Koko-Jean Davis (The Excitements): when all the pieces fit in
by JOSEP PEDRO
Since their debut album release last year, The Excitements have become one of the finest bands in the Spanish R&B/Soul tradition. Exciting, energetic and perfect both for a night out and for a listening trip through their vinyl records, the group offers intense soul discharges, which keep alive the legacy of the early days of the genre. Significant for its cultural and political relevance, rhythm & blues and soul music became the soundtrack of a historical period in which the aspirations and expectations of black people in the U.S. stood firmly in the public sphere through an expression of celebration, demand and self-representation.
That same music, which was directed to uplift the community and developed along with the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power demonstrations, was full of positive energy, physical and sensorial liberation, with groovy dynamics and emotional impact that led to collective enjoyment. A blending of gospel, blues, soul and jazz, the Black popular music of the time kept evolving, leading to the eruption of funk, and ultimately to disco and hip hop. Along the way, as Nelson George argued in The Death of Rhythm & Blues, something intangible was lost and Black culture, especially rhythm & blues music, was atrophied as a result of major socio-economic changes; “The music is just not as gutsy or spirited or tuned into the needs of its core audience as it once was. Compare the early Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston” (XII, 1988).
As Nelson George was hoping, the recognition of its death might eventually lead to a form of resurrection. And perhaps its this revival process, a result of musicians and labels reinterpreting the style, what has impulsated the growing soul presence in the mainstream culture of recent years. Among the variety of tags and music paths, The Excitements represent a classic, sincere and faithful approach, which grows out of the musical-cultural fascination and aspires to make their music a current statement while embracing its roots.
Led by the explosive singer Koko-Jean Davis, the band seems to have collected all of the ‘soul pack’, not strictly its music but also its rhetoric, aesthetics and values. All these flow naturally in their shows, as Koko moves the audience with ‘I got soul!‘ and ‘I feel good!‘ call-and-response. Fierce and sexy, this little Tina Turner gives out her attitude, dance and thrilling vocals along an inspired and promising repertoire. Born in Mozambique, a student in the U.S., and now living in Barcelona, Koko perhaps also represents a cyclical movement that materializes the African roots of the development of popular music in the U.S. and its subsequent global extension.
With The Excitements, this spectacular singer and frontwoman has united with a bunch of ‘soul survivors’, and together they have managed to fit all the necessary pieces to present their outstanding and particular sound, which they call ‘rhythm and soul’. Dressed up with their performance suits, this sweaty and hard-working looking band is already on its way up, and their new singles –an advance of their second LP- announce their own original compositions, a new turning point that will bring us closer to the band’s personality.
How did you get in touch with R&B and soul music?
It was just a type of music that I always liked since I was little. I think soul music is universal and you always have someone in the family who listens to soul, the classic tunes of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. I didn’t really know what it was but that’s what I now know that it was.
What relationship do you see between African and African-American music?
Well, there’s a lot. The rhythmic part of it, obviously. And just the gospel essence of expressing you soul, your fears, your love, your worship to God, your worship to anything through music, that’s very related to the African way of being. They express a lot of feelings through music and that has definitely been translated in the genetics and the generations. It’s a traditional thing, you don’t even know it but that’s what you need.
Which is the music you most listen to regularly?
I do love listening to jazz and blues but to party, for example, I’m very much into hip-hop, electronic music, world-beats music… pretty much everything except for country… [Laughs]. I don’t like country!
When did you come to Barcelona and how did you get involved with the band?
I decided to come to Barcelona four years ago, but I have family here, my family is Catalan. So I had been to Barcelona before but to actually live myself, four years ago. At the beginning I was just singing as a hobby, I wasn’t trying to look for it professionally at all. I just wanted to keep practicing singing because I had started at the university when I was in the United States. I just started to know musicians and it just evolved.
What part of the States where you at?
I lived in Fairfield, Iowa, a little town in the Midwest. Deep Iowa, deep America; a very little town where I was at university, that’s where I graduated. It was a school [funded by the Maharishi] that was very involved with meditation, yoga, consciousness, organic… a completely different world. I developed a lot myself as a person there. It wasn’t like a regular American’s university sorority kind of thing.
Since you released your debut album, The Excitements (Penniman Records, 2011) you have had very positive reviews and have toured all around Europe. Where you expecting it to be so successful?
I think I’m happy with the expectations that we’ve had. I know I wasn’t expecting so much, I’d like it to be more and it will be more. I think that when we bring out our original songs on the next album, then it’s really gonna be our album and that’s really gonna show. But yeah, it’s a wonderful surprise what’s happening. People still buy vynils, 45s… and it’s hard to sell it but I’m happy with it.
How was the selection of the tunes to be recorded done?
