Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber is coming to Cincinnati’s MOTR Pub this Thursday, Sept. 17! The band describes itself as “a territory band, a neo-tribal thang, a community hang, a society music guild aspiring to the condition of all that is molten, glacial, racial, spacial, oceanic, mythic, antiphonal and telepathic.” We talked to band leader Greg Tate and bassist Jared Michael Nickerson about the group’s sound, Afrofuturism and the country’s vast black musical communities.
Midwest BSFA: How do you define Afrofuturism?
Greg: Half jokingly, “The Futurizm of The Afroes.” More soberly, “The Encyclopedic Narrative of Timeless Black Being in the Universe, Ancient and To The Future.”
Jared: I know this is a serious question, but having an Afro back in the day, there’s no future for it with me. Took up too much time and was way too much work. Big ups to the ladies in my life back then…couldn’t have kept my Afro “tight” without you! Now I’m rocking the Issac Hayes/Black Moses look – no muss, no fuss, more time to play bass.
Midwest BSFA: Does labeling something “Afrofuturistic” make it less “Afrofuturistic”?
Greg: Not at all. Especially given that things in the canon of Afrofuturism are also Afrohisotircal. Afrofutrurism is black Retrofuturism, too.
Jared: No, it stays the same. Just saying.
Midwest BSFA: What defines Burnt Sugar as a neo tribal band?
Greg: Some of us have been communally playing music together for over 30 years and helped form the very musical urban tribe known as The Black Rock Coalition.
Jared: “Neo” due to the continuous evolution of BSA’s personnel and sound. Initially, Greg and I witnessed the electric guitar phase, which led to the multi-vocalist phase; then the twelve-piece horn and string section phase, culminating with our More Than Posthuman – Rise of the Mojosexual Cotillion big band. All of these personnel shifts are documented throughout our 16 mostly self-produced and self-released TruGroid & AVANTGROIDD recordings (Making Love to the Dark Ages was a co-production with Colin Faber’s NYC label LiveWired).
“Tribal” in the sense that over our 15 years of making music with a crew of ridiculous talents, every player who’s come aboard the Good Ship Sugar-Lollipop has graciously and vigorously embraced our style of “Conduction” and making music.
Midwest BSFA: What artists have been most influential to your style of music?
Greg: Sun Ra, David Hammons, Skunder Boghassian, Frank Bowling, The Ohio Players.
Jared : In reference to Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, in my estimation, there would be two: Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris and his “Conduction” system which has, is and will always be our foundation; and Greg’s adaptation of “Conduction” melded with his conceptual, songwriting and lyrical talents. In regard to what I bring to the Sugar on the down low bass, I’d have to start with James Brown (shoutout to Dyke & the Blazers); then the influence of non-formatted radio in the ’60s, as I can still remember the day my radio played The Four Tops “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” followed by Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” and how the “swing” of both tracks made perfect sense to me. AM radio was all about the three-minute hit, but was eventually supplanted by album-oriented FM radio, which hung its hat on playing six- to 12-minute tracks to albums in their entirety; between the two radio formats, I developed an appreciation of and became well versed in all forms of Western popular music, which allows me to be able to play whatever’s called for today.
Midwest BSFA: What were your early musical influences and how have they changed over the years?
Greg: Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Funkadelic, Sun Ra, Labelle, Betty Davis, Sly Stone, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Santana, Tony Williams, The Siley Brothers. To these would have to be added Bad Brains, The Clash, King Crimson, Bob Marley, Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Chocolate Genius, Nona Hendryx, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jean Grae.
Jared: Living in Dayton, Ohio, in the mid-60s, I was fortunate to experience JB “live” three to four times a year, along with participating in the Sweet Inspirations and Temptations-styled singing groups/R&B show band revues/drum duos high school talent shows. Those early experiences deeply ingrained the importance and impact of a great live performance. To this day, every time I strap the bass on and hit the stage, my intent is to create a rapport with my bandmates and the audience hopefully culminating in an euphoric live-performance experience.
Midwest BSFA: A lot can be said about the loss of a black music community with supporters, mentors, apprentices, promoters, etc., all within the black community. Do you feel that loss is perceived or actual?
Greg: Burnt Sugar is actually deeply connected to several large tribal musician communities in black America and beyond. The New York, Detroit, DC, WIlmington, Baltimore and Philadelphia jazz communities, the Black Rock Coalition community in NYC and L.A., the AACM community in New York and Chicago, the Afropunk community, the Wondaland Arts community led by Janelle Monae in the ATL, the Vision Festival community, the Conduction Orchestra community, the Jazz At Lincoln Center community, the New York hardcore community, the NY hip-hop community, the west coast Get Down community in L.A., etc., etc., etc.
