Global Beat Fusion: The World of Funk (and a Bit of Reggae Too)

What I loved about Morphine was how much they did with so little. Much the same can be said for the Black Seeds, friends and former band mates of Flight of the Concords.
09/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

If any band ever carried the spirit of Morphine in their blood, it has to be New Zealand reggae-inspired outfit The Black Seeds. Musically the connection is subtle; vocally, Barnaby Weir exhibits the easeful, country-tinged, downtrodden-but-hopeful tendencies of Mark Sandman. Had that man not passed on a decade prior, you'd think he just reappeared somewhere just south of the Shire. Sure, comparisons are awful when dealing with a group as talented as the Black Seeds. This one, however, is an honor--Morphine was a damn good band, and Solid Ground (Easy Star) is a damn fine record.

What I loved about Morphine was how much they did with so little. Much the same can be said for the Black Seeds, friends and former band mates of Flight of the Concords. Pulling from a basic selection of vintage ska, dub, and reggae, New Zealand must bump to this band live. The record is thick, bottom-heavy, and melodic. If not for Fat Freddy's Drop, I might claim this is the most inventive thing out of the South Pacific in decades. They might not be as diverse as Freddy's, though what they do--thoughtful, catchy songs rampant with horn lines and stomach shaking bass, not to mention Weir's excellent voice--they do very right. The guitar and skank they pull off on "Take Your Chances" would make Lee Perry proud. Hard to turn off, easy to repeat.

A few months ago Bob Duskis, owner of Six Degrees Records, took me to Yoshi's when I was visiting San Francisco to watch Grupo Fantasma. The band is well known as Prince's backing band; that night they put on a smoking Latin dance show, whipping out rhythms you just don't want to hear end. Apparently that band was birthed by the Austin-based Brownout (or vice-versa, they're mostly the same people), whose new album, Aguilas and Cobras, is being released by Six Degrees. Needless to say, I was hopeful sliding it into my iMac, in no way disappointed as "Con el Cuete" kicked off the experience. Add a touch of Dengue Fever style modern psychedelica to the Latin funk riddims riding this puppy throughout, and you're in for a brass-blaring joyride.

The band channels Santana on "Olvidalo," with a keys performance to clamor over. Brownout's larger-than-life sound is most evident on "Tell Her She's Lovely," a sweet and effective three-and-a-half cut. Yeah, the electric guitar gets out of hand on "Slinky"; they quickly make it up on the conga-driven "Pole Position," deep in a pocket reminiscent of that night on the West coast. Sure, tons of guitars as well, though nothing seems gratuitous here. This band punches hard and leaves no prisoners. Hell, they don't even leave a prison.

Speaking of prison breaks, that image sums up what you feel like doing while listening to Bomba Estéreo's single, "Fuego." It's that rare cumbia-reggaeton track that sets fire, fittingly, to dance floors. Simon Mejia's repetitive ska guitar sets up the bumping bass to explode; the real hook, like much of the record, is Liliana "Li" Saumet. The Colombian sister has attitude and loves sharing it. Luckily she's got one fine producer showcasing it. They do not create in a vacuum--a video of the band recently performing in New York proves their acoustic soul has plenty of juice. Their album, Blow Up (Nacional), quickly threw them on a global map filled with excellent cumbia, champeta, and reggaeton groups. Thus far, they are one of the best.

Rounding out this foursome of funk is a compilation, part of a series I've enjoyed: Si, Para Usted Vol. 2: The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba (Waxing Deep). Compiler Dan Zacks was given a unique opportunity to scour the vinyl catalog of EGREM, Cuba's state record label. In the '70s, no musician was allowed to record for anybody else; Castro's budget for the arts might have been meager, but still, they had one. Censorship was a real concern, which did not stop incredible music from being made. It was, and Zacks found it.

The album is worth buying for the liner notes alone, in which Zacks reveals that records were shelved due to a cardboard shortage. EGREM had to share resources with the state clothing manufacturer, causing release dates to be postponed, or never seen at all. This is a hindsight album, one we can be grateful for. Percussion abounds in tracks by Los Brito, Grupo Monumental, and Sonopop, the last an especially fuzzy and loveable track. Cuba has long exhibited a special connection between political and social malaise and incredible music. Sure, the fertilizer might stink, but when we get the chance to eat, feast we do.