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Heart-to-heart with Sam Kelly

The world has a strange way of connecting you to people you look up to, whether you believe that to be by coincidence, the way of the universe, God’s plan, etc... or via an Instagram post.

In my case, thanks to a small social media promotion for my Upbeat Funk playlist featuring the acclaimed 70s genre-bending band, Cymande, I managed to land myself in a full on zoom chat with the original drummer from the group, Sam Kelly, with absolutely 0 interview experience.

Oddly, my conversation with a very collected, suave Sam began with a question from him, addressed to myself.

S: How did you first start listening to Cymande? The band’s been around a long time and the music has been popular at times, and not so popular at others.

D: Honestly, being born in the digital age, a lot of the music I listen to comes from places like YouTube. I think one of your songs, Dove, has over 11million views on there. It was one of those tunes that sort of pops up automatically on your YouTube recommended because so many people like it.

S: It’s fascinating listening to a young person talk about Cymande, it was even weirder when we played one of our London shows and the crowd - it was really strange, there were a lot of people there, probably 3 generations, and they were all singing along to the songs.

D: Nah it’s great. I always say, as long as music has soul, people are going to listen to it. There’s no such thing as bad music, but there’s music that lacks soul, definitely.

And so, my questions for Sam Kelly began.

D: How did you come to join the band and where did you meet the others?

S: … How long have you got?

It’s instantly clear here that this is the first time we’ve spoken, as Sam hasn’t fully realised yet that I have way too much time on my hands, and he shouldn’t worry about wasting it.

S: Cymande was my first band that I’d ever played with! I was messing around on drums for a year or so before that, in the basement. I used to live in a place called the White Horse, near Oval, and there’s an arts centre there called the Oval House that used to put on music nights.

Before Cymande was formed, it was a jazz band called Metre. Their drummer didn’t turn up and they needed a drummer, and I’m fairly sure somebody at the gig had passed my house and heard drums being ‘hit’ - not being played, but being ‘hit’ - so it’s almost time to go on stage and they say “go get the guy from down the road”, that’s how I got involved.

D: Just walking down the road you could hear it? How hard were you drumming?

S: It was in a basement but yeah, it was pretty hard, because the way I got into playing, was using drumming as aggression therapy, as a way of channeling my anger, because at the time I was probably eighteen, nineteen?

D: Fair enough - I’m not a particularly angry bloke but after 5 minutes on a drum kit I find that I’m often too tired to give half a shit about things.

S: You got it in one!

D: Did you get along with the others in the band straight away or was there some sort of turbulence when you started playing together?

S: I got along with the guys because at the time there wasn’t any long term thinking about continuing on with the project, we were just thinking that I was a deputy drummer, filling in on one gig, and then they’d pay me and I’d go off on my way.

That was very much my side of it - but getting called in and being paid for playing was great - what better way is there to start your career than being a professional right off the bat and getting paid for it?

I immediately knew that was what I wanted to do and it was fantastic, since part of my anger at the time was to do with the fact that I didn’t know what that was.

D: I was also curious as to how the transition came about from being a jazz band as Metre, to being a genre bending, jazz fusion band as Cymande?

S: For me, it’s a bit of a grey area, because nobody at the time actually said “right, this is what we’re going to do” you know, that first gig just went so well that I think we did one more together, as Metre.

As a drummer yourself, you’ll appreciate this, because at the time I couldn’t really play a variety of rhythms - all I could play really was drum rhythm number one. You know, boom-chick, boom-boom-chick - and that’s all I played for a whole damn gig!

The thing is, what we found, which is one of the reasons why Metre went on to morph into Cymande, was that whilst I trudged on with that relatively simple rhythm, the rest of the guys, Steve Scipio (on bass), Patrick Patterson (on guitar), Bammi Rose (on saxophone), and I think my brother was there (George Kelly, on congas) - they just improvised around that one point, I think in that sense it shows what can be done if you let yourself go and not worry about it - not just individually, but as a collective.

