A good funk band, like fine wine, just gets better with age. Anyone who attended last summer’s Goombay Festival and heard The Original P (Parliament) can attest to that. And with funk veterans the S.O.S. Band headlining this year’s festival, Goombay’s 20th anniversary feels more like a silver one.
“The original S.O.S. Band — that’s music from my day, baby,” says Connie Jefferson, the YMI Cultural Center’s festival coordinator.
The roots of the S.O.S. Band go back to Atlanta in 1977, when Mary Davis (vocals/keyboards), Jason Bryant (keyboards), Billy Ellis (saxophone) and James Earl Jones III (drums) began performing at Lamar’s Regal Room under the name Santa Monica. The band caught the ear of Tabu Records exec Clarence Avant, who dispatched a young producer named Sigidi (Abdallah) to check them out.
The band soon signed a record deal with Tabu, changed their name to the S.O.S. Band, and added members Willie “Sonny” Kinnebrew (saxophone/flute), John Simpson III (bass, keyboards) and Bruno Speight (guitar). Producer Sigidi and the late Harold Clayton co-wrote the band’s summer smash of 1980, “Take Your Time (Do It Right),” and, based on that success, the band toured the world in support of their self-named debut album, adding trumpeter/percussionist Abdul Ra’oof.
Over the next four albums they worked with producers Gamble & Huff, Leon Sylvers, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (of The Time) and scored several hit singles, including “Just Be Good to Me,” “Tell Me If you Still Care” and “High Hopes.” Sassy lead vocalist Mary Davis left the band in 1987, and the band did two albums without her. In August of 1994, Davis reunited with Ra’oof and Jason Bryant, and got the S.O.S. Band back on the road.
Complementing S.O.S.’s seasoned sound will be the high-energy young party band Mandorico, also based in Atlanta. No stranger to Asheville, the group, whose multi-ethnic mix represents the new South, plays more than 200 dates a year. “It’s a throwdown live,” says energetic founder and lead singer Jesse Lauricella.
The band bucks being tagged simply a “Latin” band — like L.A.’s Ozomatli, they do a lot more. “We listen to all different kinds of music — ska, Latin, reggae, funk — we’re not going to limit ourselves by playing just one style,” says trombonist Jonathan Lloyd. “Everybody has styles that they want to play, and this is just what we come out with,” he continues. “We have stuff we’re doing now that’s kind of rock, and we like to fuse that with a little bit of dancehall, a little Latin ska, or like straight-up Afro-Cuban type music. None of it is ever what I’d call traditional. We’re just trying to do our own thing.”
The group’s third CD, due in October and tentatively titled Flamatan, takes that mix-and-match aesthetic even further. “We’re doing some stuff that you wouldn’t even think is our band,” Lloyd declares. “There’s definitely some Latin touch, but there’s also stuff that’s rocked out, dancehall and some jazz influence.” Besides Lauricella and Lloyd, Mandorico features Jim Harmon on bass, drummer Alan Marcha, percussionist Juan Louis, Yahya on guitar, Stephen Farmer on trumpet and Alan Soave on saxophone.
Rooted in the arts
“Goombay” comes from a West African word meaning “rhythm” or “drum.” And the mission of the Goombay Festival, according to a statement from the YMI Cultural Center, is “to celebrate and promote the rich African-American heritage in our community.” In keeping with YMI’s cultural agenda, festival coordinators use arts, history, music and dance as tools to this end. A memorial mural of the YMI center will be unveiled Friday at the W.D. Reid Community Center. And, since early August, a photographic retrospective — Goombay 1983-2001 — has been on display in the YMI’s second-floor galleries. Participating artist Steve Mann — acclaimed for his archival photography of Southern gospel singers and a Goombay-goer since 1983 — recently remarked, “I always loved going … it is the most soulful community-oriented festival in the region.”
From one band and a boombox to its current 30,000-plus swells of attendees, Goombay — still held on The Block, Asheville’s historically African-American business district, encompassing Eagle and Market streets — now boasts crowds second only to Bele Chere.
“I have seen this festival grow tremendously over the last 20 years without losing its flavor or soul,” Mann concluded.
The Block’s 20th Annual Goombay Festival, a free event, takes to the streets Friday, Aug. 23 at noon and lasts through Sunday, Aug. 25 at 5:30 p.m., closing with a parade of drummers and dancers.
Mandorico plays the main stage on Saturday, 7:45-8:45 p.m., opening for headliners the S.O.S. Band, who play 9-10:45 p.m. Additional acts scheduled to perform during the three-day festival include Hidden Agenda, Ruby Mayfield and the Blues Defenders, Dub Axxess, Perfect Pitch and the Free Spirit and Connections dance troupes.
Other festival features include ethnic-food and craft vendors and a Goombay Youth Showcase on the side stage. This year Goombay offers a late-night venue; after the music fades on the street, “Club YMI” will offer the sounds of Chuck Beattie and Blues by Design on Friday, and West Sound on Saturday, 11:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m.
The Rev. Wendell E.O. Christopher will lead a Sunday worship service on the main stage beginning at 11 a.m. Gospel Fest starts at 1 p.m. Sunday, with Crowns of Light, The Spiritual Lights, Sonlight Gospel Singers, Hill Street Baptist Church adult choir, St. James AME youth choir, Karle Mapp and Charles Pickens performing. For more information about Goombay, call 252-4614.