City Paper is not for tourists
On the morning of Team Familiar’s performance at the opulent palace of the Yoruba king, who is known as the Ooni of Ife, the band members were escorted to an open-air market where they were fitted for hand-sewn traditional African outfits. The matching blue and orange patterned ensembles—gifts from the king—were delivered just in time for the evening’s event at Oodua Palace in the ancient, mystical city of Ife.
Hundreds of people, including several royal families and the Ooni himself, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, filled the palace. As Team Familiar bandleader Donnell Floyd stood up to address the room, he was understandably nervous. “I had this beautiful speech written on my iPad,” he says, laughing. “Then when I got up there, someone had taken my iPad, so I had to wing it.”
But Floyd knew exactly what he wanted to say. “The point I wanted to make is we see ourselves the same way you see yourselves, which is rich in percussion,” he says. “We’re about the same thing that you’re about.”
Team Familiar’s early December performance in Ife was part of the annual Pan-Afrikan Back to the Roots Festival, which is sponsored by Yoruba Prince Ayotunde Adebayo-Isadipe. The prince lives in Baltimore, where he works on various projects promoting dialogue between Africans and the global pan-African community. Last fall, after hearing about go-go for some time, he checked out a Team Familiar show at Upper Marlboro’s Paradigm Lounge.
Struck by the similarities between go-go’s complex percussion patterns and traditional West African drumming, Adebayo-Isadipe set out to achieve what other less resourceful and less connected Nigerian princes might only dream of: He arranged for Team Familiar to travel to Nigeria’s Osun State to perform for the Ooni at Oodua Palace.
During the six days Team Familiar spent as guests at the king’s resort, the band members took in several once-in-a-lifetime experiences. In a joyous ceremony, the Ooni bestowed each of them with a new Yoruba name and presented statuettes inscribed with the words “Iranwo Oodua” (“Oodua Star”) to Floyd and to virtuoso conga player Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman. Along with several other Team Familiar players, Go-Go Mickey participated in drumming sessions with local musicians. Band members also attended a performance by Afrobeat scion Femi Kuti in Lagos. Before the show they met Kuti to talk beats and pose for pictures.
“The whole trip was absolutely incredible—the most incredible experience I could ever even fathom,” says Floyd. “If I live 53 more years, I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like this.”
Meanwhile, in an extraordinary concurrence, longtime Backyard Band fan Diallo Sumbry has been busy devising his own ambitious “Back2Africa” project. In partnership with the Ghana Tourism Authority, Sumbry’s D.C.-based Adinkra Group is bringing Backyard and several dozen of their fans for a week-long visit to Ghana in late February. That trip will feature three Backyard performances and will be filmed by director J. Kevin Swain for a documentary tentatively titled Back2Africa: Discovering the Roots of Go-Go Music that will be released in late 2018.
Both trips are profoundly meaningful to the bands as well as their fans, amplifying crucial lineal, musical, and spiritual links between go-go’s African-American musicians and their ancestral homeland.
“Go-Go bands going to Africa is a connection that none of us have ever thought we would be able to do,” says go-go historian Kato Hammond. “You hear people say, ‘I’m going back to Africa someday. I’m going back to the Motherland,’ but it’s never happened with go-go before. This is like when Barack Obama became president, and we all watched Jesse Jackson out there with tears in his eyes, because he never seen it before. It never happened in our lifetime and we didn’t think we would get to see it, so it’s that big.”
Team Familiar’s visit was also momentous for the band’s Nigerian hosts. In a statement conveyed to City Paper through festival coordinator Adewale Williams, King Ogunwusi stated: “Drums make us who we are and defines our whole being. Drums help us send messages of happiness, sorrow or coded messages from creation. I’m so happy that drums make up the core of Team Familiar’s music. It defines them as true descendants and I’m happy they have visited their home. No doubt they will continue to remain relevant because they know their roots is rooted in drums.”
Williams puts it more simply. “Team Familiar is playing music that feels like real African music,” he says. “When they are coming here to play, they are coming home.”
Go-go’s African journeys are not the only developments that demonstrate the genre’s viability in the post-Chuck Brown era. Top bands are playing multiple shows each week, and venues like MGM National Harbor and Maryland Live have opened their doors to go-go.
Years after shows at the Masonic Temple and Club U were shut down, U Street Music Hall’s “Go-Go Returns to U Street” series brings the music back to that neighborhood. New bands are appearing, and older groups are resurfacing for reunion shows. Throughout the DMV, go-go beats can be heard in fitness classes and at Sunday morning church services.