So we just looked at it and thought “this is working really nice!”, so we became Cymande.

D: I probably should’ve asked you this to start off with but for our audience who might’ve not heard Cymande before, how would you describe your sound?

S: You’ve kind of fallen into the area that has been baffling not only band members, but people in the crowd, who try and find a term that’ll describe the music - there isn’t one. Because it covers such a wide variety of music - if you listen to the first album, it’s very much kind of African / Western Indian sounding, but when we got to the second and third albums, it became more as you described - more funky!

I think that’s because we started to listen to people like Curtis Mayfield, who was a really big influence to us, Gil Scott-Heron -

At this point I ask Sam to stop, just so that I can brag about my cool Gil Scott-Heron t-shirt that I’m wearing and show it to him, another one of these funny coincidences in life.

- haha! The revolution will not be televised!

D: Why did you pick up drums, and not guitar or bass - why are drums special to you?

S: Well a few years after I started playing drums, I had a go on a bass, but I could never coordinate! And people said “but you can play drums, where your limbs are doing different things!” and I’d just say “I don’t know, it just happens”. It feels like being in the right place at the right time to me.

D: When you started playing with Cymande, did it fit your style right away or did you have to work to adapt yourself?

S: I didn’t have to do anything! Because I came in with no concept of drumming whatsoever apart from smacking it, or tapping it, then there was no conflict between myself or any other instruments. I would adapt without realising.

One of the things that’s stayed with me is that playing music is like having a conversation. I’ve developed this and taken it into a musical context - but in a conversation, if you’ve got nothing to say, then say nothing at all! Shut up! Stop playing! Somebody might later on trigger another line in the conversation, but if there’s nothing to say then don’t play.

Equally, if somebody’s playing an exceptional solo, and it’s taking the lead in the conversation, saying it all, in your opinion, then again - leave it! Let it happen. Then you’ll find, after a while, that your job as a drummer becomes to steer people out of dead end musical cul-de-sacs that they’ve gotten themselves into, and find them another path.

D: So what happens if you get really pissed off during a musical conversation? Do you just whack the drums really hard?

S: Sometimes yes! I find sometimes that, especially with very arrogant guitar players, who think they know what we, as drummers, should be doing, and that we can’t tell them where to go.

Basically what I’m saying is to have the best ability to have when playing an instrument is to listen. Get outside of your own instrument and listen to what’s going on around you. Enhance the music, make it better, rather than thinking “this is my art, this is what I do, and this is the road I’m going down”.

D: Is that something you’ve experienced more recently, or more in the 70s and 80s?

S: I think the difference is that in the 70s, I didn’t play with any other bands other than Cymande, because nobody really knew me as a drummer. Cymande was only really around for 5 years, a very short space of time to do what we did. Then we decided to take a break, which lasted 40 years.

After developing that groundwork as a drummer, not as a technical drummer, but developing my mindset as to how I should play drums - it wasn’t until then, when I started to play with blues bands and funk bands, that I started to work with a lot of other people, and it was only then that I started to get the classic “well, you shouldn’t be playing like this” line.

The older I got and the more established I got, I became more single minded, in as much as if they didn’t want me to do this, why don’t they get somebody who can do what you want? It’s MY drums, MY car, thank you very much - bye!

It takes a lot to do that, as a young musician especially, you have to be very brave. I don’t teach, but I do coach, and when I coach people in drumming I try and instill this way of thinking into their approach. Because a lot of the time, I look back and remember people who thought they knew how drums ‘should be’. You’d go in and people would start telling you what patterns to play. You shouldn’t bother with that. You should be playing! They don’t give you a chance to think about it.

D: I noticed you played a lot of gigs abroad, especially in the states, I was wondering - of all the cities and countries you’ve been, which was your favourite to play in and why?

S: That’s a really hard question… I suppose it’s the States! When we toured there the first time round, because there wasn’t a lot of black music as such, like funk, jazz and reggae being played in Europe, it was a nice surprise to see great artists like John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Dizzy Gillespie, whose records you’d buy in a shop in England but you’d never actually see.