I have very good luck of having musicians that really know their music, they really know that style of music. They’ve got libraries of LPs you’ve never seen before. We’ve also had a very good guidance by our record label Penniman Records, which he’s got everything, knows everything about it and has very good taste. So we just took things we wanted to do and made our versions. It was just between all of us.
Tell me about your relationship withh the label Penniman Records and your producer Mike Mariconda…
They’re both really good friends of ours. Penniman Records [Enric Bosser] is basically family to Adrià Gual, our rhythmic guitar. And Mike Mariconda is also a good friend that has recorded with numerous underground bands, small labels and stuff. He’s just so freakin’ good! He knows so much; first being an American, then having passed through all of that from the garage to the punk. He’s got this ear thing. We don’t even care how the studio is. If you saw the record studio where we recorded this album… It was like this small, really underground in a dungeon, everything vintage, everything old mikes from the seventies and sixties, instruments, he would like make us record in the toilet just to get a sound… He knows all these tricks. That’s really what makes us a team, Penniman Records, he knows how to choose the songs that fit us and Mike Mariconda knows how to help us express that, and we learn a lot. The producer, the record label and us, that’s it.
The Excitements take most of their inspiration from late 50’s and early 60’s rhythm and blues and soul tradition. How would you describe this particular style of music?
I would call rhythm ‘n’ soul because it’s from the era where rhythm & blues kind of mixed up with soul. It’s got a lot of soul in it but it’s got a lot of rhythm & blues influence. It’s what we want to transmit, dance music with soul that is very deep in the roots of live music at that time.
It could be argued that soul music had two differentiated eras, the second one developing in the late 60 and the early 70 and characterized by more funky rhythms on one side; and more harmonic exploration on mellow tunes that came with artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield… How do you understand this change?
There’s so many different types of soul music… it’s again how just one artist can find something different to do with the rhythm that suddenly becomes the new thing, just like with the evolution of jazz music, or hip hop music. It’s a natural process and has to happen. There’s nothing mysterious about it really. It just takes one or two musicians to express differently a different thing, the way they’re playing the saxophone or the clapping.
What musical and social relationship do you see between soul, blues, funk, jazz…?
I think that a lot of the evolution of the musical side, also had a political influence. You go from all the Black Liberation Movement, all the different generations had a different language, a different way to express itself and it’s very much also political. I think of James Brown and what he did with music and he’s the perfect example of how music went from soul to funk and how political that was. I mean, that’s where you got the power from. It was a lot based on need of just growing and getting rid of old things, coming to the new thing, wanting to be the new voice, and every generation wants to do that.
The roots are still there. There’s always a master mind that sees a little bit more. James Brown is a perfect example for anything you want to study about. He could hear and see things that no one else could understand. He had all these rhythms in his head. He didn’t even know how to read music, he couldn’t explain and just said: “just do this!” People were like: “this doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t even come into the count!” He had this orchestra in his head and it would work out and people would dance and relate to it. He showed that you have to be true the dream, that voice in your head. Don’t try to be like everybody else; shout if that’s what you hear in your head, tap if that’s what you hear… And that all evolves, just listening more to that voice.
Though probably still a minority, women have had a fundamental status in these music styles –from Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton to Tina Turner, Etta James, Sugar Pie Desanto, Aretha Franklin, passing through Billie Holiday, Nina Simone… to name a few. What kind of bond de you feel with these singers?
I feel like I want to be an extension of that. I feel like want the legacy to continue and it’s almost like it’s kind of this thing you have to be true to. It’s how to pay homage to your ancestors and still express your femininity, and make it raw and angry but in a sexy way. That’s for me is feminine power, that’s Black Power. It’s not trying to be sweet, it’s not trying to seduce, it’s about the more raw you are the more real you are, the more personality you have. I’m just trying to keep on that legacy in my own way. That’s how I connect with them and that’s what I want to bring back, that’s what I’m learning every day.
What particular challenges do woman have to face in music?
A lot of challenges… I can’t speak for white or black women, but just in general, we understand that we are being used in a sense that we have this power that is very attractive. Women sell very the well, they sell their presence very well, they have a voice that speaks out to everybody. Even if they’re the power of the force and they’re represented as the front thing, it’s still a man’s world. I’m with six musicians, six guys in the band and that’s not easy, there’s challenges of that.
But the important thing is to be aware of that; how much they’re using you and how much you’re willing to be, and just to be in control of that all the time. You always have to be kind of in control. I don’t follow… I’m a leader in my own way –we’re all leaders in our own way-, but women are more silent leaders with a stronger force. And it’s hard sometimes because you’re not always appreciated as that leader within your group, society, politics… women cannot do this, cannot do that. But as long as you know it, and you know how to play with it, then it’s fine…
How do you explain that a style that was very much linked to the social context of the time has now an increasing number of people dedicated to it?
