Friday, January 24, 2014

Funk for the 21st Century

When funk first hit the scene, for many it was purely a musical definition. Variously described as down to earth, gritty, soulful, often associated with organ jazz combos, unsophisticated to some ears, funk came to us on the Blue Note label and Southern R&B releases, many out of the fertile crescent of New Orleans.

Considering the history and culture that gave birth to the original funk, another descriptor we heard was "churchy." There were many references to "soul food" and in the R&B world, creative use of the 16th note characterized funk music. Overall tempos slowed, but the pulse became faster. Soon fusion jazz appeared, relying heavily on elements of funk. But "flurries of educated gnat notes" (quote from Frank Zappa) were not funky.

This often happens when an art form is removed from the cultural milieu that spawned it. Threads of community history, bonds between family and friends, lessons handed down by predecessors all contribute to the richness of a culture and its art forms. By the time an admirer of an indigenous style analyzes and isolates the tenets that define it, the style itself has moved on, and the student of that culture is left grappling with the need to now blend their knowledge into a functioning synthesis. And even when sincerely motivated, one who is far from the internalized tenets that influence the artists one studies is hard-pressed to deliver authenticity.

This leads to a broader definition of funk: art characterized by a rich respect for the realities of one's community. In this light, any ethnic cooking, dance and rhyme from the street scene, yarn-bombing, graffiti, unselfconscious graphic art and painting, fully improvised music true to an unseen ethos, all these things may be termed funky. To amplify the previous rather dogmatic sentence, one can find an inspired fusion chef, a professional dancer who also lives within an indigenous form, sketchy but inspired oil-paintings, all funky, and funky because of their ability to communicate innate qualities that inspire feelings of wonder, beauty, understanding and empathy in the souls of their constituency.

So 21st Century funk may be said to contain elements of soul, and in a broader sense than the soul music of the mid 20th Century. As always, you've got to have soul to be funky, but in the 21st Century you're not required to be Black, or any given ethnicity: just be true to your roots. Also we see that the farther away one gets from the cradle of any given art form, the less likely one is to produce something funky. The over-processed commercial art that springs from the factories of the moneyed culture thieves laden with expensive production tools is seldom anything we would be inspired to call funky. We know "slick" when we see it, hear it, taste it, feel it.

Too smooth a product is not funky in an artistically positive sense, whether it's fast food, a mass-produced automobile, institutional art, or a lip-synced "live" show. That brings us to another use of the word funky, to describe something that is bad, without value or just not good. Human beings are complex, and we are able to hold multiple definitions of a word in our mind and determine from tone and context which of several meanings to choose. Funk and funkiness are ultimately in the mind of the beholder, and we can tell from someones tone whether something is funky good or funky bad. And at times "funky" is just a helper adjective as in "funky soulful," "funky earthy colors," a "funky hip hop derivative" dance form, or "that restaurant is funky -- no -- I mean their food is not good." Sometimes one has to clarify, because a negative becomes a positive when said with a smile and a wink.

In the context of the funk-now blog, we'll be discussing the ramifications of a widened positive definition of funk, asking some pointed questions, and recommending examples of the new funk. Hence the URL Pro, in favor of -- and funk, but redefined for the 21st Century. Hang on and enjoy the ride because, as avant-garde drummer Carmen Baraka says, "there is no destination, per se."