypso. We took that word. We liked the sound of it, and it was so connected.

The story in the calypso was a competition between two birds: a pigeon and a dove. We liked the dove. The dove won, so we decided to use the dove as our symbol. Also, it connected well with the message of peace and love.

Patrick Patterson

I think the essence of the track is it evokes this concept of calm and peace. I can't exactly remember how we put the melody together, but the whole song is structured around that introductory melody. It evokes a particular atmosphere, I think.

Quite a few of the tracks on the album are sampled by other artists. What are your views on sampling?

Patrick Patterson

I think sampling is a good thing. It gives people who have not had an opportunity to hear particular pieces of music – because it is outside of the body of music that they are accustomed to listen to or like – an opportunity to hear it. Secondly, it brings back music that might come from another era. I mean, many young people who might be introduced to our music would be introduced to it through samples in hip-hop. I think it’s good for the exposure of music that might not have had sufficient exposure, and it’s also good musically, because it’s a great way of blending all sorts of different musical genres.

Steve Scipio

It has been good for us and also, to some extent, cemented in us the idea of doing another album. We felt that things were kind of unfinished where they were left in the ’70s, and with the continued interest in the band… Maybe if that interest wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have felt the urge to do this latest album.

Cymande - Anthracite

Your first three albums came out in quite quick succession in the early ’70s. Can you tell us a little bit about your second album, Second Time Round?

Patrick Patterson

In relation to the second album, we had a little more experience of not only writing but also of recording. We had a clearer vision of where our music should be going. We started to record that after the first tour of America. We had more language in terms of what we wanted to say. We had a wider vocabulary. Some of the songs on Second Time Around didn’t speak simply to our local or national experience but perhaps we had better world perspective. I feel our songs on the second album were deeper, and certainly to me more meaningful. It was nice recording that album.

Cymande - Changes

What was the progression between these two albums and your third album, Promised Heights?

Steve Scipio

If you look at the titles of the album, there's a connectedness between them. You have Cymande and it’s just a statement. Cymande was the introduction of the band. The second album is titled Second Time Around. Then we get to the third album, Promised Heights – it’s part of that development that Patrick touched on with the second album. We felt we were progressing all the time, with the writing, with our playing ability as musicians, and the tours in America were very, very enlightening for us in terms of the quality of the musicianship in the States, from which we learned a great deal. Promised Heights was kind of a realization of getting to where we want to be. The quality of the songs, the lyrics, are much deeper than what had gone before, and also the structure and arrangement of the songs was much more involved.

Patrick Patterson

In listening to [Promised Heights], you might recognize three strands that come out. I think there were at least three rasta tracks on Promised Heights, so we were paying homage to that element. The jazz element came out profoundly. Our soul side also came out. Our writing was more defined, clearer. By the time you get Promised Heights, our lead vocalist had changed. Joey Dee left us around about the second tour of America, and Jimmy Lindsay came in to join us. We no longer had Peter Serreo. Desmond Atwell was still with us. The unit was slightly different, and that itself made the difference.

Cymande - Losin’ Ground

You disbanded in 1974…

Patrick Patterson

We don’t like to say disbanded. We say we took the band off the road. There were a number of reasons for this. After coming back from the United States and doing two well-received tours, including performances at The Apollo… I think we were the first UK black band, if you like, to be able to do that. It was quite an achievement, and we were very proud. We did a week at the Apollo with Jerry Butler, Tyrone Davis, and some other people, and it was one of the high points of our tours of America.

After doing that, the idea of returning to the United Kingdom and not being appreciated by the industry… it didn’t make sense. Steve and I felt that it was either stay at the level that we had achieved or stop for a while and see what happens, take a different course of action. We decided to do that. We didn’t think that there was any great harm to it. After doing certain things, you should not go backwards. You should try to go forwards.

Of course, there was the idea that maybe we should just try to stay in America and work the American circuit. We were all family men. Our lives were here, and we didn’t have the understanding that you could just pick up and make a life in America. That wasn’t in the cards for us, so it was a change of course; do other things, come back to it later.

When did the decision come take the band back on the road?