And then there’s D.C.’s newest basketball team: The Capital City Go-Go. It’s impossible to overstate the potential impact of The Go-Go as the name of D.C.’s newest sports team. “[It’s] very positive for D.C.’s G-League team to embrace the city’s indigenous music in this way. Not only does it inextricably connect the team with the real D.C., it provides a real source of recognition of the genre and its D.C. roots,” writes Tom Goldfogle, Chuck Brown’s former manager. “The key will be to ensure that a successful relationship between the team owners/marketing staff and the go-go community ensues, so both sides see mutual benefits over the long term and remain engaged.”
For the musicians, the acknowledgement is long overdue. “They’re finally seeing what’s really going on, that this is a go-go city,” says Backyard Band leader and lead talker Anwan “Big G” Glover. “Go-Go is strong as ever, and I love to see that. Our music isn’t going anywhere, and … our music is beautiful. l mean, we take care of our families off of this music. We have so much history with this music.”
Go-Go dates back to the mid-’70s, when local bandleader Chuck Brown and drummer Ricky Wellman devised percussion breakdowns to fill the awkward space between songs at live shows. Audiences loved those breakdowns, so the band incorporated them into the songs.
In the ensuing years, go-go came to dominate the local African-American live music scene as pioneers like Trouble Funk, Experience Unlimited, and Rare Essence adapted Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers’ percussion patterns to create their own distinct sounds.
Eventually, go-go morphed into different subgenres, which include bounce beat for the younger set and “grown ‘n’ sexy” for a more mature demographic. But go-go still lacks the national profile it deserves. And here at home, due to inveterate racism, classism, and plain old ignorance, the music has been blamed intermittently for street violence that has been wholly unrelated to go-go itself.
Despite go-go’s enormous popularity, the city’s institutions have remained ambivalent about the music. Case in point: The only media outlets covering Team Familiar’s Nigerian journey—an important cultural news story—were WUSA9 and The Washington Informer. Unfazed, the band have relied on social media to keep fans informed.
Floyd had previously traveled to Africa. His mother, a civil rights activist, took him to Senegal after his high school graduation, and he later returned with his own three sons. “Visiting Africa is one of the most incredible experiences you can go through as a black man living in America,” he says.
This time, he was rubbing shoulders with royalty. “I don’t know what I thought before about kings, queens, royalty and all that, but this was some kind of unbelievable,” says Floyd. “I don’t want to sound ignorant, but this guy was like Coming to America—he really is a king.”
The Ooni of Ife, revered by more than 40 million people worldwide, made himself available for several audiences with the band, opportunities for both cross-cultural communication and inspiration. “He spoke about the importance of what we do as musicians and of trying to use music in a way of curing some of the world’s ugliness,” says Floyd. “He also went on to say that there’s not much difference between us and him. Our forefathers were captured and put on the boat, and his forefathers were not, but at the end of the day, we’re all the same people. That’s the message that’s mostly lost on us here in the U.S., but it’s never lost on them.”
Team Familiar are the leading band in the grown ‘n’ sexy scene, playing R&B selections over thumping go-go grooves. While planning the palace performance, Floyd selected go-go-fied versions of Adele’s “Hello” and Mali Music’s “Beautiful,” as well as “King of the GoGo Beat,” a go-go hit he originally recorded while with Rare Essence. “A lot of times with go-go in these special situations, the bands get conservative, but I didn’t think that laying back would show the difference between go-go and R&B or anything else,” says Floyd. “So we went full-throttle.”
Team Familiar’s star percussionist, Go-Go Mickey, describes Nigeria as “a beautiful, humbling experience,” but was nonetheless undaunted by the prospect of matching skills with local conga players. “When I sat down with them … it was easy for me to jump right in,” he says. “The African feel is one of those things, either you have it or you don’t.”
Still, Go-Go Mickey was impressed by the skills of his Nigerian counterparts, and he marvels at how they tuned their congas with rocks instead of the wrenches typically used on this side of the world. “They do everything by hand,” he says. “They take nothing for granted.”
News of Team Familiar’s trip has echoed throughout the larger D.C.-area African-American arts community. Melvin Deal, who calls go-go “a New World African music,” is a cultural anthropologist and performer with a specialty in African dance and music. “It was critical for this group to go back to Nigeria,” he says. “People might say but they weren’t there yet, but they were; they were not physically there, but they were spiritually there. This trip’s coming together of the ancient and the contemporary shows that cultures don’t die. They are sublimated, but they don’t die.”
Longtime go-go advocate Charles Stephenson is certain that the music’s African journeys will give it a greater sense of purpose. “All along, Mickey was instinctively playing those beats. Now he goes to go to West Africa, the home of the beats, and he’s sitting together with the conga players there and making that connection,” he says. “There’s no way the music will be the same because now these musicians truly understand the connection between what they play and Africa.”
Stephenson hopes that the go-go artists visiting Africa will be inspired by the political outspokenness of some of its musical artists. “In Nigeria and beyond, Fela became the messenger… he used his platform to educate and move people,” he says. “What has often been missing from go-go is social relevance.The music could have much more social impact, and that’s even more important in the face of gentrification and other issues. They need to put those messages out there.”
