Category Archives: Kalimba
Kalimba helps keep Earth Wind & Fire’s music alive
The result was Earth, Wind & Fire, who began as the Salty Peppers for Capitol, and evolved into one of the ’70s and ’80s landmark bands. They would sell almost 20 million albums, enjoy multiple Grammy wins, and eventually be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Equally important in White’s vision was a desire to include upbeat, positive and inspirational lyrical themes alongside love and funk tunes. It’s that inclusive musical model that Kalimba follows in their shows and recordings. Among the tunes they highlight are such gems as “Shining Star,” “Devotion,” “Sing A Song,” “That’s The Way of the World,” and many others.
Earth Wind & Fire had one of the most telling experiences with the post disco radio freeze out of the early 1980’s. Their inaugural album of the decade entitled Faces an alternately Afrocentric and idiosyncratic double album that was not as popular with audience as it’s sale figures indicated. Philip Bailey often mentioned he felt that when record label pressures began being put upon EWF to began courting their own classic sound, it actually began the downfall of that sound. Their subsequent album Raise! is actually among my favorites of theirs and got them a huge hit in “Let’s Groove”. The band indicate they felt that song signified them chasing success. Still this was a creative fertile period for EWF.
From their very first days at Columbia,EWF had always reserved some of their more experimental musical elements to linking interludes between songs. They were generally under a minute long. And the more pop oriented their sound became,the more anachronistic these interludes seemed to become. Still it was an excellent chance to showcase that they were still musicians. On vinyl the second side of the Raise! album began with such an interlude entitled “Kalimba Tree”. On the album it was under 30 seconds long. As featured in the 1982 EWF concert filmed in Oakland California,it was a lot longer. The new Funkytowngrooves reissue of the album features this longer version.
A round,space funk synthesizer wash opens up the groove. The percussion rings away as Verdine White’s bass line provides the most potent rhythmic element. As the higher key choral element comes in,brother Maurice’s Kalimba comes as Verdine’s bass scales down more. All along with one of Philip Bailey’s classic ebonic chants-later repeated on a second vocal course by Maurice. Roland Bautista plays a glassy guitar solo along with Don Myrick’s jazzy sax solo. On the final refrain,hand claps come deep into play with a more rocking solo from Bautista as the same space funk synth wash that opened the song closes it out.
Sometimes when I hear a song,the mind begins to wander in terms of what might’ve been. Earth Wind & Fire would only have two more albums out of their original Columbia run after 1981. Hearing what I only understood to be a brief interlude extended out in this fashion got me to think just how long numbers such as “Departure”,”Brazilian Rhyme” or even 1983’s “Mizar” might’ve actually been as originally recorded. In any case,this showcases that the mixture of Afro-Brazilian rhythm,funk and jazz that were at the core of EWF’s sound were still alive and well amid the technological changes during the 1980’s. And that the band were still thinking on that same level as well.
Five years before he left to found Earth Wind & Fire, Maurice White was the second drummer for the Ramsey Lewis Trio. He had succeeded the groups original drummer Isaac “Red” Holt after he’d left to form Young-Holt Unlimited in 1966. That group in turn had a huge instrumental hit with “Soulful Strut” three years after leaving Ramsey’s trio. Maurice observed that while the trio played on a lot of college campuses while he was in it, most of the audience were more in his age group than Ramsey and bassist Cleveland Eaton. In the latter period of his being part of the trio,began to envision a jazzy funk/soul sound that would appeal more to latter silent generation people.
Maurice’s final album as the drummer for the Ramsey Lewis Trio was 1969’s Another Voyage. For the most part,it continued in the groove and rhythm centered soul jazz the trio had pioneered throughout the 60’s. A groove that became crucial to the development of the jazz/funk genre as much as that of the Jazz Crusaders. For his part,Maurice had already developed a strong interest in Egyptology. That cultural ethic and music had also been popular with free jazz pioneers such as Sun Ra beforehand. And Maurice was intent on integrating that into Ramsey’s trio by the end of the 60’s. The result was my favorite song on this particular album entitled “Uhuru”-the Swahili word for “freedom”.
Eaton’s funky upright bass popping opens the song. It lays the groundwork for the rhythm of the song-most of which is supplied courtesy of Maurice White himself. His percussive drumming on the song is based on a slower Clyde Stubblefield style rhythm with a lot of jazzier fills on brushing cymbals and hi hat. Over that Maurice brings in the main melody on the African thumb piano known as the Kalimba. This melodic statement evolves into a thick,purely rhythmic solo as the song continues. The sound of the trios members hooting and hollering ques to one another comes together with hand claps on the final verses of the song for an extra thick groove.
When I first heard this song,it occurred to me that the melody Maurice played on Kalimba here was one which I’d heard before. That same Kalimba melody did in fact show up 14 years later on the EWF album Powerlight in 1983. It was used on the more electronic interlude of “Mizar” at the end of the albums first side on vinyl. The sound on this song,it’s title and general atmosphere showcased the beginning of Maurice White’s expression of Afrocentricity as a positive social and musical force as the 1960’s transitioned into the 70’s. On the more personal level,it was exciting to hear the main framework of EWF’s sound begin while Maurice was the drummer in another group.
With the beginning of the third official year of Andresmusictalk? It’s hard to realize that Kool & The Gang have never been officially covered in the Anatomy of THE Groove segment. James Brown himself referred to them as “the second baddest out there” during his prime funk period. And at least somewhere in their now 46 year strong career? The band have continued to find some way to give up the funk,and grow with it’s changes to meet great success. Still,it was the early to mid 1970’s that really showed just what Kool & The Gang were musically capable of.
Starting off primarily as an instrumental group with occasional unison vocals? The mid 70’s bought more concise and pop hook driven numbers that focused on individual vocal trade off’s. This resulted in their first massive crossover hits such as “Jungle Boogie”, “Funky Stuff” and “Hollywood Swinging”. In 1975 the band released their sixth studio album entitled Spirit Of The Boogie. It helped define them,and the Bell brothers burgeoning Muslim spirituality,through a stronger Afrocentrity. The song that pulls that all together for me is “Ancestral Ceremony”.
The chant”yeah yeah YEAH!” from the bands female backup singers Something Sweet begin it all with the accompaniment of Kalimba and nothing more. Shortly thereafter,drummer George Brown’s phased hi hat roll rings in the percussion,than the steadier main rhythm. A phat and thumping symphony of synthesized and electric bass sets the stage for the bands trademark horns to join into the musical festival. The entire group along with the backup singers join back into the opening chant with Khalis Bayyan’s jazzy tenor sax solo to close out the groove.
While just about any funk from Kool & The Gang in this time period is cream of the crop of it’s genre? Something about the instrumental,vocal and thematic attitude of this song sums up the “united funk” era in just over three minutes. 1974-1976 found them at the height of their artistic and commercial pinnacle. And it was good for them personally because the lyrics to this song found them with the understanding of being “scientists of sound,rhythmatically puttin’ it down” while “making merry music” all the way. So this is some of the very finest funk ever recorded!