Patrick Patterson

We'd been thinking about doing another album for quite a few years. We discussed it probably six or seven years ago. We got the core members together but we didn’t make the first step until we had a discussion with John Schroeder. John Schroeder was about to obtain a release of the old catalog in digital format. He was about to do a deal with that, and he spoke to us about it and the idea. We decided that it would make sense to do a fourth album to attach to that the new promotion for the re-release and all that.

That particular deal didn’t materialize, but we made the album with John and Allen anyway. The re-release is now out in digital format, as you might know, and we finished the album long before that.

Talking about the new records. Did you find it was a different process to write it or did you go back to the ways you were used working together before?

Steve Scipio

The new album comprises both new and old material. Patrick and I were quite prolific as writers and continue to be, even during the period when we were not actively on the road as musicians. When we decided we wanted to do this new album we revisited some of that stuff. Fortunately, some of it was recorded, so we were able to listen to it and see what needed to be done to bring it into 2014; on top of that, we also wrote some new material.

Cymande is very much a music of feel and groove. The approach in recording a new album was very much like that of the first three albums: a live recording session with the whole of the rhythm section, keyboards and drummer and congo players laying down the basic rhythm track, and then on top of that we put the melodic instruments: the vocals, the horns and flutes and things like that.

Do you have any particular favorites off the new record?

Patrick Patterson

I like all of the tracks, they’re great, but I have three particular favorites. One of the tracks is called “No Weeping,” sung by Pablo. The idea for that track first came to mind in relation to a personal matter, so it connects to something that is always at the back of my mind. Another of my favorites is a song called “A Simple Act of Faith,” which is a sort of a love song, but once again, it connects to something important to me. And “A Moment for Reflection,” which I think is going to be a really big track long-term. It’s a fantastic instrumental piece. It’s a very good album overall, we feel.

It’s been quite an interesting career for you. If you had to pick one special moment from your entire career, what would it be?

You see the quality of these musicians in the States and you’re like, “What are they doing busking in the road?!”

Steve Scipio

Steve Scipio

In terms of our musical development, it’s a difficult one, because there are many highs. I enjoyed the period when I played with a South African band called Jabula. It was a very enlightening period for me as a musician because it exposed me to another approach to music. South African music tends to be very jazz-influenced, but it’s a mixture of the jazz and the rhythm that creates that very unique sound. You can hear Abdullah Ibrahim and immediately, it’s recognizable. You listen to Graceland by Paul Simon, and immediately recognize that rhythm as South African. I learned a lot during that period and I also felt good because we were very active within the anti-Apartheid movement. We did a lot of the shows and things promoting the fight against the injustice that was going on in South Africa.

I would also say the exposure to music in America was also a very enlightening experience, because coming from somewhere like England where you’re playing small venues to 100 people and then you go to the States and see these massive stadiums… And not only that, but the quality of the musicianship. You see these guys and you’re like, “What are they doing busking in the road?!”

Patrick Patterson

Well, I have three. The front end and the back of Cymande, of course. The experience in the ’70s with Cymande [and] this particular achievement of finishing a new album with the core members of Cymande, adding some of the players who we have great respect for to the mix and coming out with an album that we think is really wonderful.

In the middle of that, I was in a second band in the ’80s called View From the Hill. The reason View From the Hill is important is because Trevor White, who sings with us, and I managed to achieve what I would have liked to have achieved with Cymande in the ’70s, which was a sort of recognition and respect as a recording entity in the United Kingdom. View From the Hill had two successful singles, “No Conversation” and “I Am No Rebel.” We made three albums. The first one was In Time, with some really excellent producers. We were fortunate enough not to have to do club dates. The only dates we did were concerts: Wembley, Hammersmith Odeon, and that sort of thing.

We came off the road as Cymande in 1975, and I wanted to return to the music business when we came back with View From the Hill in 1985 or 86. I often say that the British music industry has no time for black music and even less time for black musicians, so View From the Hill for me was very important in that regard. We’ve brought Cymande back now and hope that we can achieve an upward movement because that’s our principle, our pride and our passion.

By Red Bull Music Academy on December 11, 2014

On a different note