Bah Samba, Alice, Bah, Samba, Alice, Russell, Rose, Parfitt
BY ROSE PARFITT
In the ballroom of a Pontin’s holiday camp by the North of England November seaside, it could have been 3am or 3pm. Few knew; no one cared – it was another Southport Weekender and Bah Samba’s set had just begun. On a stage as big as Blackpool Pier, a Bic lighter-sized Alice Russell filled her legendary “Reach Inside” lungs and the room stopped and shivered like a static cat. Shimmering through the blue and pink fog of dry ice and pure adrenaline came “Portuguese Love” in all its glory. Then everything went blurry, but I do remember wondering with brief lucidity why no one ever covered that track before.
Answer is, they couldn’t. In fact, not one singer since Teena Marie has had the vocal range or indeed the balls to take on “Portuguese Love” until Alice Russell, or so the theory goes. “Our label manager came up with the idea of doing that cover,” says Julian Bendall, Bah Samba original and keyboardist, down the phone from his mate’s design store, Blend, in Brighton. “He thought the reason it hadn’t been done before was because obviously there’s a huge vocal issue there, but we both thought Alice would be able to take it on. And she’s totally pulled it off.”
You can say that again. Already licensed to forthcoming Louie Vega, Danny Krivit and Slip’n’Slide compilations, “Portuguese Love” – the first single from the new album, Bah Samba IV, as remixed by longstanding Bah Samba supporter Phil Asher – is up the top of just about every DJ chart worth mentioning. But there’s more to this album than another piece of dancefloor dynamite, notably a full production gear change.
Since the release of those first records we know and love back in 1996/97, Bah Samba’s deserved reputation as the leading live Latin house outfit has become something of a mixed blessing. “With those two early singles, ‘Carnival’ and then ‘Reach Inside’ we were aiming to mix live elements with house beats. That was always the plan, to produce things in that way, and I think we’ve just moved on,” says Julian. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed as ‘the Latin house band’ – we won’t be able to play any of the other songs. I mean, it’s got to be live now, really. That’s the future now, isn’t it, the live sound, even on recordings. It’s always been there, but it just seems to be taking forever for people to learn from it and accept it.”
As proof of this mentality, Bah Samba IV sounds about as organic as a studio album could, with each of the 16 tracks bar one recorded using strictly vintage, pre-1978 equipment. “With Logic and Pro Tools and Cubase, you instantly recognise the sound from that software,” Julian explains. “We wanted it to sound as natural as possible, and sound as Seventies as possible, and I think it does. It doesn’t sound produced; it doesn’t sound modern. Apart from ‘Calma’, that’s got a synth sound on it, everything else is real.”
“This probably sounds a bit techy,” he continues, “but the microphone Alice was using was a valve 1974 microphone called a C12 and they’re about a million pounds each. It went from the top of her head right down to the middle of her chest, so you get all the sound from the chest and the throat as well, and that’s why the vocals sound like they do. I mean obviously she’s brilliant, but that kind of recording is amazing, it just warms everything up.”
Complementing the production ethos behind this album is a determination to maintain as much of the demos’ spontaneity as possible. Some of the tracks, including “Coming Home” and the beauteous “Inner Soul”, come to us with the original vocals virtually in tact, not to mention a few xylophonic contributions from Julian’s little boy, Morris. “We’ve tried to keep all those elements in there as much as possible,” Julian says. “Which is nice because it maintains the original vibe.”
Cunningly split into two halves, Bah Samba IV’s get-up-and-dance side includes a collaboration with the Fatback Band on a cover of “Let the Drums Speak” (“apparently they see it as ‘Let the Drums Speak Part II’, which is nice…” says Julian). The other more loungey, at times Jill Scott or Minnie Ripperton-esque side includes an amazing guest vocal from Afro Medusa/Angel’s Isabel Fructuoso on “Calma” and ends up with “Morris” – unfathomably titled until you know about the xylophone. That so much material can find its way onto a single album says it all about the Bah Samba versatility when the labels are peeled off.
Born in 1995, roundabouts, Bah Samba started out with three: Julian Bendall, Kevin Alexander and Geoff Holroyd, at a time when Julian was working closely with long-time Hacienda resident and general house legend Graeme Park on productions including the Brand New Heavies’ “Back To Love” and Inner City’s “Share My Life”. B, A and H were all members of Brighton-based traditional Brazilian funk band Urubu, the daughter of Chris Franck and Patrick Forge’s band Batu, and sister of Da Lata and Smoke City to which Batu famously gave birth. Blue-blooded, then, in the genealogy of Brit-Braziliana, Batu’s granddaughter Bah Samba released their first single “Carnival” in 1995, an instant Notting Hill smash needless to say. And then Alice Russell moved in next door.
“What a load of nonsense!” laughs Julian when questioned about the erroneous story of his and Alice’s first meeting, which allegedly took place when, after hearing an angelic voice float over the garden fence, he went round to borrow a casserole dish. “I had heard her singing and playing the cello through the wall, but it wasn’t until later that I realised she was prepared to get on a mic. Actually what happened was that me and my friend Ian were completely stoned out of our minds and went banging on the door to borrow some Rizlas…”
The line-up may have changed almost completely since the early days, but Alice and Julian are neighbours still, now living on different floors of an old Brighton music school, appropriately enough. “It’s a bit more domesticated now,” Julian observes. “We’d be much more likely to borrow a casserole pot these days.” But that’s showbusiness – never as rock’n’roll as it seems from deep down in the murky pink and blue haze. Or as he puts it, “One minute you’re bloody getting some beans for your tea from the local offie on the corner and the next minute you’re business class to Japan…”
From their deceptively cosy Brighton set-up have issued in the past year alone not only Bah Samba IV but also, on Alice’s part, Under the Munka Moon, her debut, TM Juke-produced solo album on Tru Thoughtz, and from Julian a string of blinding productions including, most recently, “Wonderful Place”, the new Blaze record featuring Ultra Nate (Bobby & Steve mix with Julian on keys) and, in collaboration with Phil Asher and Bah Samba’s guitarist Mark Ralph, a remix of “Summertime Funk” from the Fatback Band’s brand new album (which apparently, “…sounds like fucking LL Cool J – hysterical…”)
As for the future, it’s all about getting it out there. Japan is definitely on the cards this year, and so are, amongst others, Womad, the Big Chill, the Jazz Café and Koko in London and, of course, Warwick University, so keep an eye on www.bahsamba.co.uk.
Bah Samba are: Julian Bendall (keys), Alice Russell (lead vocals), Mark Ralph (guitar), Timmy Walker (bass), Dominic Glover (trumpet), Finn Peters (flute), Tristan Banks (drums), Oli Savill and Satin Singh (percussion), Heidi Vogel (extra vocals) and Isabel Fructuoso (extra vocals).