Cymande, Tim MacKenzie-Smith
Photo courtesy of BFI

Cymande Are Possibly the Most Sampled British Musical Artists of All Time

Cymande were foundational in the creation of hip-hop, disco, house, drum and bass, and rare groove, passed through generations like so much underground music.

Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande
Tim MacKenzie-Smith
16 February 2024 (UK) | 5 April 2024 (US)

It’s quite a story, the story of Cymande, a story that has been a long time in the telling. Formed by half a dozen musicians who came to England as children from the West Indies, Cymande only lasted a few years before taking a hiatus that stretched out a full 40 years. However, the three classic albums this funk-rock-soul-prog-reggae-Latin band released between 1972 and 1974 have cast a long shadow.

As Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande persuasively documents, Cymande’s beats, breaks, and tracks were foundational in creating hip-hop, disco, house, drum and bass, and rare groove. For decades, their music was a well-kept secret coveted by collectors and shared by aficionados. But it was also hiding in plain sight as a go-to disc for DJs and as sampled in some of the best-known hip-hop songs in the canon.

The strength of Getting It Back, British documentarist Tim Mackenzie-Smith’s first feature film, lies in interview footage of the band and its many fans in the business. The weakness is its tendency to streamline Cymande’s manifold stories into a single arc and to lean into the tired trope of the white savior’s recovery of lost Black treasure.

Getting It Back is a must-watch for any serious fan of popular music because of its core story: the music of Cymande. Most segments are carefully edited to classic tracks from the three albums. The five-minute opening teaser is built around Cymande’s prog-funk masterpiece “Dove” (the band took their name from a calypso term for ‘dove’), subtly edited down to around half its original length. The song’s introduction plays like a slowed-down, spaced-out homage to Santana’s 1970 hit, “Black Magic Woman”.

Steve Scipio’s bass booms a two-note line, Patrick Patterson’s guitar repeats a single fluttering high note over it, Pablo Gonsales picks up the stoned groove on his congas, and someone adds a haunting ratchet on a güiro. Patterson begins to pick a slow melody on the guitar, Scipio echoes it by adding a third note to the groove, Sam Kelly introduces a chiming cymbal, and Scipio keeps adding new notes into his bassline as the vamp keeps building in tempo until it reaches full jamming intensity about two minutes in.

Cymande’s “Dove” is atmospheric, unhurried, and unforgettable once you’ve heard it. The closest analogue might be Funkadelic’s equally lyric-less epic “Maggot Brain“. But unlike Eddie Hazel’s gorgeously mournful dirge, “Dove” is grounded in such a deep Latin funk groove it’s impossible not to dance.

“Dove” fully bears the weight of the talking heads that sing its praises over the intro, claiming not just the moody magic of this track but the significance of a band whose music inspired so much music creation. That includes everything from the psychedelic soul dub of Houston’s Khruangbin, the endlessly extended breaks of early disco and proto-hip-hop, the alternative hip hop of De La Soul and the Fugees, the French rap of MC Solaar, and the indie rock of Jim James and My Morning Jacket, and finally, to electronic dance music from house and jungle to drum and bass.

“They set the tone for so many…” one voice claims over the period footage edited punctiliously to the beat. “That music has been endorsed by every subsequent music movement to date”, maintains London-based rare groove DJ Norman Jay. “I knew all the songs. I just didn’t know it was them”, explains Khruangbin’s Laura Lee Ochoa. As one interviewee sums it up: “These guys are everywhere”. Once you listen to that opening jam, you’ll believe these claims and more.

What distinguishes Getting Back to It from so many music documentaries is that Mackenzie-Smith is not content to include fans, DJs, and fellow musicians gushing over how transportive the music is. He illustrates what makes Cymande’s music so transportive. Seldom have I seen as illuminating a five-minute stretch in a music documentary as the segment that seamlessly edits together separate interviews with NYC hip-hop originators DJ Hollywood and Zulu Nation DJs Jazzy Jay and Red Alert, along with early disco DJ Nicky Siano to talk us through the breakdown that runs from 2:50 to around 4:00 of Cymande’s funk tribute to brotherhood, “Bra”.

“Bra” is anchored in an eight-note bassline, a single drum beat with high-hat echo, and a cowbell. The DJs’ descriptions walk us through the “drop” into the break, scatting and beating it out as “Bra” plays along. They reproduce the audience reaction, and describe their desire to extend that finite minute of ecstatic transport as long as possible. “I’m seeing them dancing regular. When the break hits, I see them lose their minds. Which made you have to be able to bring it back”.

