Greg Tate on Go-Go, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, and What Makes Him Giddy
Greg Tate always thinks big. Readers of the Village Voice probably remember Tate for his music writing—as a critic at the paper from 1987 to 2003, Tate tossed street slang, academic lingo, and literary and historical references into his music criticism. An Ohio-born, D.C.-raised Howard University grad, Tate co-founded the Black Rock Coalition and wrote the books Flyboy in the Buttermilk and Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, among others.
Lately, though, Tate has been busy with his group Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, a genre-catholic ensemble that likes to combine electric jazz, funk, and hip-hop with avant-garde ideas. He plays guitar and laptop in addition to conducting. Tonight at the Kennedy Center, Burnt Sugar and guests from the D.C. go-go scene perform his latest expansive idea, “Drums Along the Potomac: A Global Go-Go Fantasia.” Tate talked to Washington City Paper about the project over email.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Washington City Paper: When and how did you come up with the idea to do "a new polyrhythmic and romantic orchestral go-go suite"?
Greg Tate: There's an amazing video of Northeast Groovers from about 1997 on YouTube where their legendary conguero [Samuel "Smoke" Dews] gets to take an extended solo, and I realized how nuanced and expressive D.C. conga technique had become as a lead improvisational voice. I also dug how innovative the use of delays, reverb, and other effects were. Smoke's sound and fluidity immediately made me think of tabla music and talking drum music in terms of polyrhythms and making the drums speak their own unique and liquid sort of vocabulary.
So the seed of the project was born in curiosity—a "what if" proposition—as in, "What if you brought those three schools of drumming together? What kind of 'percussion discussion' might ensue?" The pianist and composer Marc Cary is a longtime friend and neighbor up here in Harlem. Marc and I are both from D.C., and we've actually been trying to figure out for years how to collaborate on a go-go related project that would involve more than just bringing one of the bands up to jam with us. Seeing that video of Smoke was the first epiphany.
Another occurred when we heard and read the go-gocentric cycle of poetry of another old friend and D.C. native Thomas Sayers Ellis... That side of his writing has now culminated in an epic book-length poetic polemic called Crank Shaped Notes. It goes in deep on the music culture and politics of go-go. That text gave us the kind of theatrical framing device we felt we needed to make the piece have a certain conceptual gravitas and resonance. Thomas also turned us on to some other younger D.C.-based poets who were also creating lyrical testaments about D.C.: Dwayne Betts, Randall Horton, and Melanie Henderson—especially their recent writing on youth, violence, poverty, and mortality in D.C. We're as curious as anybody to see how deep we can go into the more tragic, blues-thematic areas in concert and contrast those with projecting that good time, rawboned go-go feeling. [It's] definitely going to be an experiment in tension and release.
WCP: How is this being prepared? And will you be doing all new material?
GT: Since we have three different bands within the The Upper Anacostia Lower Gold Coast Symphonic, we proposed that each unit bring in five themes or songs. So Marc Cary is contributing a portion, Go-Go Mickey Freeman, Donnell Floyd, and Kenny "Kwick" Gross gave us five from the Rare Essence catalog, Burnt Sugar crew is doing our bit, and we're also reviving a lesser-known hit of Chuck Brown's from the '70s called "Ashley’s Roach Clip." We're only going to rehearse all together for two long days before the New York show. In the meantime, everyone has mp3s, and, where necessary, charts of the material we're all going to be cramming on.
Live we will be cutting up, opening up, giving you a full-on, nonstop-segue, fluid go-go concert experience—letting the love flow, loud, proud, and funky—but the evening is also going to constructed around theatrical breaks for Thomas Ellis’ work and that of the other poets. Among those writers will be work by those D.C.-bred bard legends Sterling Brown, Ethelbert Miller, Essex Hemphill, and Elizabeth Alexander. Conduction will definitely be a factor in shaping the material and arrangements in concert. Its gonna be a Coney Island Cyclone roller coaster fun-house ride for everybody on and off the stage, trust me on that.
WCP: How did you (and or Jared?) decide who would participate—both from New York and D.C.?
Marc Cary actually has a longstanding relationship with the D.C. scene going back to his own adolescence playing with (I believe) Petworth Boys, Little Benny, and Me'Shell Ndegeocello. He's kept up with the veteran cats like Go-Go Mickey. When Marc proposed the project to Go-Go Mickey, Kwick, and Floyd, they readily jumped on board as a unit. Marc has a long-term working relationship with our tabla player Sameer Gupta—he's been working with Marc and other folk on the New York jazz scene for years.
Marc also brought in our talking drummer Abdou Mboup who's a mainstay with the Malian master griot and global African music star Salif Keita. [Fellow Burnt Sugar leader] Jared Michael Nickerson and I chose judiciously from the Burnt Sugar massive with a mind to keeping the band small enough to travel between New York and D.C. and still make a big-band, Burnt Sugar Arkestra-worthy impact.
WCP: What Burnt Sugar material (or other music) would prepare audience members for this show?
GT: I'm going to answer that in two ways—from the band's perspective and for any potential audience members. There are other born-and-bred DMV heads among the New York City-based side of the TUALGC Symphonic besides Marc and myself. Our guitarist, Ben Tyree, hails from the DMV and went to Howard University. Our vocalist Meah Pace also grew up in the area and has been loving the music since she was a wee one.
Jared Michael Nickerson, our bassist, hails from another funk capital—Dayton, Ohio—where I too was born, strangely enough. He came up and cut his teeth playing on the same live funk club scene that produced The Ohio Players, Slave, Lakeside, and Zapp in the '70s.
Our saxophonist V. Jeffery Smith—a founding member of The Family Stand (remember ''Ghetto Heaven'?'), our violinist Mazz Swift, and our amazing vocalist Lisala are all Burnt Sugar members of longstanding—they've been with us through all our recent expeditions reinterpreting the musics of James Brown, David Bowie, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, and Steely Dan. They're all master musicians who love a musical challenge and love to promiscuously collaborate.
We've given the non-D.C. folk a lot of video and audio to check out—but when we get in the room together we'll see whats what and how ready everyone is to create something fresh, rewrite our scripts in a go-go style.
WCP: What do you think of bouncebeat go-go?
GT: I'm digging what I've heard and seen so far on YouTube—the evolution, the energy, that vital and oh-so necessary youthful reclamation of the spirit of go-go for their own moment in space and time. I hear 'em making that tradition their own—just like every generation is supposed to with a great musical inheritance like go-go.
What I've heard of the What Band really makes a statement—they sound like they’re trying to experiment with Bad Brains and 9:30 Club's new-wave legacy as well as the go-go thang. Right on with that. Not to mention any time us aging veteran Black Rock Coalition cats see some young, black American folk playing concert instruments we tend to get ridiculously giddy.
The Burnt Sugar Arkestra Chamber performs tonight at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. Free. Post-show discussion follows with former WPFW staffer Bobby Hill.