By Liz Tracy
By David Rolland
By Alex Rendon
By Terrence McCoy
By Natalya Jones
By County Grind
By Liz Tracy
By Chris Joseph
"G-R-R-A-A-A-R... and another R, actually."
The Baboons' front woman/vocalist Majica is spelling her nickname for a bemused reporter in a Fort Lauderdale bar. She's apparently earned the sobriquet by virtue of the animalistic, guttural cries she emits during the South Florida world beat outfit's shows. Later, while the reporter is in the bathroom, Majica hijacks the tape recorder and records a rather sensuous "grraaarr" for posterity.
It's perhaps this monosyllabic utterance, this sexual, primal, raw expression, that best illustrates the essence of the Baboons. Formed as a percussion and poetry collective five and a half years ago, the group, in all its permutations, has aimed to express its atavistic emotions and joie de vivre through any and every musical form available, from Nigerian chants to "grraaarr"s, rock 'n' roll to calypso, funk to reggae, Afro-Cuban jazz to Brazilian samba. Now at a high point in their storied existence due to the completion and release of the Baboons' first CD, Evolution, Majica and percussionist Mano Pila have convened to discuss the band, its history, and the evolution that spawned the new record.
Initially formed by Pila with several of his musical peers from other South Florida bands, the Baboons' original intention was simply to marry different rhythms with spoken-word-style poetry, basically performance art. "There was just a bunch of musicians who were playing around in rock groups, in blues groups, reggae groups, learning chops and different styles of music, picking up different elements of the culture down here," Pila explains. "We wanted to do a project where we could all get together and go out and unify those different styles."
The group's first appearance was an impromptu gig at the now-defunct Squeeze, where Baboons coconspirator and founding member Adam Matza was employed. An inquiry from a curious bystander prompted Pila to christen the band the Baboons. "We had been using baboon as a way of insulting each other," Pila says with a laugh. "When you see a bunch of your friends jamming out, playing percussion, you think, 'These guys look like a bunch of baboons.'" Spurred on by the impromptu choice of moniker, the group's members painted themselves in tribal designs before taking the stage, then kicked out their unique melange of beats, rhythms, and poetry. No one knew at the time, but this set the tone for years of Babooning to come. Pila remembers, "People were standing there looking at us like we were from Mars. They were so used to the altrock that was churning day in and day out, when we suddenly hit them with something kind of lively, something with the joy of life to it, people were into it."
The initial response spurred the Baboon collective to continue its eclectic projects, boasting a revolving-door membership that featured many of South Florida's most talented musicians at various moments. A few shows into the project's existence, Majica (a.k.a. Grraaarr, nee Michelle Naples) witnessed and participated in a Baboons show involving on-stage banana-gorging and was immediately enthralled. "I decided maybe I needed to join this freaky scene," she laughs. She hooked up with the group and brought her poetry with her, along with a female friend who became a Baboons dancer.
The presence of females immediately changed the Baboons' aura from that of a testosterone-drenched rhythm machine to something more sensuous. "It was a very different thing," Pila says. "There was a bunch of guys and a bunch of girls -- it was a party. It was no longer just an aggression thing, it was more of a groove." The evolution of the Baboons had begun.
From that point the band began experimenting outside of its original drum-poetry parameters. It got electric, adding guitars and bass, as well as the occasional horn player. Majica discovered her penchant for singing, adding new depth and lascivious texture to the band's grooves. The Baboons began to offer a theme with each show -- centered around concepts like love, sex, and spirituality. At one show, during "War Flowers," a song about the destruction of the rain forest, Majica donned a leopard outfit, while another female dancer dressed as a bird. The two scurried about the stage, which was decorated with trees and shrubbery, until eventually Majica transformed into "the government," putting on a gas mask and destroying in effigy the natural elements. And yes, the Baboons have been known to play shows with the rears of their jeans cut out, asses painted red.
As the lineup kept changing, so the Baboons' focus kept tightening. "Little by little we started concentrating on the music and trying to fulfill ideas," Pila says. Instead of borrowing from disparate sources for the rhythms and melodies, the band attempted to blend the different styles into an entirely new beast. "It's about exploring what we deal with on the street in a place as multicultural and multiethnic as South Florida and exploring how all these things connect," Pila explains. "You can love a style of music and see how there's something about it that connects or has similar roots to another style. Historically the trade routes make all these types of music connect, so we thought, 'This is infinite, we can do this forever.'"