On the dancefloor and at the parties, DJs would mix two copies on twin turntables to stretch the bassline “for at least the better part of ten to fifteen minutes by itself”. As Jazzy Jay remembers: “Play that one part on this side. Mix it on that side. Mix it back and forth. Now: we got something. And that was the beginning stages of what we know now as hip-hop.” For Nicky, “The break became the whole record for us. The eleven DJs who started disco. We all played that”. According to these DJs, “Bra” was one of the “sacred crates” of both hip-hop and disco. What’s more, DJ Hollywood concludes, it remains so today: “That record is still champion. When it jumps on the track, people who never heard it before, they’re movin’. People who heard it before, they’re like ‘AHHH!’”

Cymande are one of, if not the most sampled British musical artists of all time. The band’s official playlist on Spotify of “Songs That Sample Cymande” includes 54 tracks. The website lists 140 instances, including “Bra” on De La Soul’s 1989 “Change in Speak” and Gang Starr’s 1988 “Movin’ On”; “Dove” on the title song of the Fugee’s 1996 album The Score and Wu-Tang Clan’s 1991 “Problemz”; “The Message” on MC Solaar’s 1991 #1 hit “Bouge de là”, widely credited with kickstarting French rap; and the second album’s “Genevieve” on Queen Latifah’s 1991 “One Mo’ Time”.

According to the band members, they only learned about the phenomenon in retrospect from their children. They report being appreciative of the exposure from the sampling and not overly worried about the copyright issue. However, given that Scipio and Patterson became practicing lawyers after the band split up in the mid-’70s, they seem also to have reached a settlement of some kind with the more successful bands and DJs paying them homage.

Cymande was formed by bassist Steve Scipio and guitarist Patrick Patterson, neighbors in Balham, in southwest London adjacent to Brixton. They began playing jazz before collecting the other core members—Sam Kelly (drums), Derrick Gibbs (saxophone), Mike “Bammi” Rose (woodwinds, percussion), and Pablo Gonsales (congas) — for a different sort of sound combining funk, rock, jazz, reggae, calypso, Latin, and other influences — into a unique blend they attributed to being self-taught on their instruments. They lucked into a well-connected British producer. John Schroeder heard them playing while checking on another prospect that turned out, in contrast, to be “dead”. Schroeder would capture their live sound without attempting to smooth it out; he continued working with Cymande until his death in 2017.

In 1972, Schroeder used his connections with Janus Records in the US to cut a single, “The Message”, which went to the top ten on US charts. This got them an album contract; their eponymous debut, which included “The Message”, “Dove”, and “Bra”, would crack the US top 20. The band toured the US in 1973 on the back of this success, opening for Al Green at the height of his popularity to crowds upwards of 40,000. They played a glorious week at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, opening for soul legend Jerry Butler. They soon released a follow-up, Second Time Round. A third album, Promised Heights, followed in 1974 to cement the legacy that would seed disco, hip-hop, and so much of later American and British music.

Cymande looked to be headed towards stardom but instead turned out as what Actor and DJ Craig Charles terms “the British Black supergroup that never ever happened”. Nothing changed on their return to England. They could only book small venues; their music was mostly locked out of television and radio, and any success was under the radar. Their roots and families were in South London, so moving to the US was not an option. After four years of constant touring and three albums, they took what they considered a temporary break, which lasted more or less 40 years.

Getting It Back tells the core musical story extremely well. But that’s not the only story it touches on. Cymande were part of the Windrush generation, the wave of mostly West Indian migrants invited over by the British government to help rebuild a country decimated by war. The founding members of Cymande were all part of this diasporic community, having been born in Guyana, Jamaica, and Saint Vincent before coming over as children with their educated, professional parents.

Racism manifested differently in the UK, less institutionalized but also less censored in many ways, part of the civil discourse in ways it has never been in the US, and the scars of slavery were, to some, further in the past and geographically displaced to the colonies. But racism was equally prevalent, structural, and debilitating in the UK, including in the music business. Charles remembers, “We were importing Black American groups all the time. But we weren’t embracing Black British talent. … We weren’t allowed in, to be honest”.

