360°Sound caught up Tim Mackenzie-Smith, director of the engrossing new documentary on British funk group Cymande entitled Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande, which made its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The group released three classic albums in the early 1970s before splitting up. However, their music would resurface as samples in hip-hop songs by The Fugees, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, and others. This contributed to the group of Afro-Caribbean immigrants reforming 40 years later.
Cymande – the name derives from the calypso word for “dove” – has been playing gigs during SXSW all week here in Austin. The SXSW artist profile calls them the “greatest band you’ve never heard of…unsung heroes whose music was political, spiritual, and generations ahead of its time.”
Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande features interviews with the band members, as well as everyone from rapper Masta Ace and Kool DJ Red Alert to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and producer Mark Ronson. “People have been going in not knowing about this band and coming out with a whole new perspective,” Mackenzie-Smith told 360°Sound. In this exclusive interview, the director talks about his introduction to the band, their unique sound, their influence on hip-hop, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: What’s the reaction to your Cymande film been like so far?
Tim Mackenzie-Smith: It’s been interesting because it’s mixture of people who have been desperate to see it because they love the music and those who heard about it but don’t know anything about the music. Some people came into it and were like, ‘I can’t believe I don’t know these guys, why don’t I know these guys?’ They’re saying, ‘I’m immediately going home and listening to them,’ which is kind of what the aim has been with the film.
For 25 years, I’ve been telling people about this band. If I had a party at my house we’re putting on [Cymande], and people are going, ‘How have I not heard of these guys?’ Or they’ll go, ‘Oh man, that’s the thing that was sampled by so and so.’ We’re doing that on a bigger scale. It’s something I’ve always done my whole adult life [laughs]. The reaction has been great.
What was your introduction to the band?
For me, it was a mixtape that was being passed around my college. It didn’t have a track listing on it, but there were two tunes on there in particular that I absolutely loved, and I had no idea who they were by. One of them, I found out later was “Bra” by Cymande, and the other one was “Fug” by Cymande, but I didn’t know who they were for years until I actually moved in with a guy who was a proper collector. He was playing me a 7-inch – I think it was “Brothers on the Slide” – that he had just bought by this band called Cymande.
I was like, ‘This is amazing, who is this band?’ I went to check them out and get the album, and then I hear “Bra,” and I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is that tune!’ The tune I’ve been loving for all these years and finally, I know who it is. It’s amazing what music does to you. I have an image burned into my mind of the first time I listened to that song on that tape. I was walking with my Walkman toward Richmond [Editor’s note: Go Greyhounds!] along the River Thames in London. I can still see the whole moment and all of the surroundings; it’s incredible. Probably 28 years ago and I can still visualize it. And that’s something we wanted to bring to the film — the way that you find something you love, and it can kind of change your life.
I think calling Cymande a funk band doesn’t do them justice because they blended so many different styles – jazz, rock, calypso, African music. What genre is Cymande?
They are a genre called Cymande [laughs]. They are unique, and they blend all those musical styles. Their own experiences and backgrounds came into creating this really unique blend. As you say, there’s funk elements, there’s calypso elements, there’s jazz elements, there’s rock elements. There’s some elements where you think, ‘My God, this could easily be Santana or The Doors.’ Ultimately, unmistakably, they are Cymande. They have their own genre all to their own.
The documentary discusses the abhorrent racism that Cymande experienced in London in the 1970s. Talk about the importance of putting the band in a historical context and showing what they had to overcome.
Often, in music documentaries, the conflict comes from intra-band kind of dynamics, or the kind of tried-and-trusted journey of musicians getting too big too fast and then having a fall. The conflicts here came from external forces. They were up against institutions that were designed to keep them down, from the moment they arrived in the UK. That translated itself to the music business and the surroundings of the music business, trying to get heard, just even getting decent gigs.
People were not interested in a Black British band. They were interested in Black-American artists. Blues artists were coming over quite a lot obviously, after the British blues guys who were inspired by them in the ‘60s. In the UK, there was no respect for their own talent. They couldn’t get on the television. They couldn’t get on the radio. It was, unfortunately, part of the experience that they found in all walks of their life.
Cymande had some success in the United States. Their first couple albums as well as some singles charted. What was their reception like in the U.S. in the ‘70s?
Their reception was great in the college radio and R&B charts. Every time they came over, they would go on tour with the likes of Al Green. They were playing stadiums. They were getting the feeling that the ball was really rolling. The problem came when they went home.
They did two American tours in ’73, but every time they went home, they couldn’t even get a gig. It was a stark contrast between the reception in the states and in the UK. They were tired of constantly battling and they took that break. They never intended for it to be quite so long. They were just a little bit burnt out. As [conga player] Pablo [Gonsales] says in the film, any artist would be frustrated when you’re making good music, but you’re just not getting through. And, as he put it, not fulfilling your destiny. They decided they’d take a break, and it lasted 40 years.
Talk about Cymande’s influence on hip-hop and their rediscovery through sampling.
Each new generation that came along sort of found something in Cymande’s music that they could use. The birth of hip-hop was starting when the band was over in the states. In those days of the early block parties and all the DJ crews, one song in particular, “Bra,” became, as Jazzy Jay says, one of hip-hop’s golden crates. It was everywhere.
As people were experimenting with using two turntables and extending tracks, the breakdown section in that song was absolutely perfect for that. Jazzy Jay said that song would be lasting 15 minutes because they just keep going back and forth and back and forth. They found that tune through the discos as well.
It started with “Bra.” But the next generation that was huge was sampling which came in the early to mid-’80s. These are people who were digging into their parents’ record collection and finding stuff that they might have heard as kids that they wanted to have a go at reworking. Prince Paul talks in the film about repurposing songs that you grew up with into something new. It was a really creative time that a lot of Cymande’s music was a part of.
Cymande is still going today. I saw they recently signed a deal with Partisan Records.
The aim is to record an album this year. Hopefully, there will be some more announcements about that. They’re back on the road. Like everyone else, they barely played over the last couple of years, and they sadly lost Pablo in 2020, who was their inimitable, amazing percussionist who had brought so much to the spirit and mystique of the band.
As they say in the film, they don’t feel it’s over. They’re going to keep going. It’s an exciting thing to be part of. I’m very proud that the work we’ve put in over the last few years might have contributed to people taking a look at them. If our film means that even one new person gets into them, then I’ll feel we’ve achieved something.