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The Broun Sound

[whitespace] the Broun Fellinis With a new album, the legendary SF surrealist-jazz trio may be about to explode out of the underground

Text by Amanda Nowinski
Photography by Farika
Stylist Bishop
Hair & makeup by Paris

Early one Wednesday night at the Elbo Room, the "metabopilicious" groove of the Broun Fellinis is just beginning to "phlow." Sounding more like a funky, abstract translation of a Kandinsky canvas than like a standard jazz trio, the hypnotic "broun soun" has managed to enthrall a fickle San Francisco audience every week at the club for the past seven years (a remarkable feat in any town).

Tonight, a curious cross-section of music lovers filters in--yuppies in cardigans, blasé hipsters, a few slouchy skaters and even a modest cluster of hippies. As Black Edgar Kenyatta's mighty saxophone blows through the audience like a warm gust of wind from his native (and Fellini-devised) Boohaab, I suddenly understand why folks of all persuasions continue to unite in this very room every Wednesday night; this is serious, profound music belonging to a nonlinear landscape--there's no room for category or "scene."

Onstage, the Redeemer launches into a melancholic solo with his powerful electric bass while Kenyatta and percussion master Professor Boris Karnaz take a brief repose. Heads stop nodding in the audience as the Redeemer goes off into a sinuous Spanish-guitar tangent; everyone, even the cats playing pool in the rear and the giggly suburban girls at the bar, is visibly sustained within this moment of exquisite deviation.

Suddenly, a spasmo-rhythmic "tat-tat-tat" from the professor and a spiraling staccato from Kenyatta burst through; notes and beats fuse together in a most unjazz-like crescendo. Call it a jam session, chance improvisation or just plain chaos--this is the undefinable sound of the Fellinis' "new black swing."

In the Chill-Out Land of Boohaab

The sun is out in San Francisco for the first time since the defrosting of the Ice Age, and I am only a few minutes late to meet the Fellinis at their Lower Haight digs. Kenyatta buzzes me in, and I trek up a several flights of stairs toward the scent of burning sage.

The lanky, dreadlocked and bespectacled poet/saxophonist greets me at the door. "Welcome," he says and quickly disappears into the front room, where a television is blaring the World Cup.

Damn, I mutter to myself, who would have known the Broun Fellinis were into organized sports? I join Black Edgar on the living room sofa; he is wholly absorbed in the game and seemingly unaware of my presence. I check my watch several times as we gaze at the television in silence. Thirty minutes later, the Redeemer and Professor Boris Karnaz are still nowhere to be found.

The French goalie (who, I note, closely resembles Right Said Fred) blocks another pathetic attempt by the Brazilians to score; Black Edgar stomps his foot and shouts, "No! Goddammit!" The crowd goes crazy in Fellini-esque "surroun soun"--I hear a second TV in the kitchen. "Those damn French," Black Edgar says, nervously twirling a dread between two long, callused fingers. He grabs the remote and abruptly switches the channel. "We're gonna have to watch the game on Spanish TV. American sportscasters are so fucking stupid."

I remove my watch and toss it in my bag. I'm no longer in my realm; I am in the "kosmic" chill-out land of Boohaab, and I have no other choice than to simply "phlow" with it. Still, I'm getting anxious.

"Those damn French," a voice echoes from the kitchen. Professor Boris Karnaz, a boyish vision in a traditional African smock and a clean shaven head, saunters in and shakes my hand. He settles on a chair by the living room window--no mention of an interview. Within seconds, the French officially destroy the Brazilians, and all television sets are angrily slammed off. The Redeemer magically appears, and at last I press my finger on the record button.

The Boohaabian Mystique

"Jazz hit me really early on," recalls Kenyatta, a.k.a. David Boyce. "It was the way that Miles Davis, Coltrane and the others gave themselves over to the music that inspired me." Born and raised in New York City, Kenyatta took up the alto sax at age 13. But in a foreshadowing of his anti-establishment style, Kenyatta's formal training ended prematurely when he was kicked out of his high school band "for refusing to march in the parades and shit."

Although he continued to practice his sax, he veered away from the life of a musician and instead pursued a degree in industrial-labor relations at Cornell University. "Basically, I studied how to go crazy," he recalls. "Industrial labor relations is supposed to be sociology-based, but it's more of an excuse to be a yuppie when you get out. It's like a finishing school for urban professionals--people who want to go and manage for Xerox, or something."

