The Making Of “Bra” by Cymande

How a righteous funk anthem and future block party staple was birthed in a Brixton basement

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A key scene in new documentary Getting It Back: The Story Of Cymande shows how DJ Jazzy Jay used to cut between two turntables to extend the exuberant breakdown of “Bra”, sending a Bronx block party into raptures. It’s no surprise that the track became a foundation stone of hip-hop, sampled by Sugarhill Gang, Gang Starr and De La Soul, as well as on Raze’s early house hit “Jack The Groove”.



So who were the impossibly funky crew behind it? Surely they were from Harlem or New Orleans? Or maybe Kingston or Lagos? Nope. “Bra”’s co-writers Patrick Patterson and Steve Scipio grew up on the same street in Balham, south London, after their families emigrated to the UK from Guyana when they were kids. Coming of age in the late ’60s, they envisioned a band that would capture the spirit of the times – black pride, peace and love – while celebrating their Caribbean heritage. Their name came from a popular calypso about “a dove and pigeon fighting over a piece of pepper” – Cymande was the dove – and they recruited band members from south London’s Caribbean diaspora.

With lyrics that encouraged its listeners not to abandon the struggle (“But it’s alright/We can still go on”) “Bra” made a decent splash on its US release in 1973, following Cymande’s debut single “The Message” into the R&B charts and winning the band a support tour with Al Green. But back in the UK, the glass ceiling descended. Dispirited with the lack of opportunities for black British groups, Cymande disbanded in late 1974.

Patterson and Scipio eventually both studied law, going on to take up important positions in the governments of various Caribbean nations. As such, they were oblivious to Cymande’s second life as hip-hop progenitors. But word eventually reached them of their popularity amongst a new generation of crate-diggers, and Cymande reformed to jubilant scenes in 2014 with most of their original lineup intact. A new album is currently in the works, to follow the reissue of their original three albums.

“I had no idea,” says drummer Sam Kelly of Cymande’s miraculous rebirth. “One of the things that blows my mind is that we played in Brazil, we went to Croatia, all these places. My partner and I went to Australia a couple of years ago – we’d go out to a restaurant and hear our music being played in Melbourne, 12,000 miles away. It still puts a shiver down my spine.”

PATTERSON: I came to London in 1958, Steve came in ’63. And since then we’ve been together. Our street was full of people, many of whom came from our country, and we were all in the same community. So we carried our Caribbean culture with us. [In the late ’60s] we had a jazz group called Metre, which was the genesis of Cymande. We used to do Miles Davis’s “Footprints”, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, things like that. We liked to play in different time signatures. Looking back on it now, we were very inventive.

SCIPIO: For seven or eight months before we started to put Cymande together, we also played with a Nigerian band called Ginger Johnson And His African Drummers. Ginger was a well-known performer, he played with The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park.

PATTERSON: All of it contributed to where we were as musicians, directing us towards our future musical style.

KELLY: We started in the basement of my family house on Crawshay Road in Brixton. The main thing they emphasised is that, come hell or high water, they wanted to do original material. I wasn’t playing an instrument at all before I joined Cymande, but I used to listen to everything from James Brown to Hendrix, Sam & Dave to Pink Floyd. I was a blank canvas – I didn’t want to sound like any other drummer. The person that had the most influence on my playing was Steve. He didn’t play bass rhythmically, he played it lyrically. I was just trying to complement what he was playing.

PATTERSON: The support for black bands like ours was from places like Upstairs At Ronnie Scott’s, The 100 Club, the Pheasantry, Café Des Artistes. Small venues. We played the Croydon Greyhound with Edgar Broughton.

SCIPIO: We started doing some shows outside London, in some of the northern clubs. But I don’t think we were what they were expecting! In some of them, it didn’t go down very well…

PATTERSON: [adopts bolshie northern accent] “Do you know any Bill Haley? Come on!”

KELLY: Obviously we came across problems when we were trying to get record deals. They’d say, “You’re an all-black band, you should try to sound like the Americans – Otis Redding or Curtis Mayfield.” But we didn’t want to sound like that.

SCIPIO: There’s so many versions about how we connected with [producer] John Schroeder. John says he was in Soho, was passing this club and heard this racket going on. But my recollection is that our booking agent brought John Schroeder to us. In those days, John was a cool fella! Long blond hair and a big white Roller.

KELLY: He liked what he heard and thought he could work with us as a producer, which is a bit strange in a way, because the people that he had produced before – Cliff Richard or Helen Shapiro – were a million miles away from what Cymande was going for. But he let us just do what we did.

PATTERSON: We always give him credit for his commitment to the band. He liked what he heard and wanted to capture that, not to produce it or turn it into something else.

SCIPIO: Most of the first album was already written because those were the songs we were using on the road – they got perfected while we were gigging. For “Bra”, the bass was the genesis. How we were writing at the time is that the bass was used melodically. I’d go to Patrick with an idea and often he’d start putting stuff on top of that. In some songs, the vocals were the last thing to be developed. Normally it’s the other way around.

PATTERSON: When I was laying things on top, I was just thinking about patterns to fit. I’m a touch player, not a heavyweight player, so I’m bouncing off Steve rather than setting a thing myself.

