The British Film Institute
in association with Kush Films presents the UK release of...
Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande
This fantastically revealing 'black British' history, music documentary film arrives in select UK cinemas from Friday 16 February
Join us for a special 'Kush Films' Screening, Q&A + Party on Sunday 18 February
Cymande is the black British band from South London whose totally eclectic sound greatly influenced American music from the 1970's onwards and is now written in music history but they found no support or success in Britain and people in the United Kingdom today have never heard of this genre-bending super group (other than some DJ's), this is their incredible story.
Cymande: Legacy in the Shadows
In the kaleidoscope of musical history, Cymande stands as a dynamic force, a British funk ensemble that emerged in the early 1970s, leaving an indelible mark on the global soundscape. Their journey, rooted in diverse origins and fuelled by an innovative musical fusion, is a tale of resilience, creativity, as well as a quest for recognition.
Origins and Formation:
Cymande's inception can be traced to the vibrant cultural tapestry of London in 1971. Founded by bassist Steve Scipio and guitarist Patrick Patterson, who came from a previous jazz band known as Metre. This was where the musicians picked up additional influences from Nigerian-British percussionist Ginger Johnson. The band's members hailed from various Caribbean nations such as Guyana, Jamaica, and Saint Vincent. With an additional lineup that included musicians such as vocalists Ray James and Joey Dee, saxophonists Derek Gibbs and Peter Serreo, conga player Pablo Gonsales, drummer Sam Kelly, and percussionist Mike “Bami” Rose, each member brought their unique influences and talents to the mix, and they formed a collective whose musical identity transcended boundaries. The band were discovered while performing in a basement club in Soho, London by British R&B producer John Schroeder, who after witnessing the raw talent of these individuals, had them record some demos before convincing Janus Records to sign them. “All he wanted to do was to capture the essence of what Cymande was,” says Scipio. Cymande's sonic journey unfolded against the backdrop of a transformative era. The 1970s, marked by cultural upheavals and social shifts, provided the fertile ground for the band's unique brand of music to take root.
Cymande’s self-titled debut album was released in 1972. Though it failed to make much of an impression in the UK, it did relatively well in the United States, reaching the Billboard pop and R&B albums charts. This success subsequently amounted to a US tour and being invited to tour with the likes of Take Me to the River singer Al Green, jazz musician Ramsey Lewis, and funk-rock band Mandril.
Piggybacking off their ongoing success, Cymande would once again make history when they became the first ever band of British origin to headline at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in New York City in 1973, followed by a performance on the musical variety show Soul Train, two new albums, and a second tour. Cymande were truly living the high life, all in stark contrast to their presence in the UK. “We were virtually unknown in England,” were the words of flautist Bami Rose. “When we went to America we were amazed that people were aware of the hits.”
Upon return to the UK in 1974, the reality of Cymande’s obscurity hit them very quickly as they found themselves victims of gatekeeping, and the lack of opportunities for recognition was compounded by industry preferences favouring more conventional sounds combined with the difficulty of black bands to break through in the white-controlled music scene of the UK, hindered their ascent to mainstream success. This stark reality reflected the broader struggle for diversity and representation within the music industry during that period. Due to their difficulties, the band decided to go on an indefinite hiatus.
It is a testament to Cymande's enduring brilliance that, despite the challenges, their music refused to die. Their single, Bra released in 1972, became extremely popular in the New York disco space before finding its way as a sample in several early Hip-Hop songs, including Sugarhill Gang’s 1985 Work, Work the Body, Raze’s 1986 track, Jack the Groove, Gang Starr’s 1988 single Movin’ On, and on De La Soul’s 1989 debut album 3 Feet High and Rising. The sampling of their work became a regular occurrence throughout the late 80’s and the 1990’s, with other rap artists such as MC Solar and Heavy D. Further recognition commenced when famed African-American film director Spike Lee featured Bra in his 1994 movie Crooklyn, and again in his 2002 film 25th Hour.
1998 saw a lawsuit being brought upon The Fugees, by Cymande members Scipio and Patterson. The unauthorised sampling of their 1972 song, Dove by the American hip-hop trio resulted in a rather lucrative $400,000 (£315,550) royalty settlement for copyright infringement for Scipio and Patterson. “We have managed to protect our interests,” said Patterson.
Decades later, Cymande’s music had found new life in the latter part of the 20th century and beyond. By popular demand, they reunited several times between 2006, 2012, and 2014. By 2015, they had released A Simple Act of Faith- their first album in 41 years. The band returned to the United States in 2016, where they completed a short and successful tour for the first time since 1973.
Cymande's music, an eclectic blend of funk, reggae, soul, calypso, rock, African rhythms, and jazz, possessed a universal appeal. The resonating beats and soulful melodies transcended geographical constraints, reaching far beyond the British shores. Their global influence became evident as their tracks found a home in the hearts of listeners worldwide.