In 1989, Kenyatta and his college roommate packed their bags and bought one-way tickets to San Francisco. Within days of his arrival, Kenyatta encountered his future bandmate Professor Boris Karnaz, a.k.a. Kevin Carnes, who was the drummer in an industrial-punk band, the Beatnigs, at the time.

The two instantly connected on a Boohaabian vibe and immediately decided to get together for an impromptu jam session; the day the musicians converged, however, the gods were alerted, and the earth shook in response. "I suppose that it was kind of karmic and weird," Kenyatta recalls, "that we met on the day of the big earthquake in '89."

A native Midwesterner and drummer since age 10, Karnaz escaped Michigan on a track scholarship to New Mexico State University in the early '80s. But while in college, a terrible thing happened. "I became sidetracked from music," Karnaz says. "It's difficult to be in an environment that is not conducive to such 'excessive' ideas as being a musician. That's how a lot of folks view it." Again, he escaped, but this time with a punk-rock vengeance. After a brief stint with a punk band in Texas, Karnaz relocated to San Francisco in 1983, where he later formed the Beatnigs with Michael Franti and Ronald Tse (both of eventual Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy fame).

One of the first well-known, completely nonwhite "alternative" bands, the Beatnigs enjoyed more than four years of local and international success. Although the band was signed onto Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label and released several critically acclaimed albums, the group disbanded on a somewhat sour note due to attitudinal differences. Soon thereafter, Kenyatta, Karnaz and former bassist Ayman Mobarek united as the Broun Fellinis. When Mobarek left the band in 1993, Kenyatta and Karnaz hooked up with Kirk Peterson, a.k.a. the Redeemer, who has been the group's bass player ever since.

the Broun Fellinis Out Thru the 'N' Door, the Fellinis' first album since the 1995 debut release of Aphrokubist Improvisation Vol. 9 (Moonshine), is a brilliant, quirky excursion through the Fellinis' distinctive antijazz terrain. A live recording of the group's "partially improvisational and partially composed style," the album is mostly instrumental. A handful of tracks include Kenyatta's poetic verse, the most powerful being "Point of View"--a rage against racism accompanied by a rougher, straight-ahead hip-hop sound ("I walk about rooms, violent and severe, full of people out to diss, dominate and interfere. ... It's clear, broun skin causes fear in the hearts of those unable to accept the facts.").

Self-released on the Fellinis' Broun Soun label, Out Thru the 'N' Door has the kinetic, emotionally charged feel of a once-in-a-lifetime jam session. Offset by Karnaz's unpredictable rhythm work, Kenyatta blows poignant melodies and temperamental flutters against the Redeemer's jumping bass groove. The result is all at once funky, avant-garde and truly difficult to describe.

"We put all of our musical influence out there on this album--all of it," Karnaz explains. "Sometimes you'll listen to us, and you'll hear a beat coming out of an electric box, and it might sound like hip-hop. Sometimes it might even sound like Jimi Hendrix. That's what I like about playing with these guys--all kinds of music is good to go. How it's supposed to sound in the end--we figure that out later."

"We don't have the commitment to stay in any particular category, anyway," the Redeemer adds. "We have too many influences. Maybe it's shameful, but Stanley Clarke was my first influence. And I'll be truthful, again: I was also influenced by Primus!"

"Confession time!" Kenyatta exclaims. "All right, I have nothing to hide; I loved Duran Duran. But if you look at the jazz bands that are being signed to big labels, you'll notice that there's nothing out there that sounds like us."

Predictably, "unusual" jazz does not easily appeal to big industry players. "If we had a B3 organ and a guitar, someone might be breaking their necks trying to get our shit out. We're not acid-jazz, and we don't conform nicely to 'creative'--this weird new category created by American jazz labels." Nonetheless, Kenyatta adds, "We're not going to stop what we're doing because someone at Verve or Columbia isn't calling us--that's not why we make music."

Hence the Broun Soun label: "The prevailing attitude is that if you don't put something out every two weeks, you'll fade into obscurity." Says Karnaz, "But we didn't produce Out Thru the 'N' Door on Broun Soun because we felt the pressure--we did it because we felt the desire."

Kenyatta interrupts, "No, I've seen this guy under pressure for a deadline, and it's some King Arthur shit." Here, we spark the spliff. "We can't let what's not happening stop us," Kenyatta adds, "but we can make other things happen. There are ways to be independent--you just have to drum up the cash. Plus, with our own label, we own everything, and we don't have to compromise."

