Cymande – the most influential band you’ve never heard of

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Lovingly directed by documentary filmmaker and committed Cymande fanatic Tim Mackenzie-Smith, To recover interviews the famous fans of the group and explains why it took them 40 years to receive the credit they are due.

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Comprising up to nine members, many of whom are children of the Windrush generation, Cymande formed in the early 1970s, mixing percussive music from the African diaspora with more contemporary sounds. The effect is multi-layered, funky and hypnotic, combining the spirituality of Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders with builds and breaks that wouldn’t seem out of place in James Brown’s backup.

Composer and producer John Schroeder first heard them live by chance in 1972 and insisted on recording and producing their first album. The self-titled LP, with its iconic illustrated cover, featured tracks like Dove, The message and Bra. These will then be mined for samples by artists like De La Soul, Fugees, Wu-Tang Clan, MC Solaar and Ruthless Rap Assassins, many of whom feature in the documentary sharing their infatuation with the band. DJ Cut Chemist calls Cymande the “secret password”.

Despite the excitement that has since built up around it, the album’s original UK release didn’t make waves – their music didn’t fit any archetypal genre, and with no airplay on radio and television, they struggled to break through. America, however, got the message. Cymande’s debut rocketed up the Billboard charts, leading to invitations to tour with Al Green and headlining New York’s Apollo Theater. Two more albums followed, but the British music industry remained unmoved.

With families to care for and bills to pay, the band decided to go their separate ways. Founding members Patrick Patterson and Steve Scipio became lawyers, drummer Sam Kelly and flautist Mike Rose became session musicians. Saxophonist Derek Gibbs retired his instrument and became an electrician. Percussionist Pablo Gonsales, as he explains in the film, waited, feeling that a reunion was inevitable, knowing that in time Cymande would be appreciated in Britain and around the world.

It took decades, but during their long hiatus, Cymande’s legend grew. DJs kept playing them, producers kept sampling them, and with the help of YouTube and Spotify, curious listeners began tracing those samples back to their source. They reformed in 2015, releasing a new album and touring the UK, introducing a new generation to their unique sound and reuniting fans who had been waiting to see them live for 40 years.

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Mackenzie-Smith’s documentary, and an imminent project to reissue their old catalog, will help secure Cymande’s place in music history, and many more listeners will feel the thrill of hearing them for the first time.

Deb Grant is a radio host and writer

@djdebgrant

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