How can an album be a classic when the majority of people have never heard of it, or even the band that created it? Often the answer is to do with influence; when a loved cult classic transforms into a hidden gem as a small, but themselves influential, group of people begin to champion an album helping to build its renown. In the case of the self-titled debut by Cymande, that is only half of the equation as the importance of Cymande in their own time may not have been deeply felt, but it is no less true. We therefore look back to the early 1970s when a little known group of musicians produced an exceptional album that would stand out in its own time and, over the years, become a cherished source of influence on some of the biggest names in music.
Formed by school friends Patrick Patterson and Steve Scipio in South London in 1971, the original lineup of Cymande fluctuated slightly but centred on eight or nine members, all originally from Caribbean countries. Bringing together a large group, all from different cultures but each sharing a common background of immigration, Cymande’s musical style was widely varied but their ethos was singular.
Recorded after Producer John Schroeder overheard them practising and booked them time to lay down some tracks on tape, ‘Cymande’ was recorded at a time when the only Black music making it to the top of the UK charts in 1971 was Jimi Hendrix, The Supremes and The Four Tops, and two volumes of ‘Motown Chartbusters’. This in a year that saw classics such as Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, The Family Stone’s reply ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, and Funkadelic beam ‘Maggotbrain’ from somewhere out in the universe onto US stereos. Thus, while a strand of socially conscious, proactively anti-racist and fiercely proud Black Soul and Funk was being created in the US, only the most packaged Black Pop, as good as it may be, was making waves in the UK.
When ‘Cymande’ was released in 1972 it came as no surprise that it did not bother the UK charts. Instead, it was picked up across the Atlantic, reaching No. 85 on the Billboard Top 200, and as high as 24 on the Soul Albums chart. So how did this album, virtually ignored in Britain, manage to pick up ears in the US?
Opening with an enticing groove of percussion and bass, ‘Zion I’ folds in a looping, celebratory group vocal before a flute joins for the breakdown and final verse. Immediately, the Rastafari influence is writ large. Released two years before The Wailers’ first release on Island, ‘Catch A Fire’, the majority of the British public were yet to catch on to Reggae and thus the predominant themes of Rastafari influenced music. ‘Zion I’ immediately speaks to Cymande’s shared Caribbean culture, elevating it, celebrating it, and sharing it from the off.
From there, Cymande enter into a bright but steady-paced Soul groove with ‘One More’ while ‘Getting It Back’ is a buoyant Funk-leaning Soul track that nonetheless tells an anxious tale of being passed by and stuck in a rut. Both tracks are enigmatic, able to be interpreted as optimistic or melancholic depending on the listeners own mood. ‘Listen’ feels much in keeping with the socially-conscious Soul sounds coming from the US at the time though accompanied by rhythmic congas. This close fit with American sounds no doubt speaks to why the album was picked up more receptively in the US, with Cymande securing a US tour in support of Al Green and soon becoming the first British band to headline the famed The Apollo in Harlem, NY.
The back half of ‘Cymande’ is where things take a real turn, on a trio of tracks; ‘Dove’, ‘Bra’, and ‘The Message’. The eleven minute ‘Dove’ opens with an extended electric guitar intro that sonically fits in with many of the charting bands of the day before a solid rhythmic groove joins and vocal chants begin to loop in and out. Part Jazz, part Funk the track is a slowly transforming odyssey that celebrates the symbol of peace for which the band took the name Cymande.
Twenty-four years after its release, this little known instrumental jam would become recognisable to millions of people around the world as it was sampled by The Fugees on the title track of their album ‘The Score’, at the time of its release in 1996 the best-selling Hip Hop album ever. That is where we enter the second act of the importance of ‘Cymande’. One of the first tracks on ‘Cymande’ to be regularly sampled was ‘Bra’, in part thanks to its extended drum and bass breakdown that allowed an easy cut. The earliest notable sample is from 1985 when The Sugarhill Gang picked up the bass for ‘Work, Work, The Body’ while the following year the same bass part would appear in Raze’s ‘Jack The Groove’, an early House classic. Alongside ‘Dove’ and ‘The Message’, these three tracks alone were sampled by De La Soul, Gang Starr, Wu Tang Clan, and MC Solaar. Thus, while the short lived Cymande separated in 1974, their music began to be heard by a broader audience nearly twenty years later thanks to sampling by crate-digging Black artists in the US.
A tale of two acts, and two continents. ‘Cymande’ gained some traction in the US, but ultimately the lack of interest in the UK resulted in the band struggling to push to greater things while suffering through racism and a disinterested UK music industry system that showed few signs of supporting anything by Black artists. In many ways, the story of Cymande is the story of how music by Black artists so often becomes music for Black people. In the US, securing a Black audience was enough to secure success, whereas in the UK, with its smaller population and even further reduced access to media for ethnic minorities, success was systemically unavailable. It was not until the band’s sound was picked up by US based Black artists working in a genre that would have “crossover success” that their music would be considered, enjoyed and celebrated more widely.
Musically, Cymande were not ahead of their time. Instead, they were perfectly placed to enjoy the fruits of their talents as the Funk, Soul, Jazz and Calypso influences on ‘Cymande’ both weave into the rich vein of music coming from America at the time but also help them stand out from the crowd with an album that is inviting and engaging throughout. However, a disinterested, slow to evolve, and systemically racist industry system in Britain stalled success. Over decades, Britain played catchup to America as British audiences of all races picked up on music from Black artists in America, with the end result that a pioneering British act was repackaged for us via samples. It’s a damning indictment, and yet also a reason to celebrate the fact that the locked-in rhythmic grooves, exploratory guitar and flute, and celebration of a symbol of peace that is ‘Cymande’ was too good to be kept down forever. A true classic.