Family has been a prominent theme in black music since its genesis. If matriarchs loom large in many of the masterworks that inspire Gregory Porter, then he is emphatic about the role played by one of his own siblings in his artistic life, as well as the emotional mountain he then had to scale as a result of their tragic demise.
“The death of my brother was profound and strong and painful,” he says slowly and commandingly. “And I use music, in particular, as a salve and a balm for this pain. I needed to hear the simplicity and straightforwardness and optimism of No Love Dying to think about him. And what it means to not have him in my life anymore.
They used to say to Maxwell, ‘Give us another Hang Suite – be thatguy again’. And in response he’d say, ‘No, I already did that: try this instead. If you don’t like it, no worries, we’ll catch you next time’. And now Hang Suite is by no means the best Maxwell album there is.
In the same way, Curtis Harding has also become a master of the unexpected. At the core of his art there’ll always be the church music he grew up on – thanks to his mum, with whom travelled and sang gospel all over the place – and there’ll be the soul of such as Al Green, Ronnie Dyson and Bobby Womack, the blues of Albert King, even the hip-hop his sister played to him as a teenager. But on top of all that, just like any true slop guy, he’ll sometimes slide in a little indie-rock, a touch of Prince, maybe a twist of country or a spoonful of psychedelia. It’s all about how he feels at the time and – just like Maxwell – you really have no idea where he’ll go next until you hear it.
That’s just the way Curtis likes it.
According to names.org it means ‘awesome’ in Hindi. Elsewhere on Google there are claims for ‘philosopher’, ‘careful’ and ‘beautiful’. Yet if you ask band co-founder James Berkeley whence the name ‘Yakul’ actually derives, he’ll grin and quote you a Studio Ghibli anime character from Princess Mononoke: a deer-like spirit animal, something akin to a red elk crossed with a reindeer, but with the horns of an ibex.
As far as Echoes readers are concerned, though, Yakul is, more pertinently, the name of a four-piece neo-soul/jazz/rock outfit from Brighton whose occasional releases over the last couple of years have now culminated in their debut album, Rise Indigo, ahead of an eight-date November UK tour that takes them up and down the country as headliners.
This writer first became aware of Yakul – alongside keysman/vocalist Berkeley there’s Tom Caldwell-Nichols [bass], Leo Utton [guitar] and Sam Hughes [drums] – back in the summer of 2019, when Incognito leader Bluey Maunick told us the story of how James had worked with him on a track for singer Abi Flynn…
It’s a sign of the times that an articulate, relatively young and presentable singer of conscious songs, with global touring experience and a rich musical pedigree, should be passed over by a major reggae label in favour of others chasing YouTube, Instagram and streaming figures, but who lack stage presence and struggle to break out of their own limited market. Instead, mainstream America is treated to an ageing, yet hardworking dancehall siren dressed in cast-off, Funkadelic finery and who’s currently more renowned within the genre for having flashed her private parts on stage than a string of coast-to-coast television appearances shared with the world’s two biggest dancehall acts.
Here in Europe, the majority of reggae fans aren’t having any of it, choosing instead to enjoy the wealth of talent coming from countries like France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands – and not just artists either, but also producers, musicians, record labels, sound systems, festival organisers, writers, filmmakers… the list is endless. It’s been like that for years of course and whilst UK reggae is but a shadow of its former self, green shoots will surely appear, even in this blighted, post-Brexit landscape.
In Jamaica meanwhile, leading figures from the last wave of roots and culture artists have come under increased scrutiny after signing to corporate labels and releasing music that sounds as if it’s pandering to American audiences, rather than those closer to home.
“Yes, and that’s because they are doing what they wanted to do in the first place,” says Xana Romeo, daughter of seventies legend Max Romeo…