Anatomy of THE Groove: “When You Gonna Learn” by Jamiroquai

Jamiroquai were probably the most commercially successful funk revivalists to come out of the UK acid jazz scene-right behind Incognito and Brand New Heavies in terms of influence.  The core rhythm section of the band consisted of lead singer Jason Kay,keyboardist Toby Smith and bassist Stuart Zender. Their sound was defined by the presence of the aboriginal Australian instrument the didgeridoo,played by Wallace Buchanan in the band. Visually,they were (and still are) known for Mr.Kay’s huge feathered hats. This gave them a distinctive look and approach to their jazz-funk sound.

My own experience with Jamiroquai is hard to condense,but important to the musical focus of this entire blog. During 1996,I was at Strawberries Records when a young,friendly employee named Jeb started discussing funk and jazz music with me. At the time,it was not a conversation I was expecting. He enthusiastically mentioned a band named Jamiroquai. They had a huge record out at the time called “Virtual Insanity”. The album he recommended was their then newest called Travelling Without Moving. My mom and I in particular were very enthusiastic about the band. With me even encouraging her to seek out their previous two albums. It was one of a few times our musical interests interlinked.

Over the next few years,my relationship with Jamiroquai was complicated by the musical zeitgeist of the late 90’s. With the written music press being the only way for most people to learn about music at the time,it was all too easy to be too informed by someone else’s subjective opinion. Jamiroquai were heavily criticized for two things. One was about Jay Kay as a white English man seemingly appropriating black American funk/disco styles.. Another was that the sociopolitical/environmentally based lyrics to Jamiroquai’s songs were seen as hypocritical due to Kay’s seemingly materialistic and drug obsessed attitude.

This was very confusing for me personally. Jamiroquai were the only new band I heard at the time who had the hopeful messages and strong Afro jazz/funk instrumental ethics in their music at the time. Most other newer music at the time were based in some variety of hip-hop or alternative/grunge rock. And where messages were present,they were often presented in what came across as a nihilistic and downbeat. That sense of musical starvation I personally experienced then motivated me to delve deep into Jamiroquai songs such as the opening track to their debut album “When You Gonna Learn?”

A hi hat heavy swinging drum opens the song with a droning didgeridoo solo over it. That solo soon gives way to a violin solo before the percussion and snaky bass line of the main song comes in in with a blasting horn chart. The violin,horn charts and percussive rhythm interact throughout the refrain-all before coming to a jaunty,horn fueled gallop on the refrain,accented itself by a descending flute solo. Wallace Buchanan’s didgeridoo takes a solo over the isolated drum/percussion rhythm before Stuart Zender’s bass line brings in another refrain/choral exchange for the song to fade out on.

The title of the Jamiroquai album this comes from is Emergency On Planet Earth. This opening song both musically and lyrically speaks to the potential for environmental destruction if we don’t learn to “play it nature’s way” as Jay Kay warns. It still amazes me to hear the multi ethnic fusions of Afrocentric percussion,jazzy styling’s and sunny melodic funk elements coming out of any nation on Earth during a time when most popular music seemed to be at its darkest and dreariest. Its songs such as this that really allowed Jamiroquai to become strong life support for me in a time when meaningfully funky music seemed to all be part of the past.

 

 

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