Originally formed in North Carolina, Brooklyn-based afro funk collective, Super Yamba Band, have been playing together for over a decade. Describing their sound as “The JBs meets Orchestre Poly Rhytmo meets Sly & The Family Stone meets Afrika 70 meets The Meters”, the group have a new AA-sided single, Yen Ni Agoro / Wo Nkoa Mendo in stores, care of Ubiquity. This fresh 45 features a guest appearance by Osei Korankye, one of the very last remaining masters of the Ghanaian lute, the Seperewa.
An act renowned for their live performances, The Insider spoke to band co-founder, and leader, Daniel Yount, just as New York`s pandemic restrictions were – hopefully – finally lifted.
Interview cooly conducted by The Insider.
Thanks for taking the time to talk. Where are you right now and how are you spending your day?
Hey, thanks so much. My day has been pretty good, all things considered. I spent the afternoon with the bassist from our band, shopping for a new bass rig. I’m now unwinding with my wife and our dog at home, spinning some records.
With all that’s going on in the world, how is the mood in Brooklyn?
Wow, it has been such a volatile two years with COVID ups and downs. On that front, the rules and restrictions have just relaxed in the city this week, so no mask mandate or vaccination mandate for restaurants and clubs anymore, so it feels like we’re really turning a corner. But the mood is also somewhat somber because of the war breaking out in Ukraine. My wife and I were out walking over the weekend and saw a sign written, over the colors of the Ukrainian flag, that said something like, “I’m only 14 years old. Why do I have to see people being killed in war?” and it really broke my heart.
We live in such a globalized, connected time and we’re also bombarded by distractions — so I find myself really oscillating between feeling devastated by suffering, toggling between my work and the million different things that are required of you as a musician every day, and trying to honour, enjoy, and appreciate my life.
I’ve noticed people being more kind to each other in daily settings, which I think could be a reflection of the fact that we’re all dealing with so much.
Post pandemic, are clubs and gigs back to full steam?
Thankfully, yes! We have waited a long time for things to actually get back to “normal” and I think with the mask and vaccination mandates being lifted, we can finally say that we’ve arrived. There was a lot of whiplash in the past year with things getting better and then much worse and then a little better and then bad again—it’s been a very hard time for musicians and small businesses. So, I think we’re all just hopeful that this might mark the actual return to normal. And as a musician, there’s nothing more energizing than being back in a room full of people dancing and we’ve been taking every opportunity we can to play.
If we could have had this conversation over a coffee, where would have been your favourite place to hang and chat in Brooklyn?
For a very peaceful coffee in a garden, I would suggest Sit & Wonder in Prospect Heights. I used to live nearby and go there all the time. Or for an evening hang, I would recommend we head to Wild Birds. They actually just transformed their coffee bar into a secret cocktail bar called The Green Room, so we might have to skip the coffee there. But on a sunny, warm day, you can sit outside and listen to live music in the evenings and it’s so lovely.
Sit & Wonder
When did Super Yamba first form? How did you all get together?
So Super Yamba Band started without a lead vocalist. We were a fully instrumental group, and many of us have been playing together in different forms for more than ten years – from back when several of us lived in North Carolina together. We slowly built up the band, adding new core members through 2016. In 2017, we began to look for a vocalist who could really bring our music to life. Think of us as the JBs without James Brown — we really had a solid funky groove and an arsenal of songs, but we knew we needed the energy and performance that you can only get from a front person. So, we were introduced to several people around this time, one of whom was Kaleta, who we’ve been playing and touring with ever since. Along the way, we’ve also collaborated with other artists, like the release you’ve heard featuring Osei Korankye. We are the funky backbone to a lot of different projects at this point.
Who are all the members of the band and what parts do you play?
The core Super Yamba Band group is made up of Walter Fancourt – tenor & barry sax, percussion, keys, Sean Smith – trumpet, percussion, keys, Eric Burns – guitar, Amu Oladotun – bass, and Evan Frierson – congas, talking drum, percussion. I’m the bandleader and play drums and percussion. We’ve had some subs and special guests over the years, like right now we have another percussionist while Evan is working on David Byrne’s American Utopia, but we always come back to the core group.
Are all of the band based in Brooklyn?
Pretty much. Evan lives in New Jersey, to be closer to Broadway right now, but the rest of us are in Brooklyn. Our studio, which we’ve nicknamed The Yamba Kitchen, is right next to Prospect Park, so I would definitely say we’re based here.
What musical projects were you all involved in before the band formed?
Your music is played by a lot of DJ heads. Are any of you DJs or have you been over the years?
I actually love to go to a place called King Tai and spin records. I’m definitely a novice, but I love collecting vinyl and curating playlists. This is something that I recorded for fun in the midst of the pandemic:
But you’re all vinyl collectors, right? Who’s got the most impressive collection out of you all?