But when we went to America, we were working on the East Coast, so New York, Philadelphia up north in Upstate NY, Boston, down to the Carolinas - it was still kind of a ‘black music belt’. They took to what we were presenting, the ‘Cymande sound’ of those first and second albums, songs like “the Message”, “Bra”, “Rastafarian Folk Song” and more - it was rhythmical, but it was different to the stuff they were listening to, you know? They could still dance to it, but until then, black people living in western countries could acknowledge that they were black - but we never heard them acknowledge that they were of African descent. To a certain extent, our music was their link to their origins.

I think in the States because we were taking that music, and that combination of styles that they were familiar with and other stuff that they weren’t familiar with to them, and playing it in front of massive audiences, you know. One minute we’re playing in the local pub down the road, or the Africa Centre, and the next minute we’re supporting Al Green. Massive! They took to us really quickly, they knew our songs, they knew our lyrics, and those were some of my most enjoyable gigs.

D: That must’ve been the best feeling! It’s interesting the way you talk about how the States had a more cultural connection to your music for people who were of African descent, but I feel like when you talked about the combination of styles that we experienced here in England, with the dub, reggae scene, which was influenced by punk in the late 70s, I feel like the people who were playing that sort of music didn’t falter in their connection to Africa, rather it was disguised by a mish-mash of cultures, you know?

S: I know what you mean! My lady and I were watching a program about this other day and you could see the evolution of the music.

D: And it’s not necessarily less culturally connected, but it’s a completely different path to what you guys were doing over in the States.

S: Yep. You got it in one. It’s there to be seen.

D: Why did the music take off in the States, but not in the UK? I know you’ve got quite a big influence in the US, but whenever I talk to people here about you I mostly get a blank expression when I mention Cymande to them. Why is that?

S: It would’ve been a different story in the US. In those cities on the East Coast, we were up there. We weren’t in the same league, fan wise, as people like James Brown. But, as an imported band, we were world recognised, playing a second tour - not as a support band but in our own right.

We did a whole week at the Apollo Theatre in New York! That’s a massive deal. I think we were the first British band to do that, to come over to the states and sell out the Apollo. I might be getting my history wrong -

Sam gets a nod from his partner, who I can’t see on the zoom window, but I assume is fact checking him diligently and providing him with much needed cups of tea whilst I bombard him endlessly with questions.

The Americans were ready to listen to other things, and especially to do with black people - if you think about all the other stuff that was going on, there was awareness of being black - not only with the music, but with the politics and so on. There was a lot of political change going on at the time, and they were more ready than people in England to embrace that. We came at the right time in terms of what was going on there. And in terms of population, there are a lot more Jamaicans in New York than there even are in Jamaica. A huge amount! Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration.

(I sense Mr Kelly’s partner looking at him funny towards the end of that answer.)

A lot of people would come up to me and talk to me about Cymande without knowing I was the drummer. It’s a lot like what happened with Average White Band, barely anyone knew they were Scottish. It’s because we got so much press in America that everybody just assumed we were from over the pond.

D: I noticed Cymande was on tour with some pretty big names including Billy Preston, Edwin Starr, Albert King - the list goes on! Out of all of them, which would you say was your favourite to play with, where did you have the best experience?

S: On a personal level, it was working on that first tour, when we were supporting Al Green. Al made us feel very welcome, considering it was a band that was relatively unknown - but on a personal level, Al Green’s drummer, Howard Grimes - I remember he’d stand by the side of the stage, and he’d watch what I was doing! And after a week, or two weeks, he pulled me aside one day and said “if you don’t mind me saying this, you should try playing from your wrists rather than your elbows if you want to play 2 hour sets”.

(Whilst this might sound like simple advice to an adept musician, for an untrained drummer, like myself, I know it’s one of the first hurdles to getting through a rehearsal, or a gig without wearing yourself out.)

