Rebellum bring Afrofuturism to the Painted Bride on 9/27
Rebellum | photo by Nisha Sondhe

When Greg Tate founded Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber in 1999, the amorphous ensemble was conceived as a turn-of-the-21st century evolution of the electric funk-jazz maelstrom of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, filtered through the ideas of the Black Rock Coalition (of which Tate was a co-founding member) and the explosion of hip-hop culture. The band became known for its sprawling, utterly unclassifiable group improvisations, executed under the rules of Butch Morris’ conduction system and drawing on influences from Jimi Hendrix to George Clinton to Sun Ra and who-knows-what in between.

But in recent years, Burnt Sugar has become something else entirely, a conceptual interpretive ensemble dedicated to reinventing the music of iconic 20th-century pop artists. They were recruited by iconoclastic writer/director/actor/musician Melvin Van Peebles as the house band for his operatic reinvention of his own landmark film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaass Song in Paris in 2010. Then the Apollo called, asking for a James Brown tribute. Tate conceived his own homages to David Bowie and Steely Dan, which he brought to Lincoln Center. Next year’s schedule includes another Lincoln Center tribute, this one subtitled “Fleetwood Black” and putting Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks through the Afrofuturist kaleidoscope, and an opera based on the stories of Brer Rabbit in Brooklyn.

“Burnt Sugar made this conversion from being a freewheeling improvisational band to being this gypsy tribute band,” Tate says. “Once you become fixed in promoters’ minds as one kind of band, you can’t really go back and resell the band as something that can be reduced or miniaturized, so we found ourselves with fewer opportunities to do original music that reflected the right brain of the band, the more intuitive side. So we realized that if we wanted to create space to do more original, improvisational music we’d need to create another situation under another name, in the classic tradition of Parliament Funkadelic and the Wu-Tang Clan, where you have multiple iterations of the same aesthetic under different names with the same people involved.”

Thus was born Rebellum, a “renegade splinter cell” of Burnt Sugar that will play the Painted Bride on Saturday, September 27th. Not just a reboot of the original Burnt Sugar idea, Rebellum instead takes funk and hip-hop as the launching pad for post-modern mutation in the way that Burnt Sugar used jazz fusion. The new band is an outlet for Tate’s songwriting, presenting more concise and focused but no less eclectic expressions of his wide-ranging tastes.

The fact that Tate takes such a high-concept approach is no surprise given his background as a journalist whose job it was to think deeply about music, its context and its possibilities. Tate was a staff writer for The Village Voice for nearly twenty years and has also written for a number of other outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Artforum, Essence, and Rolling Stone, among others.

“I really was jumping the fence back and forth between being a writer and somebody who was trying to play music,” Tate says. “I was always a pretty eclectic reviewer, so my idea of music was always a mix of different sounds. Burnt Sugar was definitely about trying to create a pot big enough to throw all these things and the kitchen sink into, and I know that came out of my sensibility as a music listener and a music critic. It was about trying to see if you could sustain a band without boundaries in the 21st century, and so far we’ve actually been able to make it work.”

Tate’s efforts place him squarely in the lineage of Afrofuturism, the artistic movement that combines Afrocentric culture with science fiction imagery. That heritage links him to innovators like Sun Ra and George Clinton and with modern-day exemplars like Janelle Monáe and Shabazz Palaces. Tate says that he feels like an “O.G.” of Afrofuturism, which hadn’t even been named when he began writing and playing music (it earned its moniker from critic Mark Dery’s 1994 essay “Black to the Future”).

“In my generation, the same guys who were interested in Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Sun Ra and Miles were also the same guys who were reading Marvel comic books and going to see Hellraiser and Blade Runner and were into horror and fantasy and science fiction literature,” he says. “We didn’t really have a really clever voguish name to identify and collect everything under; it was just kind of a nameless phenomenon. Then I realized going into the millennium that the term had become a movement. For a Janelle Monáe or Shabazz Palaces, it’s an optimistic term that proposes that black people will have a future, which, given current events, is kind of doubtful.”

Some of the same thoughts went into the formation of the Black Rock Coalition, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. Vernon Reid called the first meeting and co-founded the organization with Tate and producer Konda Mason in response to the music industry’s rejection of African-American artists at the time. “At first it was definitely just gripe sessions,” Tate says. “But by the second meeting we started saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ So we became what people would now call a presenting organization for black rock bands on the downtown scene. It started out as a protest vehicle and then it became a real support organization.

Rebellum: The Darknuss from Burnt Sugar Index on Vimeo.

The organization’s beginnings coincided with the birth of hip-hop and the two quickly became intertwined, a commingling that is evident in Tate’s music and was inherent, he explains, in the close confines of the era’s artistic community. “As big as New York is as a landmass,” Tate says, “everything that was really happening culturally in terms of innovation and multi-ethnic mixing of populations was all happening just below and just above 14th Street. So everybody was really part of the same community and the same generational statement.”

Rebellum’s debut CD, The Darknuss, is a studio creation, constructed layer upon layer by Tate and producer Luqman Brown with a core band and a coterie of guest artists including Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, violinist Mazz Swift, keyboardist Marc Cary, and vocalist Somi. The songs on The Darknuss are a mash-up of P-Funk-style sci-fi references and toilet humor, sexual innuendo and dance grooves, post-jazz freak-outs and psych-rock explosions, hip-hop grooves and electronic manipulations.

Unlike Burnt Sugar’s psychedelic rambles, which could often find the band exploring a single groove for twenty minutes or more, Rebellum has thus far stuck closer to its song-based focus in its live shows, according to Tate. “We’ve been enjoying reining ourselves in and trying to see if we can actually keep the intensity of a big, loud Burnt Sugar performance within a three-to-five-minute song format. We’re approaching these shows in a more conventional rock band-oriented way where you’re playing a full set of songs from the repertoire and making the excitement happen within those limitations.”

Rebellum plays The Painted Bride on Saturday, September 27th. Tickets and information on the show can be found here.

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