For the longest time—years, really—a tall Backyard fan with full locks and a resolute vibe kept talking to Big G about taking Backyard to Africa. “Diallo always had this big idea, that he was gonna take Backyard to Africa and get a bunch of things done,” says Big G. “When people say stuff, sometimes they just say it. But as we got older, he got more serious about it. He was like, ‘Man, I’m in a position where I’m gonna build this thing up. I’m gonna make this happen.’”
In many ways, Diallo Sumbry is the kind of take-charge visionary that can help recharge go-go as it moves into its fifth decade. He was born and raised in Trenton, but his family moved to D.C. when he was 14, settling in with what he describes as an “African-centered community.”
By the early ’90s he had fallen in love with go-go, especially Backyard and the Northeast Groovers. Enterprising even then, he supported his four-shows-a-week habit by raking leaves, shoveling snow, and cleaning garages.
A generation behind bands like Rare Essence and Experience Unlimited—and currently the top band on the circuit—Backyard brings a hardcore rap-influenced sound to go-go, appealing to younger audiences and usually playing at least four local shows a week. Big G, its charismatic frontman, aka “Gingus” and “The Ghetto Prince,” is also an accomplished actor who has appeared in The Wire, The Deuce, and 12 Years a Slave.
One night, at a Backyard show at WUST Radio Music Hall, Sumbry experienced a kind of epiphany. “Every time Back plays ‘Comin’ Thru,’ the go-go goes crazy,” he says. “That night, I looked around and was like, yo, this is tribal music. The drums are encapsulating everybody’s warrior spirit, and I’m in the middle of a mosh pit full of a whole bunch of misguided warriors. That’s why we’re fighting each other—because our spirits are being awoken, and we don’t know what to do with this energy. I could see this as a young man then, because of how I grew up and how I was educated.”
From that night on, the notion of taking Backyard to Africa became Diallo’s passion.
DNA testing company African Ancestry was an early sponsor; its co-founder Gina Paige introduced Sumbry to the Ghana Tourism Authority, which is offering logistics and production support. In November of last year, Sumbry, Big G, and others traveled to Ghana for a series of meetings, site checks, and radio appearances. It was the Backyard leader’s first trip to Africa.
“It was just a beautiful experience,” says Big G. “It was nothing like I thought Africa would be. Once I got to engage with the people, I could see what they have to offer—and also what we have to bring, because there’s a lot of kids over there that’s really suffering.”
Backyard’s upcoming Ghana tour will feature three performances, including one at the popular Labadi Beach—which Sumbry describes as “what Hains Point used to be in D.C.”—and a visit to the mountainous Akuapem region, where they will be received by a local queen and announce an as-yet-unspecified donation to the community.
“Chuck would have been so ecstatic right now, to see two of his sons going to Africa because me and D Floyd both used to be on stage with him,” says Big G. “He was always telling me, ‘You gotta keep the music going. You gotta take the music overseas.’”
In both Nigeria and Ghana, go-go has found allies eager to open new markets for the music. “If you look at go-go’s African roots and you look at the beat, it should go international,” says Ghana Tourism Authority CEO Akwasi Agyeman. “We believe that Ghana can offer another launch pad for the music to be exposed to the world.”
In Ife, the king asked Team Familiar to write a song commemorating its African pilgrimage; he has promised to ensure that the song becomes a hit in Nigeria and beyond. Festival coordinator Williams is planning a Nigerian tour for Team Familiar, pairing the band with local stars later this year
Sumbry would love to see go-go thrive in Africa, but he also hopes to achieve something more with “Back2Africa”—to change the way some African-Americans view Africa. “We still have this Tarzanian mentality about Africans living in huts,” he says. “Taking Backyard back to Africa is going to help educate people and open their minds to accept Africa and African culture, which can help them find some healing. Having that cultural and historical and ancestral pride can serve as a foundation to help solve some of the problems we have with our young people.”
Backyard’s first performance in Ghana will take place at Cape Coast Castle, the fortress where millions of enslaved Africans were imprisoned before being shipped out to endure the cruelty of the Middle Passage and New World slavery.
“Planning this trip was something that my ancestors were compelling me to do; this was a gift to them,” says Sumbry. “The one thing that I could do to repay them for their sacrifices was to bring a go-go band which has a resilience of its own.”
For Backyard congas and timbales player Keith “Sauce” Robinson, performing at Cape Coast Castle may be the most emotional moment of the entire journey. “I might even break down crying, just thinking of all the things that we’ve been through as a people and a culture, and we still here,” he says. “We never once gave up on our music, not even through slavery. For us, music has always been an outlet for positivity.”