While Cymande's impact on the global music scene was undeniable, their recognition remained eclipsed by the spotlight on African-American bands and even some British black groups like The Real Thing- the most successful black rock/soul group in England during the 70’s. The reasons behind this discrepancy are multifaceted, involving their unique style not quite aligning with the predominant trends of the time in Britain. “There was other Black music going on,” says Patterson, “but ours was different.” This was combined with prevailing racial biases and the nuances of navigating a landscape that was not always inclusive.
Today, as fans of their music span across genres, from hip-hop to house and disco, the time is ripe for a deeper exploration of their story.
The upcoming documentary, Getting It Back: The Cymande Story, serves as a gateway to understanding the profound legacy of this influential band. To fans of their music and those who appreciate the myriad reiterations in contemporary genres, this film is an invitation to delve into the rich tapestry of Cymande's history.
As we celebrate the resilience and innovation of this British funk ensemble, we can collectively ensure that Cymande receives the recognition they rightfully deserve. For those captivated by their rhythms and melodies, experiencing their story on the big screen is not just an option, but rather an imperative. Let the harmonies of Cymande echo through generations, bridging the gap between the past and the present, as we pay homage to a musical journey that defied boundaries and continues to inspire.
GETTING IT BACK: THE STORY OF CYMANDE, (12a) an award-winning music documentary feature, will be released cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 16 February 2024 by BFI Distribution and on extended run at BFI Southbank. It will be available on BFI Player and released on Blu-ray by the BFI on 26 February.
The debut feature film from British director Tim Mackenzie-Smith, this is a riveting account of what happened to Cymande, a Black British group from the 1970s, who by rights should have become homegrown superstars back then, but whose songs did eventually change music history – and the dancefloor. The film had its world premiere at SXSW followed by its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.
Cymande is a band you may never have heard of, but whose music you will very likely know. For anyone who has listened to The Fugees, De La Soul or the Wu-Tang Clan, or who has simply been on a dance floor, you will recognise their irresistible, infectious soulful sound. GETTING IT BACK: THE STORY OF CYMANDE is their incredible untold story; one of joyous creativity and a proud Black identity stifled by the political and institutional obstruction of a racially turbulent UK.
In early 70s south London, in Balham and Brixton, a group of Black musicians, who came to the UK from the Caribbean as children, part of the Windrush generation, formed Cymande (Pronounced Si-Man-Day). Led by Patrick Patterson (guitar) and Steve Scipio (bass) with a common love of rhythms and a message of peace, the band combined jazz, funk, soul and Caribbean grooves to create a new unique sound; music that was political, spiritual –a dove was their symbol – and ahead of its time. Despite finding success in the USA with their first three albums and their hit songs ‘Bra’, ‘Dove’ and ‘The Message’, as well as touring with Al Green and being the first British band to play Harlem’s legendary Apollo, they faced indifference and discrimination at home. Disillusioned they disbanded in 1975.
But their music lived on as new generations of artists, in the UK and the US, in Hip Hop, House, Drum and Bass, R&B and Rare Groove, discovered, sampled and reworked their pioneering sounds and beats, including hits by De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, The Fugees and more, bringing their music to new audiences and cementing their musical legacy. Over 40 years later this eventually prompted the band to come back to play together again, to rapturous crowds and acclaim including a generation who weren’t even born when the band split up.
Illustrated with archival footage, the story of these unsung heroes is told on screen through new interviews with the original band members filmed over two years. There are tributes from musicians and producers who have been influenced and enthralled by their music, including Mark Ronson, Norman Jay, Jazzie B, Craig Charles, Khruangbin, Loyle Carner, DJ Maseo of De La Soul, Prince Paul, Jim James, Louie Vega, Peanut Butter Wolf and more.
“They were a band for thinkers. Their music isn’t throwaway, it’s thought about, it’s challenging, it confronts you. And it makes you dance.” Norman Jay
“To me Cymande were the British Earth Wind and Fire, they were the black British supergroup that never happened” Craig Charles
“Don’t matter how you slice it and dice it they will definitely go down in the hip hop archives as one of the sacred crates. These are songs that upon which, if it wasn’t for songs like these, there would have been no hip hop” Jazzy J
“I Love Cymande. To have them disappear and suddenly reappear again and we are something of the catalyst for it. That’s beautiful” Prince Paul
“The arc of history bends to the just’ It’s taken over 40 years, but better late than never.” Mark Ronson
“The world needs to know this band. They changed music for me, and if you hear them they’ll change music for you as well. I guarantee it” Wil-Dog Abers
“Cymande stands right there as the soundtrack to my life” DJ Maseo