ARTIST PROJECT: RHYTHM TRIBE
Latest December 19, 2019 Kurt Orzeck
One of the age-old debates in music is whether it’s tougher to break through as a new artist or to break through again after having achieved success in the past. Rhythm Tribe, a hard-to-categorize project that has underground multiple incarnations, is in some ways trying to achieve both.
The Afro-Latin collective led by guitarist, vocalist and founder Thomas Guzman-Sanchez began in 1989 as a Los Angeles-area four-piece also featuring his wife, Marla; brother, Paul; and friend Steve Meade. The band experienced significant success, signing to Elektra and then BMG, and nestling onto MTV with a flashy video for the groovy tune “Gotta See Your Eyes.”
But, while Rhythm Tribe also earned accolades from Rolling Stone, Thomas and company were tragically tagged with the backhanded compliment that they were “ahead of their time.”
“We were selling out concert halls and on the same label as Metallica and Mötley Crüe. We did the Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” Guzman-Sanchez recalled. “But promotions departments didn’t help, and we were stuck. There was no way to connect with the consumer except with live shows.”
From 1995 until recently, Rhythm Tribe remained more or less dormant, with Thomas keeping the project under the radar and not pursuing radio airplay.
Now, Rhythm Tribe is reborn with new rhythms and a new tribe to boot. Consisting of three Guzman-Sanchezes—Thomas, his son Mason (guitarist/vocalist) and his daughter Brisa (singer)—along with friend Esau Garcia (percussionist/drummer), the group falls into the category of acid Afro-Latin smooth jazz neo-funk indie.
Which is to say, Rhythm Tribe’s sound still isn’t easy to define. (Their song “You Are the One” cracked the top 20 on Billboard’s smooth jazz chart.) But fortunately, this time around, the music industry isn’t as cut-and-dry and exclusionist as it used to be. It’s much more fragmented—and much more Latin-friendly.
“I’ve never experienced as much racism as when I went to the conventions [in the early ‘90s],” Thomas remembered. “But here we are, and it’s a new time. And it seems like time has caught up with our acid Latin style.”
In many respects, Rhythm Tribe may as well be a new project altogether. Four years ago, Thomas stumbled across an unfinished recording that his mother and father, noted Puerto Rican guitarist Rafael Guzman-Sanchez, had recorded together in 1957. The younger guitarist completed the track, “Todo Eso,” with modern live instrumentation and vocals, and made it the centerpiece of Rhythm Tribe’s recently released comeback record, Generations.
“I used iZotope software, it’s this advancement in audio repair and correction—and removing pops and bringing EQ into certain frequency—so it sounds current because if you listen to the original, it’s all crackly,” he said.
Thomas’ father passed away in 1985 and never had the chance to meet Mason and Brisa, born in 1995 and 1998, respectively. But on “Todo Eso,” three generations of the Guzman-Sanchez family are united.
“This is the reason I started the project,” Thomas said, before adding more frankly: “I didn’t think that the kids would be great... I thought I was out of it. So for months I was battling with myself, saying, ‘I think this is really good.’”
His feelings were confirmed when the band recorded, essentially ad hoc, a version of the Police’s “Message in the Bottle” that they had only rehearsed earlier in the day.
“We [initially] recorded nine songs [but] had 30 minutes left in the studio,” he said. “We played [the cover song] in the kitchen in the morning. At the end, [Brisa] said, ‘I can do better.’ And I said, ‘No … that’s really good!’”
Thomas has ambitious plans for Rhythm Tribe, to put it mildly. He intends for them to re-enter the studio to record three more songs, releasing “You Are Mine” as the next single, and said he is considering three offers with major labels to partner with the release.
Moreover, Thomas has already compiled five music videos for Generations and a half-hour documentary on the project that he aims to air on Los Angeles TV station KTLA, bolstered by a 30-second spot he wants to be aired over the course of four weeks.
As the proverbial icing on the cake, Thomas wants Rhythm Tribe to finally make their debut live performance.
Regardless of the outcome of those plans, though, Thomas intones that making music with his children is what has brought him the most joy through the serendipitous Generations affair.
“Now that I’m a dad, I’m sitting across with my kids and can get what [my dad] was feeling,” he said. “It’s absolute love. We’re communicating without speaking.”
“You Can’t Take Me Down”
A Record Reflection by A. Scott Galloway
Back in the `80s when I was playing drums in a couple of local L.A. bands, I ran into a group called Chain Reaction that had a unique approach to Dance Music as it stemmed from a fusion of R&B and Latin elements. I forged a friendship with the band’s leader, Thomas Guzman-Sanchez, and followed his tumultuous efforts in the music business as he tried several modes of attack to make a series of musical fusions work in the marketplace with as minimal compromise as possible. It was a matter of fierce cultural pride, ownership of concept, and a goal to present accessible, next level world pop music with dignity and punch.
The evolution of Chain Reaction resulted in a name and a concept change into Rhythm Tribe which recorded for Zoo Entertainment, lensed exciting music videos, toured and had its music included in feature films. When they debuted in 1989, the band was considered “ahead of its time.” After several years of blood sweat and tears, Guzman-Sanchez put it on the backburner and moved on with his life…exhausted by blind men unable or unwilling to see and hear his vision. But there’s a funny thing about life and destiny. You can never escape it. And little did he know that the seeds for Rhythm Tribe to rise like a phoenix sprang from his very loins in the chiseled forms of his son and daughter Mason (now 22) and Brisa (now 20). Along with inventive percussionist Esau Garcia who has a fittingly unique approach to layering a fusion of potent Latin ritmos, Rhythm Tribe has been reborn as a multi-generational pop band straight out of Northridge, California presenting a singular style they dub Acid Latin.
Their first single is a briskly infectious blast of driving groove entitled “You Can’t Take Me Down,” a smash sculpted from the heart, soul and experiences of vocal powerhouse Brisa Guzman-Sanchez, is all about a young woman taking a stand for her self-worth, demanding that no man shall control her no matter how much she may love him. He must love her and respect her on equal terms. Steeped in twin guitar and an insistent boot-stomping beat, it’s a scintillating self-centric song that is just as much a personal statement as a potential rabble rouser for today’s female empowerment #MeToo movement. And to think it all started as a way for a father, a mother and their kids to have fun making music together. Guzman Sanchez could not be more proud.
He states, “As founder of Rhythm Tribe with our first album in 1990, I felt that after changes in the musical climate, it was time for me to move on. For 24 years, I had no desire to do music. However, after meeting Esau, I was re-inspired. I’d already been playing with Mason & Brisa around the house but I got excited again about doing this for real…without the pressures of the industry at large. Together, we’ve been jamming, openly sketching melodies, words, grooves and ideas – a new experience for them and so much fun for me. There’s a special energy that happens when family jams together in the kitchen. Our creation of Acid Latin is a concept that has developed into a style of pop fused with R&B melody and Latin fusion music. It’s two guitars, hyper drums and vocal – always raw, never overproduced. I had the honor of working with (producer/engineer) Phil Ramone in 1992 and learned a lot from him. Along with my wife Marla as co-producer and co-arranger, we proudly apply those sound lessons as they adhere to our concept.”
“You Can’t Take Me Down” is the first of 10 songs/videos that Rhythm Tribe plans to release – one a month. These will lead up to the full album, Generations, which promises to be as heartwarming a presentation as a family portrait in sound as it is a bracing new musical concept in the realm of world-wide pop.
A. Scott Galloway
The Urban Music Scene
September 21, 2018