The appreciation for a lot of the music that was lost. We research a lot, our musicians know musicians that you never even heard of, you know, all the ones who didn’t make it and always seem to be the best. So it’s kind of the secrets. I relate to it just in the taste of it, it’s just music that always makes you feel good, always make you cry, always make you shake. I just love it!
There’s actually a very big movement of people that have always kept true to that. They’ve always been record collectors and lovers of that but there was a time when you couldn’t bring that out, there wasn’t many people to talk to. Now you see bigger circles of people getting together. Some people just looked for it. Some may be considered music freaks and it’s thanks to them that this music is still alive. Then you find that there’s more freaks like you and the freaks get together. They got good taste, feelings… but now it’s cool to do that. There was a time when it was: “what the hell are you talking about?” and all these things. It’s always been there but now it’s coming to the surface.
So how do you see this comeback to the mainstream of soul?
I think it’s great, and it’s really inspiring even for other styles of music. It’s really hard but it’s so cool to make old-cool, to make vintage-cool. And to do it well, not to try to change it or modernize it but to do it really how they used to do it. It’s funny, it’s a very big step in evolution but it’s going back to the past. We’re learning so much from that.
It’s great that there’s actually space in that in the music business. People like it, they’re afraid to say they like it but they like it. So I’m happy to be one person more of the people who make it cool, give it to your children, put it in the clubs… See: “this is what it used to be cool and it’s still cool…”
What do you say to those who label bands that focus on particular styles that were developed in the past as revivalists?
Revivals are magic things that happen in life and happen because they need to happen. It’s kind of like these cycles of life. You know, nothing really dies. The revival is the moment when you remember the thing of the past but it has never really died. You just remember it and bring it back, bring that power again. That’s evolution as well, because it’s kind of this energy that’s there and it’s positive, spiritual, and from nature. I think now it’s time for revival music and it’s ok to call it like that.
How do you see the involvement of the music industry in this process?
I’m absolutely very curious about it myself. People are like: “Do you want to become so big?” I think it’s ok if that’s what you wanna do. I think the industry spoils a lot because of the whole control issues, of the rights… when the industry starts getting in there you lose so much of your freedom, of your expression. You lose yourself, you try to please the industry and not what you want to do. That’s maybe what happened with Amy Winehouse. Sharon Jones is kind of in the middle; she’s kind of there but she’s still able to maintain true to her label and to what they were doing. I think her latest album is not like the first one; every time is a little bit more modern and I think it’s because of the industry.
We’re going to try to fight that as much as possible, we’re gonna try to keep independent for as long as possible because we don’t like anyone telling us how we should play our music. We’ve got a lot of producers that are like: “We want to record with you…” And we’re like: “No, we’re only gonna record with Mike [Mariconda] because he understands what we’re trying to do, and he is not going to try to change us.” He’s gonna try to fit with what we want to do and that’s how we keep our sound, preserve it. With the industry that’s really hard to do. I hope never to get to that level, I’m not too much with the industry.
After you recent European tour, how would you compare the music production possibilities and audiences in other parts of Europe and in Spain?
Well, I’m afraid to answer that question… France has been the best for now. There’s something about the French public -the French society in the whole- that is just really, really rich and open to music. You can play whatever and you’ll find somebody that’s into that. They’re a very open public, they’re culturally more rich, they’ve got already in their society Black music and culture integrated. So for them anything like that is not unfamiliar. I think Spain still has a lot to learn, it’s still very young in that sense. There’s a lot of ego in terms of music genres here. That’s something that I really noticed. Like, the “La Escuela de Jazz” –the jazz school versus the blues school, the mods versus… and at the end, you’re all listening to Black music but you have to have that name tag. You should be thankful and grateful for that and just bring more unity.
That’s what I feel is missing in Spain. I think it’s just a lot: “Oh, in this club we just do this or just do that…” It should be like, let’s support each other a little bit more. And I think that the public should not be so afraid of liking it and expressing it. This is in general. Over there, in France and Holland I’ve got numerous people that are there with us, follow us and share with us… And they’re just people that really appreciate it. I felt more welcome as a band, it’s sad to say, and I hope this changes. And more supported also by the ayuntamiento (town halls), the government, the radios over there, the people that do events, the clubs… they treat you fantastic. Just the whole attitude, they just appreciate musicians so much more that it makes me want to stay there. Maybe it’s something that will change. You got to accept it.
What can you tell us about your next record?
Right now we just released a new single and it’s doing great, it’s selling magnificently. It’s called “Keep it to Yourself”, and it’s got a ballad [“Give it Back”]. Then we’re gonna release another single in March and then we have a lot of tours going on, lined up for the summer, again touring all over. Thank you, Jesus. But we hope to have our new album by this time next year, October-November next year. It’s gonna be half of them original songs. It’s gonna be great. People are responding very well to our new songs, some are already incorporated in our show. I think it’ll be better than this one. It’s definitely evolving…