Mumbai Taxi is perhaps the most eclectic band in town, performing music described by band member and multi-instrumentalist Philip Henry Christopher, aka "Philadelphia Phil," as ranging from psychedelic mambo to raga reggae, with styles like Soweto Beat and Tropicalia in between.
The band started in Cuba for a recent gig at the Chatterbox, poised on a stage about the size of a Toyota Tercel, bathed under the glow of orange halogen. Christopher sung in great, seemingly authentic Spanish, making the Mass. Ave. bar seem like a club in Miami's Little Havana. Then it was on to West Africa, with plenty of congas and multi-part vocals, before crossing the ocean back to Argentina.
As the bar's patrons carved out space on an impromptu dance floor, the band flew to India - making a stop in Mumbai for a raga - then to Brazil to play Tropicalia, a style that is, in and of itself, an example of the kind of fusion that the band accomplishes. In short, the band has a respect for the original materials of these musics and folk traditions, but also an interest in making these traditions their own, and picking out similarities between seemingly distinct sounds. And one might compare this respectful hopping across geography and genres to Tropicalia, which incorporated Brazilian, African and North American influences without compromising the integrity of the raw materials.
"We are paying our tribute to sounds and rhythms that are ancient and universal. All these rhythms are older than music itself," explains Christopher. "Pop artists who thinks they are playing something that's never been played before are kidding themselves."
But it wasn't as if the group walked into the same practice space one day. Cristopher had already met up with percussionist Baba Akinwala Yuhdiddiyuh and drummer Kevin Kouts, but they were still looking for another member to round out the band.
The guys told me the tale of tracking down keyboardist Larry Griffin-Sledge. "It was like a scene out of spy or action movie," Kouts says.
"I would get an address that was like three weeks old. I'd storm in the door looking for Larry and I'd find an empty apartment with, you know, a cigarette still smoking in an ash tray," Christopher laughs.
Bandmates call Sledge, who learned multiple instruments until settling on the keyboards, a genius. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, where his parents owned a roadhouse played by chitlin circuit greats, hearing music that ranged from delta blues to R&B to big band jazz. Sledge learned to play from banging along on pots and pans during these bands' sets and soundchecks. As a thirteen-year-old drummer, Sledge went on a six-month tour of the southwest with the Temptations, before moving on keyboards and the Hammond B3.
Christopher has an equally storied and colorful past, having played with all genres of world music all over, from reggae bands in Iowa and Indiana, to a Cuban-style mambo orchestra based out of Philly. Christopher is also a published writer, and his poems and essays have been published in literary journals.
Yuhdiddiyuh, who earned the title of master drummer following an apprenticeship with Prince Julius Adeniyi, has been playing African and Afro-Latino drums in African dance troups and performers for over thirty years, including groups led by Morthiam Diop, Catherine Dunham and Adeniyi.
Kouts, a founding member of the jazz-rock fusion band the Mathematicians, holds degrees in math and science, and brings that analytic bent to bear on his music.
Two recent additions have filled out the band to a sextet. Dave Hahn has joined on bass, and the band has added a singer, Ayo (ne Andrea Danette Lewis), an established sculptor and the daughter of keyboardist Don Lewis.
Christopher yearns for a greater openness to experimentation he associates with the 1960s. "That time when people were searching for a higher consciousness," he says. He hopes that Mumbai Taxi will raise the consciousness of each listener, particularly in a town where such "world" music ensembles are rare. "If you want the psychedelic experience, Mumbai Taxi will provide your trip," says Christofer. "Of course, if we play a nice beat and the people want to dance, well, that's just fine too," laughs Baba. "All music is made for celebration."
An album is in the works, but band members focus their energy on playing the best live show they can. "If we can't play it live, then we just don't play it," says Christopher.
I sat with the guys after the show to listen to them chat about troublesome trends in contemporary music. A young Indian man stopped by to introduce himself as a Mumbai native. The talk of bad pop records dissolved into a lively discussion of Indian cooking, Indian mothers, the tabla and other traditional Indian instruments. Baba's interest was piqued, and the two strangers, suddenly friends, launched into a loud discussion about their percussion idols.
When the two paused to catch a breath, Baba turned to me. "This," he said with a smile, tracing a loop with his finger in the air around he and the Indian, "is what it's all about."
Excerpts from a sample Mumbai Taxi playlist with annotations by Philadelphia Phil:
Taste of the Chalice
(Phillip Henry Christopher)
"The song draws from West African Soukous. The bridge is pure Soweto - Zulu guitar, modern Township bass and Soweto Beat drums take us to South Africa. And the chorus is a lively Jamaican ska."
Tengo Una Remera de Che
"This one references Che Guevara in both lyric content and music, although there really isn't any discussion of Che, the man. It plays on an expression in Argentina, where Che was from: 'Tengo una remera de Che, y no se porque' means 'I have a tee-shirt of Che, and I don't know why.'"
Lyrics: "Got a tee-shirt of Che. I don't know why.
Looks kinda cool when I'm really high."
"This one fuses Indian raga ideas (drone notes, tablas) with a kind of reggae. The guitar is tinged with West African styles. An almost surrealist post-modern narrative, and very cinematic. The lyrics take us from Mumbai to America. It is sung in Bollywood fashion, as a duet. I provide the narrator's voice, while Ayo sings all the words attributed to the woman in the story."
Lyrics: "Jumped into a Taxi outside of Mumbai. She said, 'Como te va, Papi?'
I said, 'I'm just getting by,' and she said,
'Tienes fuego? I want to get high.'
I said, 'I can't help you darlin', I can't even try.'
(Baba Akinwala Yuhdiddiyuh)
"A song of praise, sung in Yoruba by Yuhdiddiyuh. He composed this song for one of his teachers, Prince Julius Adeniyi. Based in West African drum and guitar."
"This song by Brazilian star, Caetano Veloso, is a good example of the fusion of North American and Brazilian music that characterizes Tropicalia. Reinterpreting Tropicalia, we extrapolate Caetano's ideas toward an acid-tinged funk, complete with psychedelic guitar solo, percussion solo traversing the ocean to fuse West African and Brazilian rhythms, and a screaming Hammond organ solo straight from the sixties."
(Maria Teresa Vera)
"A Cuban bolero, very popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Our arrangement is for electric guitar and clarinet."