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Kool and the Gang

Jozi Funk Inferno

by Dave Durbach / 31.03.2011

Two of the greatest bands of all time played back to back weekends in Joburg recently. I dusted off some old LPs, called ahead for freebies, filled up on petrol and happily took to the furthest reaches of the city to check it out.

For those of you who thought funk was short for funky house (you know who you are), a brief catch-up… Following the birth of the genre in the late 60s, a new generation late in the next decade were the first to take advantage of electronic instruments. Those who survived the disco fallout would go on in the 80s to spawn modern R&B and hip hop. At the forefront of the scene were two bands often wrongly dismissed as mere disco – Kool and the Gang and Earth Wind and Fire.

Being a dedicated disciple of the funky stuff for years, news of their impending visit came shortly after I got my hands on two of their finest works, Kool and the Gang’s Emergency (1984) and EWF’s All in All (1977) on vinyl from a guy in Atteridgeville a few months ago. Both have been on heavy rotation since then.

Kool and the Gang, Earth Wind and Fire

The first of these bands to hit our shores was Kool and the Gang, who took to the stage last Sunday at Jozi’s tackiest temple to cash-splurging, blood-letting and broken dreams – Emperors Palace. As luck would have it, their set of 20-odd songs included the entire first side of the album I’d been digging for the past few weeks – “Emergency”, “Misled”, “Cherish” and the chronically funky “Fresh”.

Add to this other hits like “Stepping Out”, “Too Hot”, “Hollywood Swinging”, “Jungle Boogie” (from Pulp Fiction), “Open Sesame”…. The list goes on – “You can have it”, “Let’s Go Dancin”, “Ladies Night”, even a cover of MJ’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”.

The audience was on average older and understandably so. This, and the fact that trying to get booze out of the knuckle-dragging barstaff was more effort than it was worth, made for a decidedly urbane crowd, most of whom only managed to get off their asses towards the end of the show, after much prompting from the band. More curiously, the vast majority were Indian (a clear case of “overconcentrating”, hey Jimmy Manyi!?).

As one might expect from any band that first formed in 1964 (two years after the Rolling Stones), there have been numerous personnel changes over the years. Former frontman James “JT” Taylor (the other one) left long ago to pursue a solo career, later to be replaced by the less spectacular Shawn McQuiller. The foundations of the band, however, remain firmly intact – Robert “Kool” Bell is still busting out his bass riffs and Dennis “DT” Thomas is still blowing his funky horn. Most other members are similarly long in the tooth, except for newly recruited backing singer and dancer Lavell Evans.

Kool and the Gang

Similarly, Earth, Wind and Fire’s original frontman Maurice White is no longer part of the touring band. His younger brother Verdine on bass more than makes up for his absence, with his famously flamboyant stage presence – wearing a permanent grin/grimace, silver pants and a silky mane of hair, he was doing Bootsy Collins before Bootsy, and was the antithesis of his opposite number (Kool) the week before. Philip Bailey’s vocal range gives Prince a run for his money, while other long-time members Ralph Johnson and B. David Whitworth are still going strong.

The Earth Wind and Fire gig was on the whole a slicker, more expensive affair. It was held at the Coca Cola Dome, where a refreshing mix of young and old, black and white showed up – although still a much smaller crowd than those who filled up the venue for the infinitely inferior Parlotones gig here not too long ago.

Earth Wind and Fire, Philip Bailey

Fresh from their joint performance at the Cape Town jazz fest the night before, Hugh Masekela opened the show. (All Kool and the Gang got was an Indian chick shouting “Simply the best!”). Backed by a band of much younger musos, Bra Hugh belted out classics like “Khawuleza”, written by Dorothy Masuka but made famous by his late ex Miriam Makeba, Fela’s “Lady” (first released on his 1985 classic Waiting for the Rain) and his catchy ode to big booties, “Thanayi”. It was the first time I’ve seen him live and I was blown away by the on-stage energy of a man on the eve of his 72nd birthday – particularly his gravelly baritone that only seems to get better with age.

Hugh Masekela

Over the past 40 years, Earth, Wind and Fire have arguably maintained a less pop-oriented appeal than the Kool and the Gang hit machine, with a quasi-spiritual “Cosmic Consciousness” theme running through their music, album art and videos. Nevertheless their set was jam-packed with instantly recognizable hits like “Boogie Wonderland”, “Fantasy”, “September” and “Let’s Groove”, not to mention slightly lesser known numbers like “Serpentine Fire”, “Jupiter”, “Sing a Song”, “Mighty Mighty”, “Shining Star” and “Brazilian Rhyme”.

Some (including me) may have complained about the apparent glut of old skool artists coming here instead of more contemporary acts, but there’s always room for exceptions. For me, and most others there, the prospect of seeing 10 or 12 highly trained, experienced musicians dish out hit after funky hit – twice on consecutive Sundays – beats forking out for anything else on offer of late – millionaire house DJs (Armin van Buuren, Little Louis Vega), over-inked meatheads (Rammstein and Ramfest’s Funeral for a Friend and Alkaline Trio), self-righteous fools (U2), irony-heavy has-beens (Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, Roxette) or sitting ducks like Neil Diamond and Smokie. As far as I’m concerned, being able to see these two giants of funk in Joburg on back-to-back weekends was a once in a lifetime privilege. Anybody who missed out doesn’t know what’s good for them.

Earth Wind and Fire

*All images © Dave Durbach.

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