Photos by Jammi York for Okayplayer.
Fuckery, so it seems, makes the world go ’round. And while the outside world continued to turn on its axis, the un-boxable sounds of Cymande, KING and rising star Deva Mahal seemed to make Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield stand outside of time for one golden afternoon for Okayplayer’s SummerStage show on Saturday; a beautiful bubble of music and sunshowers untouched by gravity or man’s inhumanity to man. The timeless tone was set from jump as early birds were wowed by the voice of Deva Mahal; daughter of blues legend Taj Mahal and a future soul force to be reckoned with. OKP readers may already stan for Deva, whether from her solo songs of her (mesmering) collaboration with Okayplayer Records’ own Electric Wire Hustle on “March.” But the effect her live, onstage presence had on the assembled music fans can’t be overstated. Her voice was made for arenas, and as one Okayplayer put it, watching her mint new fans live was like seeing Adele perform the day before she went in to record “Rolling In The Deep.” Truly one to watch.
After a mood-perfect set from DJ Parler, heavy on Caribbean sounds and ’90s dancehall throwback, the dreamy, floating harmonies of KING served as a siren call that attracted spellbound listeners from all corners of the park like bees to honey. If the crystalline melody of “Hey” was a call to the faithful, the emotional payoff came with the trio’s not-so-subliminal tribute to fallen icon Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest.” The emotional urgency could not have been more timely, yet the song’s dreamy distance from its subject, and the blithe refusal of KING’s music to do anything but uplift all contributed to make the bubble of sunshine float higher. By the time Nya-funk legends Cymande took the stage for their first stateside tour date in decades (they flew on to Bonnaroo the next day, and will return to NY to play at Brooklyn Bowl on the 14th) the playfield was covered with a tapestry of diverse, beautiful people that seemed to perfectly reflect the headliners’ sound; Rasta elders, hipsters, die-hard afropunks and nattily-dressed rare groove record collectors; children twentysomethings and old folks alike. Some fans had clearly been waiting a long time for this reunion and some fans were so serious about joining the Cymande processional, they rolled through with their own drums or tambourines.
Less than a minute after the UK funk pioneers touched the stage, the opening bass ostinato of “Brothers On The Slide” came through the soundsytem, as they launched into a set that is best described as funk perfection. Some 43 years (!) after the group played Harlem’s legendary Apollo to kick off a US tour alongside Mandrill, Ramsey Lewis and Patti Labelle, the much-sampled, rarely heard outfit was in perfect form. It’s hard to say exactly what the lynch-pin of the Cymande sound is; a crossing of the diasporic streams that melds funk, afrojazz, psyche-rock, calypso, disco and Rastafarian nyabinghi drum-and-chant music (not to be confused with reggae, though that form comes through much stronger on their brand new LP A Simple Act Of Faith) the songs demand the virtuosic synchronicity of a Cuban big band, with the loose, powerful feel of a heavy ’70s rock band. On the one hand, the percussion and bass groove is the clave that anchors Cymade classics like “Bra” and “Brothers.” Their unparalleled horn section also does much of the work, a brass ensemble that earns the superlative partly by playing in a Black Atlantic key all their own and partly by sheer jazz-grounded brilliance. But ultimately it is the fervent songwriting and sweet, poly-vocal approach to singing them that elevates Cymande’s unstoppable grooves to the level of devotional music; a church service baptizing new and old converts to the overarching themes of love and a unity that time cannot touch.