People are still making music happen in the (national) black community wherever they happen to be standing to greater or lesser degrees. And building audiences and forming alliances with producers in those places, too. The kind and degree is subject to all kinds of market forces – technology, gentrification, migration, mass media and so forth. But there are still viable undergrounds out there. And experience has taught us that things tend to be cyclical.
As in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s, right now is another eruptive, self-reflective when black America is re-connecting the dots between grassroots culture and grassroots activism. Black Rock Coalition has been round for 30 years and Burnt Sugar Arkestra for 16 and through our connection to both enduring, sustainable model of development based institutions we know that given black Americas political economic and cultural circumstances the M.O. always has to be “evolve or die” and “stick and move” if you want the work to continue flourishing.
So we use all the modern technological social networking means at our disposal to form new links of interconnectivity with our comrades in arms and our support bases. Being independent artists though the first thing you learn “on the job” is how to turn a nickel into a dollar. On another tip, though the history of black music is one of building community wherever it goes globally – all of us working in the music today, whether at a mass media level or a grassroots levee are just keeping that flow going.
Jared: Perceived. Hmmm, I think everything actually looks really strong right now. So strong and with way too many fly Black music artists/entrepreneurs and Black music artists/entrepreneurs to list.
Midwest BSFA: These days when the post-racial myth is being disproven on a daily basis, do you see evidence of an emergence of a 21st century black renaissance?
Greg: Right now, we’re seeing more and more younger black folk stepping up to engage to claiming their place and contribute to sustaining the legacy of our beautiful and historic struggle. same as it ever was when we’ve recognized ourselves as being in a deep crisis and under attack in America.
Jared: I could see how consciously in-tune folks who have come of age over the last two decades might view “current days” as a renaissance. But as I have more than a half-century of consciousness to provide perspective, I really am happy to say and believe, I see this being a time of “the black excellence continuum.”
When you mention the “disproving of the post-racial myth,” the higher visibility 21st century technology has provided might be at the core of that development. What might of taken years to progress from personal, to regional, and if allowed to rise to the surface, common public knowledge in the past, now, in these days and times, everyone with a camera phone and computer can become a documentarian and broadcast amazing & disturbing feats to be viewed instantly.
Midwest BSFA: How does the free jazz movement correlate with hip hop and younger voices creating movements like #BlackLivesMatter?
Greg: All those movements are about breaking down the artificial boundaries between black folk – educated and self-taught, young and old, wealthy and gully, whatever – to create stronger and more resourceful communities. They all began at the fringe and gradually came to define the “mainstream.”
Jared: I am familiar with the old school, r&b/funk and funky jazz movement, and I hate to do this, but I’ll answer you question with a question – where would hip hop, and quite frankly all twentieth century rhythmic underground and popular music be without James Brown? I think you can dig where I’m coming from.
Midwest BSFA: What could we revisit from that era that might resonate today?
Greg: Cultural self-recognition and self-sufficiency regardless of mass media or corporate attention. Letting us be enough to impress and legitimatize us.
Jared: Get people involved. Get them to care about not only the outcome, but the process too.
Midwest BSFA: What points of view can listeners expect to hear on your current album?
Greg: Ha, the next album we’re just beginning to compose now but I can already say it going to sound militantly cosmic and combatively erotic. Black love matters like a mutha for ya.
Jared: I can’t speak regarding our lyrical point of view, but musically, be it a current (“All Ya Needs That Negrocity”), past or future recording, they’ll hear that BSA’s music is always pushing to create something soulfully new; either “straight-off-the-top-of-the-dome improvisations or mixing known musical motifs till they lose their original identity and become “caramelized” as only the “Sugar” can do it. I’d also like to mention, it shouldn’t be lost in this expectance equation that Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber throughout the musical process is having the best of times making it happen. We’re hopeful the listener is also able to hear our joy. Let’s go!
Midwest BSFA: What message do you like to leave with your audience?
Greg: Ain’t nothing but a abstract poetic cosmo-mythic Burnt Sugar party, yawl.
Jared: With all that’s vying for their time and attention, we feel honored they’ve made it a point to attend a Burnt Sugar Arkestra performance. In appreciation, we feel obligated to “hit it right” while also creating magical musical moments only to be witnessed by BSA and the audience in attendance at that particular show.