As I processed this part of the story, I realized with some surprise that I couldn’t come up with any names of Black British musicians or pop groups until the multiracial bands of the two-tone or ska revival at the very end of the ’70s: the Specials, the Selecter, and the Beat. So I searched the Internet for more about Cymande’s predecessors, with not much luck. I finally found a handful who made it to the BBC’s Top of the Pops and similar mainstream shows. These include a motley but fascinating collection of folks I had never heard of, and folks I had always erroneously assumed were American (as would often happen with Cymande).

There were two female performers: Trinidad-born boogie-woogie piano virtuoso Winifred Atwell (20 million records sold, 11 top-ten hits, and two #1 UK singles) and Wales-born vocalist Dame Shirley Bassey of Bond-theme fame (27 top-40 UK hits and 2 #1s, 140 million records sold worldwide). There were the multiracial Motown-style the Foundations, who had two massive hits in the late ’60s, and the pop-reggae band Greyhound, whose 1971 plea for racial harmony “Black and White” hit #6 in the UK, but which I knew only from the US #1 remake by American hit machine The Three Dog Night.

There were the moderately successful singer-songwriters Labi Siffre (of English, Afro-Barbadian, and Nigerian heritage), Joan Armatrading (born in Saint Christopher and Nevis), and a few others. There was the odd reggae singer who charted, like Jamaican-born Dandy Livingstone, who recorded over 80 singles between 1964 and 1980, had a top-twenty hit in 1972, and whose “Rudy, a Message to You” became a big hit when covered by the Specials in 1979. There was talent, and there was also the same hard glass ceiling Cymande hit.

Perhaps the one exception to this sobering backdrop of Cymande’s local predecessors is the multiracial rock band the Equals. Formed by the Gordon twins from Jamaica, their white neighbors in a working-class housing estate in North London, and Guyana-born frontman and songwriter Eddy Grant, the Equals played hard psychedelic blues rock. They had three top ten singles in the UK, including the #1 hit “Baby Come Back”, which reached the top 50 in the US in 1968, and the original version of “Police on my Back”, which the Clash covered on Sandinista!

As Jason Heller wrote in a 2016 feature about the Equals, “They were the first major interracial rock group in the UK”. The Equals were able to maintain popularity even with the overtly political and heavily funky 1971 single “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys”. Grant would leave the Equals soon after, parlaying the band’s successful run into a studio that he would use for his own later success, especially the 1982 hit “Electric Avenue”, and also, as Lloyd Bradley documents in his invaluable 2013 history Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital, to support local Black musicians, regardless of their solvency.

As Bradley’s exhaustive research uncovered, there was a lot of Black music in London; it’s just that most of it flew under the radar, outside of the mainstream media, and bereft of much economic support. Many calypso, ska, and reggae artists recorded in London even as they remained based in the Caribbean. While mostly for export and seldom charting in the UK, those singles circulated among the Caribbean diaspora, a common currency uniting bands like Cymande whose members came from different islands or nations back home.

Cymande absorbed these disparate influences into the heady mix of their own music. That mix naturally also included African American artists, from jazz musicians, especially electric Miles Davis, to the groundbreaking work of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as their musical and political visions transformed R&B and soul music for the new decade. The Latin influence came through Mexican-born Carlos Santana, who had four albums in the UK top-ten between 1970 and 1973, through Latin jazz, through the Afro-Cuban influence on West African music, and through the conga and other percussion in reggae and other Afro-Caribbean forms. London was a musical crossroads, and, more than maybe any other band of the time, Cymande put everything it found to creative use.

Bradley details how, especially during decolonization in the 1960s and early ’70s, West African students came to London in droves, bringing their music with them, from highlife to Fela Kuti’s ultra-funky Afrobeat. The Equals had been among the few English bands to tour in Africa. When they did, they left their mark in psychedelic rock and funk rhythms, just as Cuban music had made its way there previously. Drawn by eager student audiences in English clubs, many West African bands regularly toured the UK.

The most successful of a handful of London bands to form around this music was Osibisa, whose eponymous first album hit the top ten in the UK in 1971. With members hailing from Ghana, Nigeria, Trinidad, Granada, and Antigua, Osibisa blended Nigerian highlife and Cuban grooves in a prog rock template. Cymande’s primary inspirations came from the Americas, but you can hear the West African influence, especially in Patterson’s fluid, sinuous guitar lines, as on “Dove” or 1973’s “Fug”. And then there’s the second album’s first track, “Anthracite”, which, except for the inimitable vocals, would not have been out of place on Fela’s London Scene, which the maestro recorded for EMI Nigeria at Abbey Road Studios in 1971.

