Q&A: Melvin Gibbs on Brooklyn Roots, Brazilian Inspiration, and Upcoming Album

What’s the concept of your new album, Ancients Speak?

Basically, the concept is really about making the connection. For me, going down to Salvador de Bahia, Brazil in ’97 really affected me. We started an organization teaching kids to play instruments.

I want to stress that they have a lot of community groups there that are really Afro-centric. The thing that interested me about Brazil, though, is that they’ve really built an extensive palette with a whole lot of African music.

I wanted to make something that was spiritually influenced. So I started looking at Yoruba culture, in Cuba and Trinidad. I really appreciate the historical circumstances, how they kept their religion intact. They made a point of reestablishing the same customs that they had in Africa.

The new album is based on the ideas of the Africans who ended up here [in the US]; we’re really all related. But the bigger metaphor is that the whole world is related, and that we all ultimately came from Africa.

In New York, you deal with so many cultures, and everybody seems so different, but they really aren’t. I remember that in high school, I used to ride the subway and just get off at a random stop, and it would seem like I was in a different country.

Getting off at Astoria felt like you were in Greece, and Sunnyside was like Ireland. Nowadays, 116th St. feels like you’re in Senegal. The whole world’s in New York, and that’s the point I wanted to get across on the new record.

You’ve had a long career. What’s one of your biggest personal accomplishments?

One thing that I always wanted to do — I remember sitting on my mom’s living-room floor, saying that I wanted to play at the Grammys. Then, when I was up there on stage [at the Grammys], I started thinking about all the little gigs that I loved.

I played with Olodum once, the band from Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints album. I marched with them once, and played surrounded by a huge group of drummers. It was a great feeling. I was 1 of 120 drummers. It kind of felt like Woodstock with Rollins Band, where we were playing to 150,000 people.

There are some big names on the new album. How did you get all these musicians together?

Well, P-Funk was always a template for us. Once I became big enough to make myself known to Blackbyrd McKnight, I did. And Blackbyrd used to have this group of guys that I’d play with sometimes. They were like Fishbone and the Chili Peppers, but crazier, and everybody who wanted to play funk could come and play.

It was the era before hip hop bled into LA, and there was a real different way of playing. For Blackbyrd’s track on this album (“Sun of Shango”), he recorded his part in LA and we uploaded it to the computer and mixed it in New York.

I was very excited to have Pete Cosey on the record, to go back to No Wave. And we have one of the best Brazilian underground rappers on the album, B Neg√£o. I was able to hook up with him through Arto Lindsay, who produced the Red Hot + Rio compilation.

There are many different genres blended into this album. Where did the idea for such diversity come from?

I used to work at Tower Records for a while as their world-music buyer. A lot of people don’t know that. But while I was there, there was a record that I always wanted in the store.

I’d listen to the first batch of albums we’d get in, like Paul Simon, and it was a really Western style appropriated onto another part of the world. The next batch would be some French cosmopolitan African guys. But I really wanted to hear the African-American take on that African music — like an African group working with their cousin from the country, like Dr. Dre or something. (Laughs)

For this record, we really wanted to meld both styles, something that wasn’t too country. And we’re really lucky to get the record to come across that way. I feel like here I get pretty close; as I record, I always wanted to hear as a buyer.

– Joe Kurowski

Melvin Gibbs’ Elevated Entity’s Ancients Speak hits the streets on March 17, 2009 via LiveWired Music.

Melvin Gibbs: www.myspace.com/melvingibbs
LiveWired Music: www.livewiredmusic.org

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