The Groovalottos: Play That Funky (Native American) Music

Teh Groovalottos

The Groovalottos, from left, Melvin Coombs Jr., Eddie Ray Johnson, Mwalim DaPhunkee Professor.

When The Groovalottos take the stage serving up a blend of soul, funk and blues, they’re not just entertaining their fans and packing the dance floor, they’re also on a mission to share the spirit and soul of the music they play that has deep roots in their Native American ancestral traditions.

The band includes members of the Choctaw and Wampanoag communities and they have been referred to as the ‘Soul-Funk Song Keepers of Native America”. The group is comprised Mwalim DaPhunkee Professor on keyboards and vocals, Eddie Ray Johnson on drums and vocals and Melvin “MEL” Coombs on bass.

When you speak of tradition, people often think of very old customs and beliefs that have been passed on through generations, that in many cases have lost their importance in contemporary culture. But for multimedia artist and band leader Mwalim, tradition is not something that is complete and set in stone. Tradition is a dynamic and ever-evolving legacy that should influence contemporary ideas with continued relevance.

The blues is a musical genre that developed in the deep south of the United States in the 19th century and it’s influence can be seen in many musical forms that followed including jazz, funk, soul, rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll. But according to Mwalim, also known as Morgan James Peters, a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts, the blues has origins in Native American music as well.

In a paper he contributed to the Smithsonian’s ‘Indivisible’ exhibit in 2009 titled,‘They Heard it in the Fields’, Mwalim points out that in addition to the already acknowledged rhythmic and harmonic influences on the blues, brought to America from Africa as part of the cultural traditions of enslaved blacks, the melodies in blues songs show strong similarity to the melodies of Native American chants and songs.

As a Mashpee Wampanoag with black heritage, preserving and continuing tradition is a philosophy that permeates Mwalim’s diverse body of multimedia work. From creating films and poetry, to storytelling, from his plays based on historical events, to his award-winning original music he is evolving his own new and more inclusive authentically American traditions.

Mwalim DaPhunkee Professor accepts an Urban Music Award

Mwalim DaPhunkee Professor accepts an Urban Music Award

Influenced by Native American culture through his father’s side of the family as well as his opera singer mother’s roots in Barbados, Mwalim has found ways to creatively bring many traditions together. Spending summers in Mashpee and the other months in New York City, he developed work that he referred to as a “little too rural to be urban and a little too urban to be rural’ and that outsider/insider perspective permeates his creative style resulting in a unique artistic voice that reflects those diverse experiences.

The Groovalottos’ music is just one current example of Mwalim’s body of work and the band recently released a single ‘Do You Mind…” from their upcoming album “Ask Yo Mama.” The accompanying video has already received over 85,000 views on YoutTube. The full album of 13 songs is expected to be completed by summer before the group heads to Senegal, touring the country for two weeks for a musical cultural exchange program.

Mwalim got the idea for the song “Do You Mind” while playing a performance in a local club. The band noticed that all the men in the club were gathered around the televisions watching a football game while their wives and girlfriends were enjoying the dance floor. Looking out at the dancers he remembered a classic line from the movie “Animal House’, “do you mind if we dance with your dates?” He quickly improvised some lyrics based on the line during a blues jam and by the time the band returned home from the gig, the song was complete.

In addition to creating new traditions, Mwalim also honors the musical roots that give him inspiration. He created a company, Songkeepers Ltd. which preserves and passes on traditional Native American musical influences as well as celebrates contemporary Native contributions.

 Eddie Ray leading a workshop for young, aspiring drummers.

Eddie Ray leading a workshop for young, aspiring drummers.

Songkeepers is currently spearheading a program at Mashpee Middle School providing a weekly after -chool jazz band program for students to supplement their in-school music classes. The program also serves as a type of apprenticeship opportunity, offering the chance for students to play with and learn from established professional musicians.

Mwalim remembers the influence of good teachers when he was young and the impact they can make on students. He himself was a creative child, studying music and writing, folklore, poetry and storytelling. It was his viola playing though that first brought him into the professional music business where he became a session musician on many studio recordings in New York City and Boston through the late 1990s.

In 2002, after some independent success with his own music, he was signed to a record deal with Melodic Syndrome, a subsidiary label of Sony Records.. It was the early days of the internet, and this new tool facilitated promotion and distribution for the work of independent artists, so Mwalim left the record label just a year later to create his own company Midnight Groove Recordings and release his own work, as well as his collaborations with other established artists. In 2007, his company evolved to become Liberation Music and Midnight Groove Multimedia.

The “Liberation Sessions” as he calls them, led to a prolific discography spanning various musical genres and his 2009 dance hall reggae song,‘Dem Big Girls’ became an underground hit. His albums have won numerous accolades and awards including nominations in the 2010 Native American Music Awards for Best World Music Album, Best Pop Recording and Best New Male Artist. The same year he won an Urban Music Award for Best Male Jazz Artist.

His 2012 album “Deep Soul Chants & Hollers” an homage to the classic house music scene, received another nomination in the Native American Music awards and a win in the Urban Music Awards. The song “To My Indian Relations” from this album speaks about the loss of spirituality in Native American culture and became a favorite on reservation radio stations throughout the US and Canada.

The Groovalottos

The Groovalottos

In 2014 Mwalim collaborated with Spirit Wind Records, a Native American record label, to release “Awakened by a Noonday Sun”, a mostly instrumental recording with strong Native American and jazz influences. This recording received a Native American Music Award Nomination for Best Instrumental Recording, won an Urban Music Award and also garnered Mwalim a Silver Arrow Award for Outstanding Contribution to Native Music. He won a second Silver Arrow Award in 2015.

Music is just one of Mwalim’s artistic passions though. As an author he writes poetry and plays. His book “A Mixed Medicine Bag” published by Talking Drum Press, contains original ‘Black Wampanoag Folklore’, his contemporary contribution to the Native American storytelling tradition.

Mwalim’s plays which have been produced are often based on historical events, including “Legacy”, a play about Prince Hall, a noted African American abolitionist, recognized for his leadership in the free black community in Boston during the late 1800s who was also the founder of Prince Hall Freemasonry. “Legacy”will be produced on April 23 by The P.A.C.K (Performing Artists Communication Knowledge) in cooperation with New African Company at William E Reed Auditorium in Dorchester.

The Groovalottos can be seen at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge on February 21 or once a month a Gilda’s Stone Rooster in Marion, MA.
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