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There's a whole lotta rhythm goin' down

By Jason Heller

Something stinks around here. Amidst the stark gothic towers of this institution of higher learning, something's brewing--and it has been for a number of years. It is, in short, the Funk. Somehow, in the most unlikely place--for 300 years, the home of rampant Anglophilia--a music originating from the depths of the African American experience has exploded.

With the last crop of funk bands either dissolving or graduating, a new generation of student funk bands is slowly gaining a foothold in the campus music scene. Popular campus funk ensembles like the Rhythm Method (which is still together), Blue Fountain Diner, Party of the Righteous, and Rosser T. Breakfast III have given way to a new crop of horn-laden, bass-thumping bands that never fail to light up a party. Get ready for Ska & Bones and the Sextones.

In Yardbirds-like style, the new bands have grown out of the old. The Sextones are composed of several members of Rosser T. Breakfast III, and Ska & Bones is made up of former members of both Rosser T. Breakfast III and the Party of the Righteous.

The Sextones, at a glance, appear to be a normal group of Yalies. But a trip to the lair of drummer Thomas Shaw, DC '99, proves otherwise. Shaw, who assembled the band earlier this semester, had a simple motivation: "I had a jones in my bones to play some funk." An alumnus of last year's popular group, Rosser T. Breakfast III, Shaw found his Sextones bandmates in various corners of the campus, from the concert band to the school of music.

Perhaps the most visible among the Sextones' members is Bob Kokta, BK '00, who, after running for city alder last November, has turned his energies to his role as the trombonist in the Sextones' blend of funk and jazzy improvisation. In the band, he is not the resident politician. He is Dokta Kokta.

"On stage, Dokta Kokta always has his groove," Shaw said of the usually sweater-and-slacks-clad Kokta. "The Dokta never stops operating. The Dokta was in from the first, and he paid us a house call and funked our bones."

Kokta could not be reached for comment.

The Sextones in concert are as much about jazz-like band chemistry as they are about churning out dance grooves. Keyboardist Aaron Greenblatt, CC '00, who also plays for the Yale Jazz Ensemble, described the group as "more slanted towards collective improvisation and free-flowing exchange of ideas among musicians than other bands." Their repertoire draws mostly from "rare groove" '60s and '70s jazz-funk--Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, and similar artists--and also more recent funksters such as the Greyboy Allstars. They're not afraid to throw in a bit of James Brown every now and then, though. "It's kind of a '70s dance jazz boogaloo," Shaw said. "It's happy music."

But what drives a group of white boys to the funk? "Our music expresses a philosophy of not just spontaneity in the jazz sense, but a real kind of soulful thing," Shaw explained. "It's undeniably black, but that doesn't mean that those of us who are white can't enjoy it. The music fully crosses racial boundaries while confounding them."

In the age-old rock 'n' roll tradition of white boys getting hooked on black music, the Sextones are trying to understand and make something new out of what they've found. And they're trying to bring a new angle on this music to Yale. They are seeking to be different from most of the bands on campus--they have no singer, for instance.

"Having no singer forces the music to speak more loudly," the band's manager, Tom Williams, DC '99, said. The band also attempts to speak loudly with its stage demeanor, performing in suits and sunglasses. "Funk demands an air of showmanship and professionalism."

The band's following has been growing over the past few months, and their last performance found a dance floor full of sweaty bodies caught up in the music.

The Sextones, who also include Dave Caputo, DC '00, (sax) Ben Landsverk, TC '99, (bass), and Ryan Hickox, SY '00, (guitar), have plans to play at Caffé Adulis, Davenport, and Calhoun in the next few weeks.

While the Sextones enter the funk arena from the jazz corner, Yale's other new funk band, Ska & Bones, comes from a ska-oriented background, as their name suggests.

According to bassist Lincoln Else, DC '99, the 10-member Ska & Bones began, quite simply, as a name. It seemed natural that Yale's self-proclaimed "oldest, largest, most secret, and only" ska/funk band should name itself after the most prominent secret society on campus.

The band plays a mix of ska and funk, a combination which occurred nearly by accident. "We began as the name, but realized that none of us knew how to play ska," Else said. "So we had to learn." Why the mix of the two genres? "Because ska is fun, but funk is easier to play," Else explained. Drawn to the funk by "the smell and the texture," Ska & Bones plays a range of songs, including covers by the Meters, Average White Band, and also various ska numbers. The band also plays the theme from Inspector Gadget. "As far as our repertoire is concerned, I think we've established that basically we are a weird band," Else said.

The band's drummer, Ranjit Bindra, TC '98, penned one of the band's more comical originals while riding on the Yale Co-op Trolley to buy textbooks earlier in the year. He ended up not only with the readings for his classes but also with a lyrical idea for a song which eventually became, as you may have guessed, "Co-op Trolley." An up-tempo ska number, the song has been drawing laughs and cheers since Ska & Bones debuted it at November's Battle of the Bands at Toad's Place.

Earlier this year, the band struggled with an identity crisis. Having emerged from the remains of the popular (and similarly large) Party of the Righteous, a Yale funk ensemble, and playing a song or two from the old band's repertoire, Ska & Bones insist that they are a very different band.

Their show proves their claims to be correct: Ska & Bones have a decidedly sharper edge and tighter rhythmic chemistry than their former selves. Their onstage persona is a mix of party atmosphere and controlled musical precision. Like the Sextones, Ska & Bones' members exchange solos onstage and rely on their chemistry to generate new, improvised musical ideas within the framework of their funk sound. The ska aspect of their repertoire has more of a poppish edge, to which the audience also responds with enthusiasm.

The band is currently in the middle of a "12-college tour," during which they hope "to systematically reach every Yale student with the music," Else said.

Ska and Bones also features Andro Hsu, DC '98, (keyboards), David Lipowicz, ES '01, (guitar), Ben Creighton, PC '99, (occasional guitar) James Yu, PC '99, (trombone), Lynne Townsend, JE '01, (trombone), Tate Gardner, SY '00, (tenor sax), Phil Gorman, TC '01, (trumpet), and Namwali Serpell, BR '01, (vocals).

As for future plans, Ska & Bones will "tap new members, initiate them into our parties, and make them do silly things in black cloaks," Else said.

When asked to participate in the funk tradition (à la George Clinton) of badmouthing the competition, both bands declined. "I think that the more good bands we have playing on campus, the better," Greenblatt said. "The ideal situation would be for a really thriving music scene around here. It's all about the music."

As funk granddaddy George Clinton once put it, let's take it to the stage.

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