Friday Funk: Shawn Lee

Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra: World of Funk

Words By Andy DeVilbiss

In a roundabout way, Galactic introduced me to Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra.

I'm going to assume you know about Galactic. You've probably even seen them, melting faces and waving the freak flag of new school NOLA funk. Reports from my funkateer spies in NYC say Terminal 5 got cratered with the Funk Bomb. Apparently they let Trombone Shorty channel his inner Slim Pickens and ride that sucker Dr. Strangelove style while it dropped. Yet another reason your humble author's All Good Festival countdown clock is ticking hard. They're just a sizzling, visceral live band that has evolved into masters after rockin' the road for 15 years.

Everyone's gotta start somewhere, though. Fifteen years ago, they were just a group with a record producer that was so happy to hear a track from Coolin' Off had been played on a Maryland radio station that he contacted me to make sure I wasn't lying about checking "radio" as the reason for purchase on the aforementioned album's survey mailer card. That album still holds up well even as Galactic's sound has evolved, but it blew my mind at the time and it made me go looking for more Galactic immediately. Problem being there wasn't much Galactic to be had at the time. I could only find one other song, called "Black Eyed Pea," on some compilation called The Best of Cookin'. It was Galactic's first studio recording, and that compilation, which also included several Greyboy/Greyboy Allstars tracks, sparked my torrid love affair with the Ubiquity Records label.

Any good listener/collector knows that if you find a record label that traffics in the genres you like, you stick with that label. You pay attention to what they put out. If they're quality, their logo starts to resemble the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to the point where, even if you don't know what it might be, you'll assume it's good and give it a whirl in your earhole. That's the kind of label Ubiquity is, and they've rewarded me with so much goodness, including Breakestra, Orgone, the Bamboos, Connie Price & The Keystones, NOMO, Quantic, Darondo, and, the modern master of cinematic funk, Shawn Lee.

By cinematic funk, I'm not talking about a choice song dropped into a Tarantino flick. Think heady, slick funk that evokes certain moods or locations and probably could be used to score your favorite blaxploitation flick. While Galactic sweats on stage, the brilliant, British multi-instrumentalist and producer Shawn Lee sweats in the studio, taping, tweaking, and tuning his own musical movies. His goal? Three to four perfect minutes that lead your mind on a funky journey. With his affinity for furry tiger masks, I like to picture him as some slightly insane comic book supervillian, locked away in a hidden lair, hunched over a control board and cackling as he conjures up his musical minions and commands the Ping Pong Orchestra to bring forth The Funk to serve as power for the production of some diabolical disintegration ray.

All crazy ray gun speculation aside, I do know Shawn Lee seemingly produces albums like clockwork from his Fortress of Funkitude, and he's back again with a new joint, World of Funk. An apt title because it serves up 14 tracks infused with globetrotting groove. It's sleek audio voyage that will make you feel like a hip jet-setter.

Your trip begins somewhere in Asia with "Bina." I'm not sure where as the song sounds like a meeting between an Indian snake-charmer and a Shaolin monk. Whether it's roots are snake style kung fu or an actual snake, the sparse, lo-fi vibe will charm the listener. That somewhat lo-fi, muted tone continues into "Ghost in the Rain," a cut that features Lee's label-mate Clutchy Hopkins and Chhom Nimol, lead singer from Dengue Fever, the finest band ever to fuse Cambodian pop with psychedelic rock (yes, you read that right). Maybe I don't know enough about Cambodian pop music, but I felt this track had a more Middle Eastern vibe to it. As with all of this album, I have no idea what Nimol is singing. It's melancholy and beautiful, and the song is inflated by a short, punchy instrumental section.

Next, Shawn crosses the Red Sea over to Africa to meet up with session musician Michael Leonhart (He's the answer to the trivia question "Who's the youngest person to win a Grammy?" He was 17) for the afro-jazz romp "Ethio." The track evokes a bouncy ride across the African landscape, into the Saharan desert, to "Cairo Cairo," a belly-dancing jam that smashes disco horn breaks and bloops with the haunting wails of Natacha Atlas, a Belgian singer of Middle Eastern descent who's known for fusing Arabic and electronic music.

The voyage takes a Latin turn with "Nao Vacila," a greasy, horn-laden funky strut. with Brazilian vocalist Curumin. You can almost picture him in a traditional hip-hop video setting, cruising the streets of Rio with his posse and his ladies, crushing all who step to him with some potent Portuguese flow. You then cross the border into Colombia with an assist from vocalist Bardo Martinez to the sounds of "La Eterna Felicidad," a groovy if somewhat frenetic track that features some pretty impressive bass work.

The pace slows as Lee heads back towards Asia with "Nanny Jee," a groovy droner that features a juicy, liquidy bass rumble accentuated with synths, tablas and various Asian string instruments I couldn't even possibly try and figure out the names of. Lee keeps it all in the family with the vocals on this one, turning the mic over to his mother-in-law, performing under the moniker Nanny G. The relaxed pace and chill vibe continue with "Iceberg" as the listener is greeted by the distinctive somewhere-between-a-bell-and-a-xylophone sounds of kalimbas from NOMO's Eliot Bergman. Bergman handcrafts his own kalimbas, and they provide a perfect base for Lee's extra layers of syncopated beats, steel drums and deep bass.

Michael Leonhart rejoins the party on "Booya." Perhaps my favorite cut on the album, it's a sinister, pulsing monster, popping with great horn licks that crescendo towards the song's conclusion. In fact, "Booya" sounds quite a bit like something Galactic might play during a show. Classic psychedelic fuzz guitar heralds the coming of "The Mighty Atlas," featuring a return stint on vocals from Natacha Atlas. It's a bubbling workout that, aside from the vocals, evokes the early-70's flavor of afro-rock groups like Mandrill, Afrique, or the Lafayette Afro Rock Band.

We're back south of some kind of border as vocalist and musician Cava provides some Peruvian soul via Los Angeles on "Mi Ilusion," a mid-tempo, latin jazz ballad that features some beautiful guitar of a somewhat flamenco variety. Again, I have no idea what Cava is singing, but her voice proves a compelling and impressive instrument. Heavy horns and layered percussion welcome the listener to "Accelerate," an infectious, afrobeat-infused dance party. The name is not just for show as the tempo does indeed accelerate as the song progresses, a la Medeski Martin & Wood's "Bubblehouse," but without slowing down for the end.

Always one for a little bit of, as the Brits would say, cheekiness with some of his song titles, "Tablacadabra" returns the vibe to India. It is indeed centered around some mesmerizing tablas, but those tablas and sitar drones are backed by some spacy, spooky porno funk. The Indian flavor continues as your aural journey concludes with "Hairy Krishner." A brief chant serves as the central motif for some slow bouncing beats with a tough edge. It's as if it was the soundtrack to your jet-lagged walk through the concourse, as you politely decline airport salvation and try not to tell those offering it exactly where they can stick their flowers.

With its tight arrangements, layers upon layers of slick production, and its adventurous spirit, World of Funk proves that Shawn Lee remains a diabolical beat-making genius at the top of his game. It may not necessarily have you busting moves on the dance floor, but the album provides an audio voyage for your brain with engaging, thoughtful, and sometimes haunting music.

We are now beginning our final descent into the weekend. Seatbacks and tray tables up, funkateers. Until next time...


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