Poetry in Motion
Members of the Poets of Rhythm push forward with the Whitefield Brothers
by David Ma
The Whitefield Brothers is a somewhat mysterious group featuring members of the German funk band the Poets of Rhythm. Their music includes elements of world, funk, soul, and psych, all of which they plainly refer to as “raw soul.”
Throughout the years, they’ve amassed field recordings, piles of vinyl, and sessions with vagabond musicians in an effort to learn global sounds. And while funk is their foundation, they augment tracks with non-Western scales, gongs, African percussion, and other international flavors. This is all, according to guitarist J. J. Whitefield, “just what happens.”
As heard on their debut album, 2001’s In the Raw, the Brothers explore global music without cheapening it. Their follow-up recording, 2010’s Earthology, features guest spots from several MCs (Percee P, Mr. Lif, Edan) and members of the Dap-Kings, El Michels Affair, and Antibalas. I was curious about these Munich-based funkateers, their origins, and current work. Over two months, I spoke with J.J. on past and present affairs for a rare interview. Meet the Brothers Whitefield.
Introduce yourself and all the instruments that go into your records.
J. J. Whitefield, playing mainly guitar but also bass, keys, and percussion.
What are your studio sessions like? Given all the elements that appear in your work, how long does it generally take to cut a track?
There are actually many different approaches to recording songs. We do it all. From first takes with written, arranged, and rehearsed compositions to recording rhythm tracks and then recording overdubs several years later over several sessions. We really don’t have one method.
You guys mostly cut instrumental tracks. Ever think about adding your own vocals?
We do some singing when we play live, and when Bo Baral, longtime companion and original Poets of Rhythm singer, plays with us. There are more vocals involved at different times actually. For solo vocals, my voice is not trained enough. [laughs] Maybe some day I’ll be ready to record some real vocals.
How is your music received in Germany? How is funk generally received there?
The soul and funk scene is pretty big in the underground, but it’s mostly a more straight-ahead approach. Our more experimental stuff is better received in France and the U.K. at the moment, but we’re working on it!
You guys had been long active before working with the Now-Again label. How did you guys hook up with the Stones Throw people?
I think I met Egon by chance at Groove Merchant in San Francisco, and he was interested in working with us. That was the first time we met actually. It took us some time, but finally we made it happen.
Explain the connection between the Whitefield Brothers and the Poets of Rhythm.
The Poets of Rhythm is like the mother for all of our projects, led by Max [Whitefield], Bo, and I. When Bo stepped away from playing live, and after extensive touring in the late-’90s, Max and I continued recording and playing as the Whitefield Brothers. That’s pretty much it.
And what’s the connection between the Whitefield Brothers and Karl Hector & the Malcouns?
The Malcouns is actually the project of our longtime keyboard player Thomas Myland. I wrote and produced the record with him and drummer Zdenko Curulija. The musicians that played on the record are mostly guys from the Poets family that also played in the Malcouns, like [saxophonist] Wolfi Schlick and Bo Baral to name a few. We’re all just interconnected, basically.
I heard In the Raw was made quite quickly, in a matter of weeks. Why was that, and how did you think it turned out?
It was recorded over two weeks and then mixed some time later in about ten days. Since I feel responsible for the creative outcome, I’m never satisfied with the results the second after something is finished. [laughs] I’ll always have ideas on how it could have been better. But it is what it is, and that’s the best we could get out of it at that time, which makes it special in its own way, too.
You guys are into psych and funk grooves. I also know that you’re a collector. Through your experiences, what are some records or artists that have seeped into your own work?
All the obscure funk bands that recorded one or two 45s in their careers and put all their energy and emotion into those few recordings inspire our own grooves. Today, I’m more inspired by the great twentieth-century composers that worked within traditions but were also experimental and had special approaches to their compositions. For example, Thelonious Monk, Moondog, and Sun Ra. In general, we’re moved by traditional forms of music that are free of commercial values.
The new album, Earthology, is different from your past recordings in that it has more international elements, drawn from African and Asian music. Why’d you go this route? Was it on purpose or just something that happened?
The influences are much broader and wasn’t a decision that was made but rather a natural process in hearing and studying new things and incorporating them in the creative process. We’re always on a constant search for new ways of expressing ourselves and can’t be narrowed down to specific names. It’s a puzzle with too many pieces.
What’s your sales pitch to heads that haven’t heard the new one yet?
It’s like traveling around the world in forty-five minutes and experimenting with continental modes and rhythms combined with European and African American jazz and soul aesthetics. In some places, we take longer stops, like in Ethiopia, and in some places we make brief stops, like in Southeast Asia and Japan.
What was it like having Edan, El Michels, Percee P, and the Dap-Kings involved? Why did you choose who you chose? How do you think these guys affect your songs?
The Brooklyn soul clan I consider family. We’ve been working with them since the In the Raw sessions. Whenever we record in New York, it’s either at Daptone or Truth & Soul studios. The rappers were connected through the label and complete the picture in such an unpredictable way! It was fun, though we never really worked with rappers before.
So do y’all dig hip-hop? Who else would you work with given the opportunity?
Off the top of my head… DOOM! There are probably many more I don’t know of, but, basically, the more abstract the better.
You guys fell off the map for a few years and then reappeared with tons of tracks. What’s up next for the Brothers Whitefield?
Basically, we just want to keep making better records and continue touring the world.