How Britain got its groove back: the return of Cymande

Cult south London band Cymande were neglected in 1970s Britain but played to huge stadiums in the US. As a new documentary tells their tale, we spoke to Cymande’s Steve Scipio and Patrick Patterson and director Tim MacKenzie-Smith.

16 February 2024

By Leigh Singer

Steve Scipio on stage in Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande (2022) © Sarah Lancaster

For decades, Cymande was the best-kept secret of Black British music. A south London band who combined funk, jazz, soul, reggae, often with a political viewpoint, tracks like ‘Bra’, ‘Dove’ and ‘The Message’ on their run of 1970s albums were sampled over and over by everyone from American master DJs to hip-hop stars like De La Soul, MC Solaar, Wu-Tang Clan and the Fugees. Reforming some 40 years on, and finally getting the opportunities and acclaim that the UK music industry denied them first time out, the original members, including songwriters bassist Steve Scipio and guitarist Patrick Patterson, plus famous musician fans like Jazzie B, Loyle Carner and Mark Ronson, feature in Tim MacKenzie-Smith’s new documentary Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande.

Tim, you were a long-time Cymande fan, way before you ever thought of making a documentary on the band?

Tim MacKenzie-Smith: Yeah, I was at uni in the mid-90s, and I had a rare groove mixtape. Two tunes on there I absolutely adored but had no idea who they were by. A few years later, I moved in with a great mate of mine in Streatham, a record collector, and he was playing Cymande. And then [their track] ‘Bra’ came on and I was like, “Oh my God!” Then he told me the backstory, that they came from just down the road, in Balham and Brixton. And I was like, “How the hell do I not know this? And why do we all not know that?”

So, you were keen on spreading the word on Cymande from that point on?

TMS: Yeah, for the next 10 to 15 years, every party we had, we’d be chucking Cymande on. And either people would be loving it, going, “What the hell is this?” Or they’d be going, “Oh, man, is that the Fugees sample?” Or, “Is that the De La Soul sample?” So, there were always questions in our minds that we wanted answering.

Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande (2022)
BFI Distribution

The range of musicians and DJs who have used Cymande’s music stretches from disco to all eras of hip-hop. Patrick and Steve, when did you start to get a sense that your music was getting appreciated not just by music fans but by people who were actually creating their own music using samples of your past work?

Steve Scipio: For me, my older children were the ones that first communicated to me that they had heard samples of our pieces in some of the music they were listening to. The first significant piece of music that I heard myself, where our material had been sampled, was the Fugees ‘The Score’, in which they sampled ‘Dove.’

Patrick Patterson: It’s the sampling that has kept the music alive, whereby it’s not, how can I say, ‘nostalgic music’. It’s music that has a currency with the young people of today, and that has a lot to do with the fact that it was sampled by the younger generations.

Cymande’s music is such a versatile, fascinating mix of styles – jazz, soul, funk, reggae – which appears why it inspired use in such a wide range of other music. What were you listening to and influenced by when you started playing together?

Patrick Patterson: As a guitarist I was into what Jimi Hendrix was doing.

Steve Scipio: I listened to a lot of jazz, particularly Miles Davis and his later 60s stuff, Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way. Also, around the same time, we had Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and Stevie Wonder; he also became more political in terms of the message in his music around that period there.

Drummer Sam Kelly
Sarah Lancaster

What seems so unfair is that these American artists were successful in the UK when they sang about social and political ideas, but you were somehow denied the chance to have a similar platform. Why do you think that was?

SS: My take is that the American artists were not seen as threatening. They were only here temporarily; they came over for the few shows, and they went back to the States. So, any political message in their songs were not associated with the UK. Whereas with us, the message that we had in our songs, we’re homegrown. And they probably saw that as potentially more threatening. But, of course, not all our songs were political.

PP: It’s a deep question. In part, it’s what British society said to itself or sought to persuade itself, that no provision needed to be made for us because they didn’t hold our music in very high regard. They saw us as guys with our shirts tied up around our navels, doing limbo – that was the perception of Black music, which was far from the truth. There were some top-notch Black musicians in this country, creating original music. And Cymande was fortunate in that we had found a great audience in America.

Knowing how difficult it was to play your music in the UK, the documentary’s detailing of your US tour is especially gratifying…

SS: Our week at the Apollo [in Harlem] meant a lot, because that was such a significant venue at the time. And touring with Al Green. I mean, we were coming from the UK where we were doing club gigs with 200 people. Then suddenly you’re in the States in a football stadium with 40,000 people…

PP:  You know, the idea that a band like ours could make that journey… I think we were part of what the media refers to as the British musical invasion of North America. We weren’t the Stones or the Beatles, but that is what we did from Balham!

I’ve heard you say you never actually split up in 1975, but there’s quite a gap between that time and coming back to play as Cymande in the 2010s…

SS: For me, Cymande was in the past, but not finished. Yeah, so it was an experience that we were looking forward to rejuvenating at some time. Both Patrick and I still continued writing.

PP: The response of the other four original members when we said, “Okay, we’ll put it all back together,” clearly demonstrated that it was not in the past for them either. Even though they had moved into different areas, they still harboured this idea of the importance of their membership of Cymande and the importance of the band in terms of Black music in Great Britain, so they were happy to jump back into it.

Tim, you were at the band’s first UK gig since reconvening in 2014?

TMS: We all went to their first gig back at KOKO in 2014. We didn’t have any plans on making a documentary at that point, we were just there as punters. And we were probably the oldest people there. It was incredible – the guys talk about it in the film – just how blown away they were by how young the audience were, young people who had found them on the internet.

Cymande

When the band agreed to have their story documented, what was your approach?

TMS: It was just a process of obsession. I mean, we started to get the first non-band talking head interviews in early 2018. And I think the last interviews we got probably were Khruangbin in May 2021. So, it was a three-year period of stalking every person on planet Earth to see if there’s any kind of Cymande connection. The key thing for me is I came into this as a fan of the music, but I grew, more than anything else, to be a fan of the people that made the music. I became very close to them, and the duty of care I felt I had towards them was huge.

What are all your thoughts on the finished documentary and the journey of Cymande that it charts?

TMS: What’s so fantastic about it for me is that they’re finally getting the recognition. People are loving the music because the music just doesn’t fade. It’s just still growing.

SS: I see it as a great opportunity to continue the project that we’d started in the 70s. To use the platform that we now have to further develop and communicate the music that we so enjoy making and playing together.

PP: I think I think our story resonates in a really broad way. And I think that’s a very important thing for Black people in the United Kingdom. I’m very proud of what Steve and I and the other dudes have done. I feel we’ve represented our community well, by showing that we can persevere. Don’t let people deter you from something that you feel strongly has merit.


Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande opens in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 16 February 2024.

It is released on Blu-ray on 26 February.

Cymande will be on tour in support of the film release throughout 2024, including dates in UK, Europe and Australia.

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