Great question. I think, because it’s so hard to store and move vinyl records, that some of my bandmates haven’t really gotten into collecting. So, I might get to claim that title? But everyone in Super Yamba Band has incredible taste and really unique interests. Ask Walter about almost any genre of music and he can take you through some really interesting picks — he’s a music and movie discovery machine. Evan knows the most about music from South America. Eric might be our resident jazz head. Amu is into mixtapes. Sean can take you to the best place to hear music in Bushwick any night of the week.
What kind of rarities might we find in your collection?
There is this hidden gem record shop, called African Record Center, very close to where I live. It has been around for decades. The owners have recommended some amazing 45s over the years, including an Afro National single that I love to listen to.
Are there any other cool record shops in Brooklyn that we should check if we’re in town?
The sound of Super Yamba Band is deeply rooted in Afrobeat and Funk. Where and when did this shared love of African music and African traditions first come about for you guys?
We had a lot of influences as young musicians in North Carolina. I was probably first influenced by New Orleans funk, and New Orleans music and culture in general, which has a deep connection to the African diaspora. Then in 2010 Evan, Walter and I were introduced to a musician named Mamadou, who is a griot from Senegal who plays tama (talking drum), and he really opened our eyes up to Senegalese drumming traditions, which brought us to other West African traditional music and then into Afrobeat and Afro-Funk.
How would you describe this unique blend of sound that Super Yamba has created?
The JBs meets Orchestre Poly Rhytmo meets Sly and the Family Stone meets Afrika 70 meets The Meters.
What do you think are the most important afro funk records?
There are so many but here are a few of my favorites:
T.P. Orchestre Poly Rythmo`s first LP
Ebo Taylor – Twer Nyame
The Psychedelic Aliens – Psycho African Beat
Who are the artists that have inspired the music that you make?
Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, Ebo Taylor, Pat Thomas, Orchestre Poly Rythmo, King Sunny Ade, Mulatu Astatke and so many more.
Super Yamba live is what you’re most well known for. Can you remember the first live concert you played together?
The fist gig that I can remember playing with the full band was either at The Shrine in Harlem – inspired by Fela’s Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria – or maybe at our friend’s loft party in Bed Stuy.
Is there a venue in Brooklyn that you regularly play now, and would you say you have a ‘home’ crowd there?
We have been playing at Wild Birds every Thursday. It’s not a huge room but it’s always packed, people are dancing, and the crowd usually won’t let us stop playing when it’s time to quit. We love it there. The owner is very pro-musician, and he works hard to make sure bands are taken care of there. Barbés is another world-music / jazz institution in Brooklyn that we frequent. We’ve been playing there for about six years and have grown our local fan base there. We’ve played at so many venues in New York at this point. A major highlight was performing at The Apollo Theater in 2019.
I guess the crowds don’t stand still at your gigs. One big dance off, right?
Oh yes. It’s always a sweaty dance party…and we are a big band so a lot of the stages we play on in clubs in Brooklyn aren’t even quite large enough — we end up kind of spilling out into the crowd with our horn section and some of the rhythm section. We dance and groove with the crowd, and as cliche as it sounds, we really feed off their energy. It’s so much fun.
There is something very exciting about a group of people on a stage. What other bands have inspired you guys over time?
James Brown. He was / is one of the most inspiring performers of all time and his records influenced a lot of the afro-funk that we listen to, too. So, he’s kind of the root of all of it in a way. I also love Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & The Family Stone, Booker T. & The MGs, Ray Charles, The Meters, Peter Tosh, The Talking Heads, Miles Davis. I grew up listening to The Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix with my Dad in addition to all the old blues legends like Muddy Waters, Albert King, and Howlin’ Wolf.
How much do you guys get out of performing live on stage together? How much of a buzz is that for you?
It’s such a buzz. There has been nothing more energizing than the feeling of being in front of actual dancing people after a year-plus COVID hiatus. I feel like our music is really best experienced live, so being back in a room with a crowd of people out enjoying the night feels so good. We live for it!
What are the challenges of live performance?
We’re a pretty large band with lots of instruments and inputs. One big challenge is playing in smaller clubs where it’s hard to fit all of us on the stage. We’re also a challenge for some sound engineers, not that we’re difficult, but it takes time to get us setup and dialed in. Touring is also a challenge with a large band. The music business in general is just very tough but we try to stay focused on the big picture and remember why we are working so hard on our craft and why we’ve stayed dedicated to our artistic expression. You really gotta love it to stay in the music business for all these years!
You have collaborated with the incredible Mamadou Mbenge, the Senegalese storyteller and master of the talking drum. You mention that he was key in the development of your sound. Can you share some of the things you learnt from him?
Evan and I have both learned so much from Mamadou. He’s taught both of us how to play tama, or talking drum, and Evan has really become a tradition bearer of Mamadou’s teachings. He’s also taught us a lot of traditional Senegalese rhythms, grooves, and drum breaks. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to learn from him.
You have a pretty close relationship with Kaleta. Is he almost a full-time member of the band?