Getting It Back skips over these African, Latin, and Black British connections and influences. It is more interested in the American legacy of Cymande and the recent reunion driven by that legacy. But the film does touch on the political ferment of the time. There’s a brief, understated but moving bookend around Cymande’s Jamaican-born conga player Pablo Gonsales, who at the end of his life would come directly from his hospital bed to perform with the band and who passed away in 2020 soon after Getting It Back was shot. Unlike the other members, Gonsales had returned to Jamaica when the band dispersed, and his Rastafarian faith comes through strongly in the interviews and in the songs he co-wrote with Mike Rose, which open and close the debut album.

As their titles and sound evidence, “Zion I” and “Rastafarian Folk Song” bear the strongest reggae influence on 1972’s Cymande and the strongest religious overtones. Mackenzie-Smith plays “Zion I” under Getting It Back‘s historical thumbnail of the Windrush migration, assembling disheartening footage of white Britons expressing their hatred for Blacks and their plans to “repatriate” them. He plays “Rastafarian Folk Song” over the credits in homage to Gonsales, to whom the film is dedicated.

Alas, there’s much less in Getting It Back about a culture that perforce remained underground in England through much of the ’70s and which both imbues Cymande’s music and helps to explain its failure to chart in the UK the way it did in the US. Mackenzie-Smith leaves it to the band’s followers to fill in the detail, which comes haphazardly through DJ Norman, who describes encountering Cymande as an “angry young man” during the often violent protests of the early ’80s. The lyrics tell it, too, in the uplift promised by the first single, “The Message” (“Together, fore we go / Forever like it was before / remember, you’ve been told / Together, we can go”) or the chorus of “Bra”: “But it’s alright, we can still go on.”

I don’t recall that anyone in Getting It Back mentions the lyrics. Instead, we see the audience responding to them in the latter-day performances. While Cymande’s lyrics are not pointed in their meaning the way Marvin Gaye’s and Stevie Wonder’s are, there’s no question they’re part of what Norman describes as “The first band to come along that tapped all my cultural buttons. Their music isn’t frivolous, it’s not throwaway. It’s thought about, provokes a reaction, it’s challenging, it confronts you … and it makes you dance”.

Those dance beats form the spine of Getting It Back, from the opening teasers to the final homages. But they also flatten the myriad responses to the music into a single rhythm. Instead, listening closely to the impressive roster of enthusiastic interviewees, there’s a clear difference between how Cymande’s music was passed down through Black communities. It was only outside of those communities that it required discovery. NYC DJs heard Cymande on their US tour or heard the album or singles from friends and family that did. Brooklyn-born Vincent Mason, aka, DJ Maseo of De La Soul, remembers his mother playing Cymande over her Saturday cleaning. “You’re in my mother’s collection!” he exclaims excitedly when he meets them decades later. Puerto-Rican DJ Louie Vega, nephew of salsa great Hector Lavoe, remembers that Cymande “were part of my childhood in the Bronx. … We never knew that the band was from the UK. We always thought it was part of New York City. It’s like they was born in New York City. Because that’s the music that we love”.

Back in the UK, multiracial Manchester hip-hop band Ruthless Rap Assassins sampled “The Message” in their 1990 single “And It Wasn’t a Dream”, “a track about our parents”, the Windrush generation. “And it wasn’t a dream, this was a nightmare” is the chorus of an acid pair of images and recollections of the racism and discrimination faced by their immigrant mothers and fathers. “But now they can’t go back, they lost it all for a dream,” the song concludes.

To be fair, Mackenzie-Smith plays “The Message” under this segment of Getting It Back to suggest this connection. But the overarching frame of white rediscovery makes it easy to miss the simple truth that Cymande was not forgotten but passed directly through families and generations like so much other half-underground music and culture. The band was rediscovered by white artists through late ’80s and ’90s hip-hop, but not because those artists had gotten there first but because the music was in the hearts and souls of Black artists from the dance floors and living room floors where they heard it as kids.

