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Friday, Dec 13, 2019

Download Central: A native American band and some Blo

Sanjoy Narayan traces history and ancestry through music.

brunch Updated: Sep 11, 2016 11:15 IST
Redbone was the first native American rock band; it gave a voice to the indigenous people
Redbone was the first native American rock band; it gave a voice to the indigenous people(Getty Images)

Quite likely you haven’t heard of brothers, Pat and Lolly Vasquez-Vegas. I wouldn’t have either if I hadn’t ended up listening to Witch Queen of New Orleans, a song that references New Orleans’ storied voodoo culture. And that’s how I learnt about Pat (bass and vocals) and Lolly’s (guitar and vocals) band, Redbone. The two brothers are native Americans tracing their ancestry to Yaqui and Shoshone tribes, which makes their band the first native American rock band when Redbone was formed in 1970. I heard Witch Queen... quite randomly on a podcast and on an impulse decided to check out Redbone.

For starters, I played a 1971 album by the band with the same name, Witch Queen of New Orleans. The original cover of the album depicts a 19th century scene showing native Americans on horseback with a large cluster of teepees in the background in what is clearly a settlement of America’s original inhabitants who were dispossessed of their land and livelihood systematically by European colonisers and later the American government, often with violence. The Witch Queen album doesn’t have it but Redbone have a song titled We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee. Those having some familiarity with Native American history will know about the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in a reservation in South Dakota, when a US cavalry regiment shot and killed 150 men, women and children and injured many more. The incident was a controversy that raged for years, and only a century later in the 1990s did the US government formally apologise to the indigenous people for it. In We Were All Wounded..., a song that was not aired for years because of its lyrics, Redbone remember the victims and the horrors of that massacre.

The Vasquez-Vegas brothers and their band have another interesting connection. Jimi Hendrix. The legendary guitarist who traced in his ancestry some Cherokee blood, apparently encouraged and inspired the formation of Redbone and, according to some reports, had great regard for their music.

Redbone played a brand of rock that had many influences: rhythm and blues featured prominently; and although they were a California band, a strong New Orleans touch of jazz and blues. On the album I heard, some songs have tribal roots such as Chant: 13th Hour. But that’s an exception. Most of Redbone’s music is very accessible and unalloyed rock – well, actually I’d say rock that is alloyed with funk, soul and other influences. But the native American spirit always guided the band. Frontman Pat Vegas has said Redbone was not just a band but a movement to give a voice to America’s indigenous people.

Blo were likely the first band from Africa to play 1970s rock with psychedelic influences.

The second recent discovery came from my truffle-sniffing friend, Hemant (a man who’s been referenced more than a couple of times in this column). First, a bit about him. An inveterate audiophile, Hemant does things that could make you wonder how thin the line between sanity and insanity that he treads is. He has more than a dozen amplifiers – from vintage tube amps to wooden 40-year-olds to stuff that has been customised and so on. He has more speakers than he has amps, of course, and makes it a point to permute, combine and play all of this as part of his normal regimen. Occasionally, Hemant sends me a new band or musician that he’s sniffed out and what he sends is invariably a great discovery.

Last fortnight, it was an album by a band I’d never heard of, Blo. They were a Nigerian band, active for 10 years: 1972-82. If Redbone were the first native American band of their kind, Blo were quite likely the first band to come out of Africa that played 1970s rock with strong psychedelic influences. I read that lead guitarist Berkely Jones, drummer Laolu Akintobi and bass guitarist Gbenga Odumosu were influenced by bands such as The Grateful Dead but also that before forming Blo the trio was part of drummer Ginger Baker’s shortlived rock-jazz fusion project, Salt. Of course, we all know Baker – the famed drummer of Cream and Blind Faith and other projects.

Blo’s Phases 1972-82 (the album Hemant e-gifted) was an eye-opener. I had no idea that this was a band doing what it was doing during that decade, that is, playing brilliantly trippy rock. Funky beats, fantastic guitar solos and a sound that ought to have made them soar to the top. On Preacher Man, funk meets 1970s-style Bay Area psychedelia; on Miss Sagit, a vocal-less adventure, the guitar ascends heights that should have easily netted fame for the band. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Not finding success outside of Nigeria despite a lot of touring, Blo experimented with other genres, disco even, before they disbanded. Pity. But the albums are there to explore.


Like his previous album, Blonde, by Frank Ocean (above), grows on you (Getty Images)

For some strange (and I bet prudish) reason, iTunes’s store in India doesn’t let you buy Frank Ocean’s Blonde. So one had to pursue other methods to get hold of his much-awaited album. Blonde had been awaited feverishly by the R&B sensation’s fans.

His previous album Channel Orange was unconventional and eccentric but a huge hit and before Blonde came out, social media and the Internet were abuzz with rumours, teasers and red herrings. Now that it’s out, was it worth the wait? Well, Blonde is as unconventional as Channel Orange was but in a different way. Drum less stretches on its 17 tracks can sound more intimate, emotional and intricate. And, like the previous album, it’s a grower.

From HT Brunch, September 11, 2016

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