"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.'"
Two and a half years ago the current Baboons lineup was cemented -- Majica, Pila, guitarist Jose Elias, bassist Chris Castellanos, conga player Miguel Rega, and saxophonist Rob Stephenson. The Baboons' revolving-door policy and status as a collective rather than a cohesive unit ended, and the musicians embarked on the journey that led them to Evolution. "We finally got people that really understood where we were coming from without needing to tell them in any way," Pila explains. "It went to a whole new level. We had songs and material that we couldn't really do because of the chaos, and these wonderful musicians brought these things to life. We were like, 'Wow, we can try even more outrageous stuff now,' which means you end up with very few three-minute tunes."
Evolution boasts only one three-minute track, nearly all songs on the disc clock in at more than five minutes, and two tracks stretch past eight minutes. The extended song-length is necessary for the band to work its way through each song's various mutations. The longest track, "The Temple," opens with a rumbling of percussion and Stephenson playing an Arabic melody line on the sax; then guitars drift in and give the song a distinctly Spanish flavor. Beneath the guitars, the rhythm shifts to a Caribbean beat, and the saxophone becomes a playful companion of the percussion. Nearly seven minutes in, an electric guitar joins the mix, playing an arena-rock solo alongside the beats. The song then wraps around to where it began, bringing its styles full circle to the Arabic melody.
The Baboons' penchant for experimentation is highlighted on the track "Escape From Babylon," which uses vocals for percussion like a world beat beat-box. While the real percussion instruments enter and blend with the oral beats, Majica's voice comes in diva-style, preaching the celebration of life. "We let her voice go out over it like a horn, like a solo instrument," Pila elaborates.
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Though the Baboons' songs are noticeably, even blatantly, optimistic and filled with manifestos of peace, love, and similar hippie rhetoric, the record has its dark spots. "Ode," a track written about a 17-year-old friend of the band who died of a heroin overdose, is the grimmest patch on the record. It begins with Pila and Majica spouting off from the teen's point of view: "I'm just a young man living the high life, too young to worry about consequences." As the song progresses, the viewpoint changes and the melody becomes harsher, augmented by Nigerian chants, which translate to "I live in the land of the dead." Majica admits that she broke down while recording the vocals for the track. "They stopped the tape and were like, 'Are you OK?' That's the take that we kept; I was right there, in those dark times again."
All told, Evolution is a uniquely and distinctly South Floridian document, an accurate if somewhat schizophrenic encapsulation of the countless cultures and ethnicities that blend in this region. Even the extreme heat is personified in the Baboons' stylistics. (See "Made in the Shade.") "We owe a lot to Miami," Majica says. "All these people from all over the world are here in one location, all the cultures are at our fingertips."
"And the city changes all the time," Pila adds. "It's not like you're going to be stuck with certain influences. Every now and then, there's a huge new group of people, and they bring their music, and it starts to creep into your consciousness. We wouldn't have come up with this stuff otherwise."
Contact Brendan Kelley at his e-mail address: Brendan_Kelley@newtimesbpb.com