It was just nice to see someone take an interest, and give advice to this unknown little drummer. That was one of the best things for me.

D: Was that the first time you’ve received advice about drumming from anyone?

S: Absolutely. And it’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given me! It’s stayed with me all throughout my career, that attitude of offering advice to somebody, and they can take it or leave it, but it’s still a great gesture to offer it.

D: It’s a fantastic piece of advice! Now another thing I was wondering, I know the Dove and Cymande both have meanings of peace, but I was wondering what the first album covers symbolised?

S: It’s a Rasta head! It’s based on a drawing by Steve Scipio - if you look closely, there’s a frame around him, with the dove on top, but there’s a face inside the frame, the Rasta man’s head. It was mainly to do with the fact that some of the rhythms we play, known as Nyabinghi rhythms, were coming out of Jamaica!

It’s just picking up on Rastafarianism, and the Rasta philosophies - I don’t want to use the word religion but it’s the whole way of life for some people.

D: This is a bit of a different question but, how do you feel about sampling? I read that a lot of Cymande’s songs were used in Deep House and Rare Groove scenes in the 80s and 90s, I wondered what your thoughts were on it!

S: On a personal level, I often take it as a backhanded compliment. Because at the time, if you think about it, when I played on these albums, it was what I felt, and I wasn’t trying to impress anyone - it was just what was coming out of me at the time! But 20 or 30 years later, I’d be coming out of a venue somewhere, and I’d be hearing our stuff being sampled and I’d think - God! That’s me! It sounds strange, but I like that.

On a commercial level, at least when it first started, I think people were taking the piss. They were assuming that they could come in and take people’s work, and manipulate it without paying them for it! I think that’s fair, that people should be paid for things like this.

A French musician at the time, working for one of the big record companies at the time - Sony Records - sampled some of our stuff! Sony should’ve known better, but they got sued in the end. The two writers in Cymande sued them, and got a six figure sum out of them.

What Patrick and Steve, who started their studies as lawyers before Cymande toured, did when Cymande came off the road, was continue their education. And then they found out that this French musician had been sampling our songs without permission so they sued the label.

The last part of the story is - who did we end up selling our back catalogue to?

Sony Records. Haha!

(Sam’s laugh is big and friendly, and it resonates throughout my laptop and into the bedroom.)

(^Photo by Phillipp Jester)

D: That’s a bloody great story! Bringing it to a slight close now, got the last few questions here - this is a big one - what’s your favourite record of all time?

S: Oh wow, hah! I can tell you the sort of things I listened to - mostly New Orleans second line, people like Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint, etc. So it was a Dr. John track - Right Place, Wrong Time!

D: Doo doo doo doo doo doo!!

(Worried for a minute that Sam might think I was mentally unstable, I cut off my Dr John impression prematurely. Luckily, he realised instantly what I was doing.)

S: I actually had the pleasure of working with Dr. John before! Lovely guy.

D: So what’s next for Sam Kelly? What are you working on?

S: Well I’ve actually got a really interesting project coming up with my brother (known as Fowokan) and my son (DJ Skol), and it’s a film all about what can happen to people from the same family, coming from different aspects of the arts. It’s going to show what can be done in the UK - there’s a lot of people who knock this country - and there’s a LOT of things wrong with it, especially being a black man.

But there’s also a lot of things right with it! And myself and my brother were born in Jamaica, but my son was born here, we came to the conclusion that he wouldn’t have been able to do what we did and achieved what we did if I’d have stayed in Jamaica! I would’ve gone on to do a straight job, an engineer, like my parents wanted me to be.

The same guy who’s doing the film on my brother and I is working on a Cymande film! It’s going to come out later on in the year, and was filmed over about 18 months.

I’ve also got an album out, “No Barricades” which is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, and most major streaming services.

Thanks once again to Sam for this great chat, you can check out this playlist I made to reflect some of the music that we talked about. And if you read this far, congratulations and enjoy the noise!


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