With the amount of vintage music that’s reissued every year, it starts to feel like there were literally thousands of funk and soul bands dotting the musical landscape of the 1970s—for every Stevie Wonder or Curtis Mayfield, there might have been ten other respectably talented bands or artists toiling away in obscurity with little or no recognition beyond their local communities. Most of these groups didn’t see any critical attention until the rise of hip-hop in the mid/late 1980s when DJs and producers sought sample material more obscure (and therefore more original) than the obvious James Brown and P-Funk sources.
The Lafayette Afro Rock Band offers an interesting variation on that story: Instead of sticking around in their native Long Island, the band’s members relocated to Paris in 1970, much in the way many US jazz musicians had in the year or two previous. Originally known as Ice, the musicians quickly picked up on the inescapable influences of the North African neighborhood where they had chosen to settle and changed their name to Lafayette Afro Rock Band. Their two best-known LPs—Malik and Soul Makossa—gained notoriety as hot sample and breakbeat sources several years after the band’s break-up in 1978.
This compilation, an expanded reissue of the 1999 version on the same label, collects the best of the tracks from those two LPs, along with some earlier tracks from when the band was still known as Ice. Regrettably, two tracks from the previous edition were omitted to make room for two previously unreleased Ice songs, perhaps a bit of completist-bait on the label’s behalf. But there’s no arguing with the strength of Darkest Light as a compilation—and it’s one of the relatively few instances where scrapping chronology to emphasize a good mix works in a best-of package’s favor.
Listening to the disc’s 15 pieces uninterrupted, you get the sense that these guys could do this in their sleep—not that the music is boring, but there’s an effortlessness that eliminates most discernable edges from it. The title track is undoubtedly the most familiar, with its clarion call saxophone intro having been sampled on Public Enemy’s “Show ‘Em Watcha Got”. Get past the intro and the rest of the piece is pretty incredible too, as the group layers instruments in gradually, building a slow crescendo to the explosive bridge. “Hihache” is also immediately recognizable from the oft-sampled breakbeat that begins it, having powered tracks for hip-hop artists like Biz Markie, De La Soul, and even Kris Kross.
What’s curious about the compilation is that, despite the group’s unsteady nomenclature, the music is remarkably consistent. The tracks credited to Ice, like the Sun Ra-channeling “Ozan Koukle”, show no significant stylistic difference from those performed as the Lafayette Afro Rock Band—nor do the other three selections recorded under the pseudonyms “Crispy & Co.” or “Captain Dax” for Japanese-only release. It’s a rare case of name changes that can only be taken at face value, rather than those meant to signify any creative shift or those done in response to litiginous threats.
But the true value of a collection like this—at least for a lot of people interested in any genre of African American music in the 1960s and 1970s—is that in addition to containing musical rarities, it also sparks the imagination. We know that the members of the Lafayette Afro Rock Band moved in the same circles as the avant-garde jazz artists working in France at the same time. The fact that they cut an unreleased session with pianist Mal Waldron is well documented, even if the music hasn’t been heard. But there must have been other connections, if only based on saxophonist Ronnie James Buttacavoli’s style sounding far more like a cross between Jackie McLean and Fela Kuti than the smoother approach of most straight-up funk players of the era (check out his alto work on “Hihache”).
Yes, there might be a couple of weak tracks—unfortunately, the previously unreleased “There’s Time to Change” is one of them, although its unimaginative lyrics and melody are helped by the monstrous fuzz bass break after the first chorus and a heavy jam coda—but to focus on that misses the point. Groups like the Lafayette Afro Rock Band, obscure as they may be, might not be as integral to the history of soul, funk, jazz, and hip-hop as the superstars who get all of the press—but to have a compilation like Darkest Light available helps to ensure their place in that continuum.