Cranial Opening

A few years back, however, when the acid-jazz scene stumbled upon San Francisco like a pair of oversized platforms, it seemed (for a second) that hipsters and A&R predators might be able to pinpoint the enigmatic Fellinis. "It was cool to be part of that scene for the business aspect," Karnaz admits. "A genre helps you sell. But if you're just in it to win it, that's about as long as people are going to listen to you--because it's going to be thin, and thin is always in. If you're going sit down to a drum set, it's not all about the bell bottoms. I don't care how cool your bell bottoms are. Some people come to hear us and expect US3, not to diss, but that's just different stuff."

"We've never fit that category," Kenyatta insists. "That's why we're still around. I'd go to clubs and listen to these acid-jazz sets, and I'd think, 'Yes, the addition of jazz could be acidic--if they allowed someone to come into the scene and take them out.' The solos that these people played were old ideas straight out of the book--like repetitive licks that don't go anywhere. After a while, it became an insult to the word 'acid' and all of its connotations. You want your head opened up when you take acid; jazz to me is already like that."

"But imagine John Coltrane playing on acid, man!" Karnaz chirps.

Jazz and bad trips aside, listening to Kenyatta's poetry against the live bass and drum is something of a cranium-opening experience. Sounding more like spoken mind than just spoken word, Kenyatta relates his visions of identity and race in a deeply personal style reminiscent of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron.

"I was inspired to write the lyrics for 'Point of View' after having one of those 'Black Man days,' " Kenyatta explains. "Imagine this: you're standing at an intersection and a car pulls up. It's full of white people, and they see you crossing the street and immediately they lock their doors. That happens to us all the time. That happened to me a while back on Fillmore Street, and it first struck me as just obnoxious. And then it dawned on me how truly fucked up it was. But I tried to make some of 'Point of View' optimistic. You have to maintain yourself and not go out like Colin Fergusson. To get something done, you have to realize that you can have a beautiful life amidst all this wack shit."

But just as the Fellinis do not fit the "jazz-band" label, the term "political band" is equally inappropriate--do not mistake the Fellinis for the art-house version of N.W.A. "Richard Pryor said that a black man saying anything is political," Karnaz explains. "And if you get up onstage and talk about something remotely more challenging beyond 'I just wanna fly,' then it's political. We can't do anything about that, we can't stop that."

"If we're just playing music, it's hard to tell how political we are," Kenyatta adds. "We might stand for total anarchy; we might stand for tightness and cohesion."

Karnaz continues, "There are people who run around with their collars up and hang with their frat buddies who won't come out to check us out because they fear we might be saying something negative. We can't stop that either."

In view of their irreverence toward mainstream expectations, it is no wonder the Fellinis were driven to create a land of their own. In Boohaab, the Fellinis are the universal sound: "Jazz is the soul experience of the Boohaab masses/the black and broun underclasses." Complete with a documented history, geographical location (somewhere near the equator) and expansive vocabulary ("sounkolorforms," "sountrackers," "phlow," "ghuzzi girls"), Boohaab is a metaphor for the Fellinis' philosophy: utilize imagination.

"Boohaab is something I've been writing that I use to describe the sound we make in an abstract way," Boohaab forefather Kenyatta explains. "In addition to the surrealism of Boohaab, there are some truths in the mythology that I've gleaned from my perusals. There are aspects to the Boohaab history that can be traced to brown folks' culture, specifically, African culture. These are aspects squeezed through my brain, mostly, the experience of living in the States and being black. Boohaab is our own mythology."

Abstraction, he continues "is healthy. In our society, it's needed. Our times are too literal. You need to flip your script and get cubist, get surreal. Be a fool, walk to the store in blue paint. Talk loudly to yourself on the street. Get abstract."

A featured band at this year's San Francisco Jazz Festival, it seems that the Broun Fellinis are gaining momentum in their emergence from the underground. After seven years of hard-core devotion from Bay Area fans, the time is ripe for a broader appeal--jazz is no longer just for old folks, and it no longer requires faux-hallucinogen dilution.

Although I might worry if I overheard Black Edgar Kenyatta chatting loudly to himself on his way to the health-food store, it might be nice to catch him painted blue, blowing his sax on a very large stage in a different town. Sometimes you hear a sound, and you just know it's right on; the Boohaabian mystique is starting to take hold m

The Broun Fellinis play Oct. 3 at the Transmission Theater, 314 11th St., $5-$10; 415/621-1911. For more information on additional performance dates and venues, call 415/749-7678.

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From the September 21-October 4, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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