Is a Swedish funk band an exercise in cultural appropriation? Not for trombonist Nils Landgren, who tells Gwen Ansell it’s more about translation – and respect
The Huffington Post nominated 2013 as the “Year of Cultural Appropriation”, but 2014 looks likely to usurp the title. Twerking has bumped the Harlem Shake offstage, and Iggy Azalea is even more loud-mouthed than Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus were in ripping off black culture – but then, she is Australian.
Pale Glastonbury hippies in Native American feathers initially responded in stoned bewilderment to suggestions that the attire speaks of rather more than fashion fancy dress. But if 2013 put cultural appropriation on the agenda, 2014 is starting to get some resolutions passed. The Canadian Bass Coast and Tall Trees music festivals have banned those feathers; Glastonbury will restrict their sale next year.
It’s slowly starting to be understood that privileged groups acting out the codes and modes of presentation of others – whether to advertise “hipness”, to make money, to photocopy stereotypes or to pretend experience of others’ stories – is not cool.
So what, in such a context, are we to make of a Swedish band, mostly without even the excuse of extreme youth, that travels the world as The Funk Unit?
Trombonist Nils Landgren, who leads the Unit, isn’t surprised by the question, but points out that for a long time popular music has not existed in hermetically sealed national boxes. “Even in Sweden,” he says, “we grew up with that music. I remember some of the first records my older brother brought home that excited me were by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, and then James Brown.” The family relationship with jazz goes back even further: Landgren’s father was a cornet-playing Dixieland enthusiast who idolised Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke.
Landgren – with a classical training at Karlstadt, dues paid in pop and rock session work, and a distinguished pedigree in small group and big-band jazz – formed The Funk Unit in 1994. Alto sax funk legend Maceo Parker guested on the band’s first recorded outing, Live in Stockholm, whose playlist included Miles Davis, John Coltrane and PeeWee Ellis’s Chicken. Landgren went on to work extensively with James Brown alumni reedman Ellis and trombonist Fred Wesley, as well as with the Jazz Crusaders. He produced the late Joe Sample’s final album, Children of the Sun and is planning a tribute to Sample next year in collaboration with the musician’s son, as well as Ray Parker Jr and drummer Raymond Weber, who played on the Landgren/Sample 2006 collaboration, Creole Love Call.
Nevertheless, he’s aware that covers of the music of the African-American funk masters have often attracted more than their share of criticism. Riverside Times blogger Ryan Wasoba was particularly cruel about the genre: “‘White funk’ has become an oxymoronic insult that defines the lameness that occurs when slap bass or scratchy guitar chords are abused… every time a suburban high schooler in a Pink Floyd shirt steps on a wah pedal and imitates the opening theme to Shaft, Bootsy Collins’ platform shoes drop down an inch.”
All The Funk Unit members grew up in Sweden (although bassist/vocalist Magnum Coltrane Price’s father is African-American). Which is why, Landgren says, “though the music is a shared language, we absolutely don’t copy. We can’t experience what those original players experienced, so our music has to reflect our own experience. What we get from the musicians we’ve admired is the inspiration. When we play, we translate – without that, just repeating what other people have played would make no sense to us, never mind to the audience. But if people can trace the influences, I don’t mind.”
That kind of seeking for inspiration, asserts Landgren, is vital for any player shaping their own musical voice. “Every [jazz] sax player in the world has to be inspired by Coltrane or Charlie Parker. Let musicians be inspired by the classics, whether they are the classics of Bach, or the classical music of Africa, or the classics of the African-American canon. Anyone on this planet has the right to explore music from elsewhere.”
It’s the way you “bring it home”, he feels, that counts. And for The Funk Unit, bringing it home has to include respect and reparation. “You have to respect the music, the players, and the kind of community it all comes from.” For The Funk Unit, one aspect of that respect is valuing a live feel in their recordings: “We stay away from electronics, over-producing, and fashions in sound. The sound has to have dirt under its fingernails.”
When it comes to payback, The Funk Unit’s involvement is more than metaphorical. A collaboration with Medecins sans Frontieres called Funk For Life has taken the outfit to Kibera township in Kenya to Khayelitsha, and this year to Soweto, to distribute donations of musical instruments they have sourced from Swedish music schools to under-resourced schools in Africa.
“It’s a way of seeing what we can do with our craft – music, not medicine, is what we know,” explains Landgren. “Instruments can engage young people, offer a chance to do something in their lives and even maybe start a profession. But more than that, playing music together teaches solidarity: in a band you have to work together and communicate.” In Khayelitsha last year, Funk for Life (in company with singer Lira) also helped spread information about the treatment options for MDR-TB, while since 2009 proceeds from sales of the album, Funk for Life have been tithed for a contribution to MSF’s work.
This year in Soweto the Unit will be working with bassist Concord Nkabinde and singer Lindiwe Maxolo and the Magnet School Music Project. But again, Landgren emphasises the need for an attitude of respect: “We aren’t telling them what to play. That will be up to the children and their teachers. We’re just providing the tools and, hopefully, a day of fun and seeing what is possible.”
So what does the band get out of it? “It deals with conscience when we can do something. It may only be a contribution of one grain of sand, but the ocean floor is made up of many single grains of sand… And the joy to see the expression on a child’s face, trying an instrument and finding that it works – that’s priceless!”
Main Pic by Dianah Chiyangwa