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Monday, May 11, 2015

Four Funky Bay Area Bands to Know

Posted By on Mon, May 11, 2015 at 10:08 AM

Con Brio at the SF Weekly Best Of San Francisco Party
  • Con Brio at the SF Weekly Best Of San Francisco Party
When George Clinton and his Parliament/Funkadelic crew sang “We want the funk, give up the funk!,” they were expressing a universal truth. Another word for funk is “the one,” the upbeat at the heart of African music. James Brown once explained it thus: “The ‘One’ is derived from the Earth itself, the soil, the pine trees of my youth. And most important, it’s on the upbeat — ONE two THREE four — not the downbeat, one TWO three FOUR that most blues are written in. Hey, I know what I’m talking about! I was born to the downbeat, and I can tell you, without question, there is no pride in it - the upbeat is rich, the downbeat is poor. Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive ‘One,’ not the passive ‘Two,’ and never on the lowdown beat. In the end, it’s not about music — it’s about life.”


Funk in North America can be traced back to New Orleans, where the heart beat of Native American drumming met the polyrhythms of Africa in Congo Square, a “free” space that allowed the slaves and free people of color, African and Indian, a day on which they could practice their traditional culture without the interference of the white masters. Slowly, European and Caribbean musical forms — from Africans who had worked on plantations in Cuba and Haiti before coming to American cotton farms — seeped into the mix, giving birth to the blues and jazz, with the funky “one” remaining at the core of the music.

Fela Kuti visited Los Angeles in the late '60s and heard James Brown. He took the funk that had developed in America back to Africa and called it Afro-beat. The spread of African American pop culture took the funk to North Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East, creating all kinds of interesting hybrids including salsa, rai, compa, Ethiopian jazz, zouk, merengue and Cambodian soul. Many of those funky amalgamations boomeranged back to San Francisco, long known as the melting pot of the melting pot, a city open to cultural blending, be it racial, sexual, cultural or musical. The city is now home to dozens of bands that are willing to Give Up The Funk to anyone who wants it. Here are four bands that represent the tip of the local funky iceberg.


Sun Hop Fat Team 
Ethiopian jazz is a misleading tag that denotes a style of Ethiopian pop music from the 60s that used psychedelic American rock, funk and R&B as its template. There are jazzy elements in the horn work. You may think you’ve never head it, but “Etanopium,” a tune by Ethiopian singer Malatu Astatke, was used by Jim Jarmusch on the soundtrack of his film Broken Flowers, while the Cambodian/American band Dengue Fever often uses Ethiopian rhythms in their arrangements. Oakland’s Sun Hop Fat Team has taken those fractured Ethiopian hits of the '60s and '70s, including a bunch by Malatu Astatke, and reinvented them for Bay Area audiences. You can find their digital-only EP at http://sunhopfat.bandcamp.com, but it’s better to catch them live.

Albino! 
There are no albinos in Berkeley’s punny named, nine piece, Afro-beat band Albino!, just a bunch of white guys and gals digging deep into the grooves laid down by Afro-beat’s legendary founder Feli Anikulapo Kuti. Their blazing horn section, psychedelic costumes, driving percussion attack and intricate group choreography take Fela’s combination of rhythm and politics into the 21st Century with a sweat inducing aplomb. They’ve been named the Bay’s Best World Music band by this publication and Best Band by the East Bay Express. Their recent gigs have been few and far between, so grab tickets fast the next time they announce a gig.


The Humidors
When Oakland’s Humidors dropped their self-titled debut last winter, they eschewed the cover tunes that often drive the dance floor into a frenzy in favor of their own brilliant compositions. Since their formation five years ago, the band’s inspired fusion of vintage funk, soul and R&B has made them local favorites, although everything they play is given a heavy contemporary spin that splinters dance floors leaves audiences in a sweaty daze. The band is a well-oiled unit with a poly-rhythmic approach that balances short, sharp solos with an overwhelming collective approach. As they promise on the last track of their debut, they’re always ready to “Funk You to Death.”

Con Brio
When frontman Zeik McCarter dances across the stage to approach the mic, he’s a picture of confident elegance and soulful self-control. There’s a hint of James brown in his footwork, especially his splits, and a trace of Purple delicacy in his hand gestures, but it’s the voice that grabs your attention. His bedroom growl can slip into an effortless falsetto to accent the emotion in a lyric, moving the ladies on the dance floor to swooning hysterics. The band is as tight and dynamic as the JBs/Famous Flames, supporting McCarter’s riveting presence with tight, focused grooves marked by an incandescent energy.
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