Juba Dance: Ben Lamar

Juba Dance: Ben Lamar

Strange Fruit

“Fruits are some of the hippest shit in the world man. It’s simple. You pick it; it’s sweet.” This is how Ben Lamar, rapper/singer/trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist/compositional wizard behind Juba Dance, describes their albums. Their debut full-length was called Orange, and the follow-up, yet to be released, is titled Apple. Juba Dance fits Lamar’s description of nature’s candy. It’s elemental: Brazilian rhythms riding on blues vocals; shouts of exuberant joy over soul music. Not tired cliché, but actual, visceral slabs of multi-layered percussion, jazz horns, and electro-hip-hop beats scattered in their own logic across every contemporary Black musical idiom. It’s organic; raw. But like fruit, its complex chemical makeup belies its simple perfection: Songs are often recorded in multi-instrument, multi-session recordings with an army of musicians, or only Lamar and co-Juba Dancer Polyphonic, the Verbose (Will Freyman) at the helm. These snippets of compositions often defy the players’ musical logic until Lamar stitches his vision together at the end. Talking with Ben Lamar about the ins and outs of Orange, the upcoming Apple, and how a near-death experience added to their current remix project, Orange Juiced, he sounds exactly like Juba: warm, inviting, uncomplicated – yet complex – and soulful.

• •

What have you been working on?

I’m doing a couple of things, finishing up composing for a new Juba Dance album. I’ve been writing out violin parts. I had a session with one violinist. That’s for Juba. Then for Audio 8 [Recordings], which is basically me, Will (Polyphonic, the Verbose) and a couple other artists – Serengeti – we’re going to release a 2004 album from my Brazilian group called A Filial, and I’m trying to remix some of the old tracks as bonus tracks for the new release.

Will Freyman (L) Ben Lamar (R)
Courtesy Nice Promo
Will Freyman (L) Ben Lamar (R)

Juba is so free and loose. How do you keep that energy in the music when you’re dealing with all these formats? You’ve got some stuff that’s written on sheet music, some stuff is improvisational. How do you mix all those worlds together and still keep it feeling live?

I think it’s just basic composition, like basic storytelling, you know? If you have a good character, [and] a good path, then he could be in Chicago, Rio; he could be a punk rocker. You could add all this other stuff and it’s just the basic skeleton of the piece. I studied with the bassist for Hermeto Pascoal [Brazilian composer who wrote and recorded for Miles Davis’ Live-Evil]. Hermeto has a quote saying, really, there’s only three elements in music: The rhythm is the father, the harmony is the mother, and when you put them together, they create a child, the melody. It’s basically off that. So if I have a composition and everything’s down, [I’ll say], “Will, add whatever you want to it.” Will kind of improvises electronically. If [you] follow that skeleton, it’s going to sound free. A lot of people think it was a band, which it could be, you know, but it just leaves a little looseness.

Let’s take a song like “Tomorrow,” off Orange, which has a really loose feel. How was that recorded? Was that everyone doing their part separately or was that a jam?

One thing I usually do to keep it live is we patch two instruments together. The euphonium and trumpet that was playing the main melody line, we were playing together. So, at the end, when we’re improvising, we’re basically feeding off each other. It is good to have two people playing together. That’s the best thing. I basically took the drummer – this Ecuadorian cat who never really played this style of music – and we just had him record a sketch of the rhythm of “Tomorrow.” Like most of the musicians I know, they only mess with this one little scene. So it’s very interesting putting them in a different context cause you get a real fresh sound, you know?” I think he knew the style – it’s a Brazilian pattern called baiao [rhythm from Northeastern Brazil]. I said, “I know you’re Ecuadorian, man. Play your version of baiao,” and we recorded it. Then I recorded the keyboards, the harmony part over it. Later, I think I either recorded the bass line or a friend recorded the bass line. So that was the structure. Then I recorded pandeiro [a Brazilian tambourine-like instrument] to play the same rhythm that the drummer recorded before me. So after we had the rhythm down and the harmony, I would sing over it, put my melody over it. After the lyrics, you put the horns so the horns can really sound like they’re backing up the singer. I was just phrasing that melody off his drums, keyboard, bass, and vocals. That’s exactly how that was built.

Is it autobiographical?