Black artists and fans were just as much crate diggers as whites. However, Cut Chemist and Jim James, and Khruangbin effectively amplified what De La Soul and the Fugees had initiated. The reunited Cymande look just as ecstatic playing to adoring and mostly white fans in L.A. as they did to an adoring, decidedly mixed fanbase in Brixton. Unfortunately, Mackenzie-Smith chooses James’ earnest but rootless appreciation to set the film’s tone even before we hear from Pablo Gonsales. We hear Cut Chemist and James again at the end of Getting It Back, as they wonder how their work might be rediscovered 1,000 years later. Yes, Cymande made music for everyone, and I’m glad they did. But that doesn’t make it mean the same thing to everyone or even Cymande.

Although most of it is riveting, Getting Back It Back sometimes seems unnecessarily padded to reach its full 90 minutes. About three-quarters through, there’s an endless montage of TikTok dances and amateur performances, mostly white, of Cymande’s funkiest song, “Brothers on the Slide.” As its title indicates, “Brothers” is not a song for everyone; it is explicitly addressed to Black men struggling against structural inequality and racism: “Brothers on the slide / Working on the wrong side / What ya gonna do / You can’t win so you know you must lose”.

There’s a similarly tone-deaf moment almost at the end of Getting It Back, where, bafflingly, Makenzie-Smith interrupts the climactic repeat performance of the break from “Bra” with the dated words of late theatre director Peter Hall in what looks like the early ’70s pleading with his white countrymen for tolerance and willingness “to absorb the gifts that minorities like the West Indians have to offer today”. It’s hard to tell if we’re meant to spot the contradiction between that plea to let Black Britons succeed and the subsequent assertion from Patterson that “Our story is a success. You keep your successes despite that disadvantage. That really is what success is about”. One is necessary; the other is supernumerary.

This is one of many reasons DJ Mark Ronson is so jarring in Getting It Back when he misquotes Dr. Martin Luther King, referring to “that saying, the arc of history bends toward the just.” The story of Cymande is not a tragedy nor a blueprint for assimilation. It’s a story of art being created, appreciated, preserved, and revitalized, and white fans finally noticing what had always been there. What kept Cymande’s music vital was not those fans’ support but their own brilliance and the mostly hidden networks they entered into, nurtured, and were nurtured by. Ronson may be a great songwriter and producer, but he misses the point of just about everything Cymande (not to mention Dr. King) stands for, starting with the slippage from a universal concept of justice to the individual achievements of a select group of the “just”.

Fortunately, Mackenzie-Smith gives Pablo Gonsales the last word, almost a direct contradiction of Ronson, as he walks backstage after Cymande’s set at the Brixton festival: “Power for the people. They know what they want to hear. They dictate. Not me, not you. For the people.”

It’s as if the white audience to whom Getting It Back appears to be targeted is not supposed to notice that in the previous scene, Cymande had introduced itself to the multiracial crowd at Brixton by claiming its Black British identity: “We are not from America. A lot of people thought we were. But we’re from Balham and Brixton.” In his enthusiasm to document just how big Cymande is, Mackenzie-Smith loses focus of the very qualities that make their music unique. Yes, “it makes you dance” in a way no other music does. But as DJ Norman checks off before he gets to danceability, “It’s thought about, provokes a reaction, it’s challenging, it confronts you”. I wanted more of this.

The core story of Cymande is their music, yes, and that story absolutely has room for Jim James after a gig on a Brooklyn rooftop in the ’90s, having his mind blown by the magic of “Dove”, just as Bob Marley’s capacious world has room for the perfect songs on 1984’s Legend and Reinaldo Marcus Green‘s 2024 hagiographic biopic, Bob Marley: One Love. But those universal moments wouldn’t exist without everything these artists performed and sang about – the legacies, memories, and inequities woven into the fabric even of their most peaceful-sounding songs.

Mackenzie-Smith’s watchful camera catches the moments that tell the story of the fabric of Cymande’s music and the ways that music was passed down through crate digging, cassette trading, cleaning sessions, DJs, and sampling. I wish he had brought those stories to the fore rather than left them dominated by the same old song of white discovery and redemption. That savior’s story is ideally suited for the very BBC that wouldn’t have played Cymande in the first place. Getting It Back is a beautiful story for a white audience (although not exclusively) and is mostly well-told. But there are better stories that could tell the story of Cymande, which would do more credit to everyone involved: “Not for me, not for you. For the people”.

Works Cited

Bradley, Lloyd. Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital. Serpent’s Tail. 2013.

Heller, Jason. “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys: The Story of Pioneering Interracial Rock Band the Equals”. Pitchfork. 18 July 2016.

RATING 7 / 10