KELLY: Unlike a lot of rhythm sections who are trying to lock in, we’re all playing individual things, so you’ve got this mixture going on.

SCIPIO: “Bra” was one of the popular songs at gigs. The middle break with just the bass and drums, as recognised in the documentary, people appreciated that even then.

KELLY: I’m playing four-to-the-bar on the bass drum. We were just trying to think how we could join the middle of the song to the end section. But the DJs turned this into a whole new record – amazing.

PATTERSON: When we came up, it was the time of “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud”. You had the Black Panthers, you had the Black Liberation Front, you had artists who were articulating a black position and trying to make sure that black people recognised the importance of working together. The lyrics of “Bra” reflected that time.

SCIPIO: “Bra” is slang for brother. Within our community, everybody knew what it meant. It was only when we went to the States that you might have people saying, “Why are they singing about brassières?”

PATTERSON: Joey Dee was a talented, brilliant singer. He had a wonderful range, so we could put anything before him and he could sing it. And he had a good presence too. The voice was an instrument in Cymande, but it still gave him scope for demonstrating his talents.

SCIPIO: De Lane Lea was a wonderful studio because it was used for recording movie soundtracks as well as bands. Everyone had their little compartment to control the spillage and we just performed as if we were doing a live gig. We were young people, uninhibited! We didn’t have responsibilities, so when we went in the studio it was just pure enjoyment. A lot of producers want to put their stamp on the music, but John wanted the raw element of what he heard.

PATTERSON: And he produced it well. You could hear every instrument in its own space. Working with John was easy.

SCIPIO: It was very exciting to see our records on the charts in America. John wanted us over there as soon as possible to ride on the wave. It was like going to the centre of music, the Mecca.

KELLY: In England, we were playing relatively small venues. To then be suddenly supporting Al Green on these huge stages… I was half a mile away from Patrick and Steve! But Al Green’s drummer was amazing. For the first week, he would stand by the side of the stage and watch me play, and afterwards he’d come over and give me some advice. I’ll forever be grateful for that.

SCIPIO: The Apollo [in Harlem] had a reputation for not tolerating below-par performances – and the crowd would let you know! So I think some of us had some apprehension about it, but the week we did there was fantastic. We had Jerry Butler coming in and shaking our hands.

KELLY: The Apollo was a real pit, to be honest! The paintwork was crumbling, it smelt… but there was so much black music history oozing out of those walls. It was a great experience.

SCIPIO: It was very frustrating to have your music appreciated by that number of people and then to come back here and there being no-one at the airport, not even one reporter asking about how the tour went. No interest, no articles, nothing.

PATTERSON: It was demoralising. We were entitled to some recognition. So you come back and you find nothing… It says a lot about the industry and how it deals with us as black musicians. There was little or no promotion here, and no airplay.

SCIPIO: [After a while] we all recognised that performing in front of 40,000 and then doing gigs to 300 people, that’s not where we should be.

PATTERSON: We can’t go backwards in that sense. Who does it help? It doesn’t help black musicians or the aspirations we might have to achieve things in music. So let’s take a rest and see where we go.

SCIPIO: I joined Mike [‘Bami’ Rose, Cymande flute/sax player] in a South African band called Jabula. I played with them for maybe five years, but I wasn’t satisfied with just being a squad member in somebody else’s project. I started my law degree, and that was the last time I played any live music until Cymande came back together. I moved to Anguilla to work in the attorney general’s chambers.

PATTERSON: After Cymande, I was musical director for the Black Theatre of Brixton, then I went back to my law studies. I practised in chambers in England, then I worked for the government of Dominica.

SCIPIO: I certainly wasn’t aware of what was going on [with “Bra”’s use
by hip-hop DJs]. The documentary was an eye-opener for me!

KELLY: Myself and Bami Rose kept playing professionally. I’d be somewhere setting up or packing away my drums and I’d hear “Bra” or “The Message” being played, which was really satisfying. But I didn’t have any idea what the DJs in the States were doing. It wasn’t ’til the film came out that I found out people had taken our tracks and remixed them. Watching these DJs talk about Cymande’s music in such reverent terms was just amazing.

SCIPIO: I’m happy people see something in our music that’s influential. To listen to something and appreciate it is one thing, but for it to impact on you in such a way that you take elements of that thing and make it part of your own, that’s on an entirely different level.

KELLY: We had unfinished business, but I didn’t know it was going to take 40 years!

SCIPIO: When we came off the road in the ’70s, it was never intended to be a disbanding, just a hiatus. But the renewed interest in us provided the opportunity to put into effect the plans we had when we first decided to call it a day.

PATTERSON: It was very exciting to see that we had, if you like, travelled through time. We were now faced with a bunch of young people appreciating our music.

SCIPIO: We’ve just completed a tour of Canada and the US, and at the end we took three or four days off and said, “We’ll do a couple of tracks.” And they went well.

PATTERSON: We recorded at a great studio in LA. It suited us, because we still cut live. This will be quite an important album, I think. The aspiration has to be consistent with what we have already created.

SCIPIO: The spirit of the performance should still be recognisably Cymande. Not like a load of old doddery guys just going through the motions!


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