Yeah. When I was a shorty, it was a song I always wanted to write. On Sundays, my mom would always make me go and get the paper. Waking up in the hood on the southside of Chicago, Sunday, it’s so weird man because it’s a new day and it’s after Saturday night when the “sin” happens in the hood. All the gangstas are still asleep. It’s so funny man because you see all these old women going to church to do what they do, no matter what type of religion they are, but there’s some type of hope. But they heard what happened last night just like I heard what happened last night. So, it’s not really about a woman, it’s about how some people go through so many things but they always look at tomorrow.

It sounds like the music was in you for a long time and the lyrics, in a way, were in you for a long time, too.

Yeah, I just had to find a hip way to present it. You know, all the music you like, it’s because somebody found a hip way to present it.

In terms of the differences between the albums, Orange and Apple, an orange is very sweet and juicy and an apple is more tart. Is that going to play out in the music?

I don’t know man. I’ll just let it happen if it does. It’ll be interesting to see.

How much do you have finished?

We have at least 13 or 14 sketches. The thing with Juba is that it’s not simple, ‘cause I have to think of these compositions and be like, “Is this a composition for an instrumental track or is it a singing thing or a rhyming thing?” Then [I have to] think about the instrumentation. For right now we’re just filling it in, you know, like a haiku. I wanted to put some more violin work in it because I discovered these old Black American string bands and the shit is so hip. One song that we just recorded kind of has a… and it ain’t corny. I know it’s going to sound corny when I say it [laughs] but it’s hip. It has like a squaredance-type thing but it’s not forceful cause all this shit’s related. In Chicago, shorties have this thing called juke music and footwork.

When you say string band do you mean guitar, violin, upright bass, and banjo?

It’s like what people call bluegrass. I don’t know if it’s going to work out. I really wanted to do a lot more of this on Apple, but it’s not coming out.

How long ago did you go to Rio for the first time?

  1. I would come back and work in the schools in Chicago [teaching music], save up money and go back out there. The first time I stayed almost a year. I’m always there illegally. One of the reasons I’m in Chicago, I got invited to the Red Bull Music Academy in Toronto and I didn’t want to turn it down. It was mostly for the Juba Dance work. I got there and I didn’t want to tell them [that I wasn’t Brazilian]. They knew, but I was kind of nervous because I felt bad because I’m kind of taking up a Brazilian spot. I was just kind of bugging out. I got there and they wouldn’t allow me to go back to Brazil because my visa was all messed up. So it’s cool. I get to work on another Juba album and see my family.
Ben (L) Will (R)
Courtesy Nice Promo
Ben (L) Will (R)

When you recorded the first Juba album, was it in Chicago?

Yeah, it was during those first two years when I was working teaching music and saving up money.

What’s the process of how you and Will [Polyphonic, the Verbose] work together? You write music and I know that he’s got classical training. Do you guys write stuff out when you’re working together or does he sample stuff that you play?

On Orange we didn’t use any samples. I love Will’s approach to electronic music. I’m learning a lot from him and vice versa. It’s almost like a step process: “I do the first step. You do the second step.” The third step we get together and see if we really like what we’ve done. If it’s an instrumental track with strings and horns, there’s a basic feel but he might change the feel electronically, somehow; add his little tricks.

Were you involved with electronic music before Juba came together or were you mostly into live, jazz-type stuff?

Yeah, I’m mostly a live musician. Being from Chicago, with house music, I’ve always dug [electronic music], but actually really messing with it, I’m always behind. I think the year I wrote Juba, I think it was the first year I had a computer. The best sessions are when me and Will are just listening to music and kind of like bragging, saying that we got new music and just getting a beer and vibing off it. There are a lot of artists I introduced to him and a ton he introduced to me. It’s really like an exchange.

How did you decide on having a remix album of Orange?

Nowadays everybody’s putting out stuff so quick. We wanted to share the music, like, “If you like Orange, cool man, give me a remix.” Just kind of build a network with cats, whether they’re from Helsinki or Berlin, just kind of sharing the music. Just to give me more time to write for Apple. I think Will was busy with some Serengeti stuff [the excellent Terradactyl album]. It was kind of fun to see people’s take on your original story. Four songs I produced on it. It was kind of fun because I didn’t have to write any parts for it; it was just me at home programming, sampling. Orange Juiced is more electro.

