Philadelphia’s original sisters of soul Kathy,Debbie,Joni and Kim Sledge took their beautiful traded vocal leads and harmonies into the public consciousness in 1975. Five years and two albums later they began a hugely successful period with Nile Rodgers’ Chic organization-churning out songs that,among many excellent ones,include the anthem “We Are Family”. After 1985 the group had an eight year hiatus from recording to emerge as a trio,produced by the British acid jazz outfit Incognito, while Kathy pursued a solo career.
Another seven years later the group re-emerged,again as a trio, with a brand new album called African Eyes. It was independently released,self produced,self written and the only reason I ever heard about it was because of my mother. She very much enjoyed hearing new music at the now defunct Borders Books & Music listening stations during the late 1990’s. This particular album seemed to not only surprise but very much excite her,which I know from experience is somewhat rare in this case. When I heard the title song for this album later that day? I completely understood her enthusiasm for it. And thanks to my friend from Kiev, Ukraine Andrew Osterov? I can now present this song to you.
The song begins with a pounding drum call before one of the sisters shouts out a declarative dialog in what sounds like Portuguese or Spanish. After this the percussive drum parts,speeding up and slowing down with each vocal refrain, breaks out into an intense uptempo frenzy accented by first by a steely slap bass pop from Kevin Mauch on the body of the song,and than joined by a jazzy improvised muted trumpet melody courtesy of Jessie Maguire on the choruses. The bridge of the song returns to a much cooler variation of the percussive drumming-juxtaposing the sounds of children playing with a full solo from that muted trumpet and an African flute before returning to the chorus as the song fades to a close.
Never before or since I heard or even conceived of the Sledge sisters as creating music that was so instrumentally and thematically Afrocentric. The song musically embraces the strong ethnic identification inherent in the original 70’s funk era-with it’s percussive rhythms and jazz oriented horn voicings. Even the solos and harmonies of the Sledge’s vocals have a totally rhythmic freedom in their projection. Lyrically the song boldly encourages young black American’s to see the beauty in their African roots-even declaring “civilization started near the Euphrates,when Adam and Eve started creating babies with those eyes”. Even evoking the chorus of their hit “We Are Family” with a new cultural context on the bridge of the song. To me this is the epitome of Sister Sledges musical journey. And impressed the music world so much that the African Eyes album was nominated for a best produced CD Grammy. The result is a high water mark for them in terms of funky cultural identity.