Our main project and focus for the past several years has been playing and writing and recording with Kaleta. We are really lucky to work with him and get to pick up from his experience playing with Fela and King Sunny Ade. He’s a true legend and an amazing performer. Super Yamba Band and Kaleta both work on separate projects, too, but our core focus has been on growing our sound together over the past several years. All the touring we’ve done since 2017 has been with Kaleta & Super Yamba Band.
Your first single came out in 2016 – N’diarabi – with vocalist and dancer Ismael Kouyate. Looking at what Ismael has done in his career; he must have been pretty dynamic to work with.
Ismael is a formidable force. He’s worked with Beyonce; he was on the Fela show on Broadway. He has a very powerful voice, and he was a pleasure to work with.
On Jibiti you had a remix by one of our favourite producers, Bosq. If anyone is going to do justice to your sound, Bosq is the man. What is it you love about Bosq?
I’m a huge fan of Ben’s music. His albums on Ubiquity Records and with Kaleta were some of my first tastes of his work. I love his remix album of Orchestre Poly Rythmo. He knocked the Jibiti remix out of the park!
Fela Kuti was a musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre, a human rights activist and political maverick. Would you say that there is always a message in your music?
Not in the same way as Fela used his music for advocacy, but some of our songs have messages. Jibiti is about world leaders who say they will look out for the people but don’t actually help anyone. Control Per Capita, the name really speaks for itself, but it was written in reference to Trump and his efforts to close the borders and ban certain countries. We also covered Black Man’s Cry by Fela, and released that song on Bandcamp with proceeds benefiting The Breonna Taylor Foundation. We feel some responsibility as an Afrobeat band to follow in Fela’s footsteps and use music as a weapon — it’s definitely a part of the Afrobeat tradition.
Going forward, do you think it will be tougher for ‘bands’ to release music?
It’s a hard time to be a musician. It’s gotten to be nearly impossible to make money off of releasing music, especially if you’re a lesser-known band, so labels have a hard time taking a chance on new music. Streaming has been a beautiful thing for discovery, but the business model isn’t fair to the creators.
The much-revered Ubiquity has to have been the first label of its kind specializing in rare cuts and grooves since the 1990s. How did you first strike up a relationship with the label? How many releases have you had with them?
Kaleta was actually our bridge to meeting Ubiquity Records. He has been involved in several releases with them, so we pitched them our first album. This 45 is our fourth release with them, if you count singles and remixes. They have been great to work with and have helped us get our music out all over the world.
Labels come and labels go, why do you think Ubiquity has stood the test of time?
I really don’t know how they’ve done it. It’s impressive. Everything they release seems to be timeless. Soul, funk, afrobeat aren’t going anywhere as long as people keep wanting to dance.
On this release you collaborated with Osei Korankye. How did you manage the production process with you being in different territories?
I was introduced to Osei Korankye by my friend and saxophonist Seth Paris, who knew him well and met him in Ghana. Osei was in New York, and I met him and played a couple gigs with him and Seth. I really loved his sound. After that, we hung out at my apartment and listened to some records together and talked. He was actually texting with Pat Thomas from our living room, telling him that he was sitting there in Brooklyn with me listening to a Pat Thomas record. He couldn’t believe I was so into Afro-funk and Ghanaian music, and I couldn’t believe that he actually knew Pat Thomas. So, I knew Osei would really get it. When Osei returned to Ghana, I had these tracks that we’d recorded a few months prior, and I just sent them to him. I hardly gave him any direction or notes, just the files, and he wrote, arranged, and recorded the vocal parts. When I got the tracks back, I was completely blown away. I knew how talented he was, but I couldn’t believe how perfectly he had dialed in the sound.
The artwork for the E.P. is simply stunning. What can you tell us about the artist?
Sean Smith, our trumpet player, is an unbelievable collage artist as well. He has designed most of our recent album covers and has really helped us create a cohesive look and feel. He goes by Pariah In The Sky. Look him up!
Are you planning any new collaborations in ’22?
Nothing we can share right now, but we’re always working on new music and new collaborations.
Who are your current musical obsessions?
It’s funny, my musical obsessions still seem to be older classic stuff. In fact, I might be going further and further back these days. I’ve recently been obsessed with Freddie King and other blues and soul artists from the `60s. I listen to new music too, but the vast majority of what I listen to is old music.
Does the band have more live gigs dates planned in 2022? Do you plan to tour the band outside if the USA?
We’re touring all over the country this year. If you want to stay in touch with us the best way to do so is through our mailing list on our website: www.superyambaband.com We were supposed to tour Europe for the first time in summer 2020, but obviously that was canceled. Hopefully, we’ll make it over there soon.
Are there more releases in the pipeline we should look out for?
We are hoping to release our next full-length album recorded with Kaleta at Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas. Keep your ears and eyes out!
We wish you much success with this KILLER release.
Thank you so much!
Super Yamba Band`s outstanding new single, Yen Ni Agoro, featuring Osei Korankye, is out now, on Ubiquity.