It took a while to get into it because I was so used to hearing the songs the original way. There’s different rhythm, different melodies in some cases. You have to accept it as different music that you listen to on its own merits as opposed to relating it back to what you heard before. In a way, it’s liberating because a good way to listen to music is to let go of your preconceived notions of music and listen to it like it’s new.

That’s what makes it fun. A lot of people told me that. Like if they had a favorite song from Orange that was remixed [they would be like], “Ah, man, I’m not really feeling it.” But, that’s cool, I understand that. It feels like a whole new album to me.

After I let go to it and stopped thinking of it as a “remix project” then I could feel it as a new album because there are unreleased songs on there.

We say unreleased… it’s basically songs I did while people were doing their remixes. Like “Documents.” I wrote that because I recently went through all that [immigration] stuff, and “The Porpoise et La Mer” was because I almost died in the Atlantic Ocean, so I had to write a song about that.

Really? I was wondering about that song because it has such an interesting narrative. At first, it sounds like you’re talking about a man in love. Then it’s like you throw caution to the wind and let yourself go to the ocean. Finally, you have this fantastical experience with the dolphins.

You ever notice how porpoises are so happy, man? Just jumping out of the water? But watch out, those porpoises are slick! That’s why I say [quoting the song], “The porpoises are clever.” I think they’re all cats who loved something and it just didn’t work out, so they just made love to the sea and became dolphins. So, that’s why they’re always jumping out of the water. That’s why the look all friendly. Man, those cats are the worst gangsters in the world! They will trick you into going into that sea and then becoming one of them.

Man, I almost died in Ipanema Beach just playing around. One of those rip tides [pulled me] out. I remember going underneath the waves and coming out like a block away from the shore and the waves kept on crashing. So, I finally fought to get up. This guy walking by with his girlfriend came out to get me. I was so weak, but I guess the tide had pushed me closer to the shore. I felt like I’d been raped by the sea. Like even now when I go in the water, even when I take a bath, I’m like, “Ah, damn….” Then coming back here and having the typical trouble of being an independent artist, broke…. Sometimes I think in an imaginative way, like, “Why did I ever fight to get out of that sea? She was the only person that wanted me.” So, with “The Porpose et La Mer” it’s like me writing, “Why shouldn’t I just stay in the sea? Ain’t nobody else wanna hear my shit.”

Definitely one of my favorites on the remix.

I’m glad it came out the way it did. It came out exactly the way I wanted.

After that experience did you grab the pen and paper like, “I gotta get this out right now,” or did it just grow on you?

Yeah, basically [it grew on me]. Man, actually, if you listen to that song again, there’s like a bassline on the end…

I was wondering how you got that sound! It has a distinct ’70s jazz-fusion vibe. How did you play that?

With that song, even the lyrics, I composed the song off that little snippet [sings it]. The first part, I would just find chords to go with it. If I do use samples, I want to compose over it, into a whole different thing. It’s a fretless thing, like Jaco Pastorius… it wasn’t Jaco though, it was… whoever was playing bass with John McLaughlin… That’s why it has that late ’70s sound.

That’s interesting that you built the song around that because that’s the part of the song that I’m always like, “Where did this come from?” It just comes out of nowhere.

Polyphonic was tripping off that too, when I showed him. That sound is what made me think about my situation at sea. That point and the guitar chording…. Man, you know that sound when you jump into a pool? Everything is slower. It reminded me of [being under water]. That one sample just opened up a whole world.

I don’t want to say it’s a great story because it’s terrible, what almost happened, but it’s something to tell your grandkids.

[Laughs]. Sometimes when I listen to it, it’s almost like a different character. When the character is like, “Have you ever been in love?” It’s like, this cat gives himself up to the sea. One thing I remember in class about Shakespeare, about dying, he’s talking about orgasm and all that shit. The character is like, “I’ve already had an orgasm. I’ve died before, I might as well die again.” Man, being true to yourself, and I know you been through this, “If I die in this water… if I die trying to do what I love, at least I can stand up and say I been in love before, like true love.” A lot of people can’t say that. Like being true to what really makes them happy.

• • •

Thursday, August 20, Juba Dance will perform live with the AACM (Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians) Ensemble at Millennium Park in Chicago.


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