Kudu are Sylvia Gordon and Deantoni "D" Parks. Their music is raw, powerful, darkly melodic and, strange but true, utterly poptastic. Call it "last party before you die" music. Far gone diva singer. Manic drums. Synth lines that hum, moan and dive down low. "Wet" keyboard effects.
Kudu tap into Siouxsie circa 82, dark Chicago house circa 86, deep 70s funk, and, consciously or not, UK jungle tekno circa 91. And yet, despite the strength of these precursors, there is nothing derivative or ironic about Kudu. They are real deal, and their music is so primal, when heard live, that they could just as validly be classed a rock act as a jazz or dance act.
On stage Kudu are dark and raw and desperate, but their pop potential has always been apparent to anyone with ears for song craft and eyes for charisma. Their forthcoming album Death of the Party, set to be released this October on Nublu Records, confirms this perception. In addition to the aforesaid ingredients, Kudu on vinyl and cd have a sense of fun lifted from Deee-Lite, ESG, church in rural Georgia and parades in New Orleans. The total package is true to who they are. D is a child of the Deep South, and Sylvia had a bi-continental, bi-coastal, nomadic upbringing that led her across lines of class, race and culture. They have packed out all-black Atlanta audiences and all-white Williamsburg audiences, and there is no good reason their album should not be similarly received.
Kudu belong to no music movement but have affinities with several of the leading currents in today's music. First, and almost without saying, they are connected to the Nublu jazz circle, schooled in jazz, informed by jazz. Second, like M.I.A. and Adult., they are a dance act that possesses the "not disco" elements of smart lyrics, pop chops, style, charisma. Third, Kudu share the social position and cultural heritage of Apollo Heights and other Afro-Punk bands. Fourth, Kudu slot-in with the NYC post-punk dance revival, the DFA bands, OutHud, In Flagranti. So Kudu are not alone in the wilderness. But they run separate.
The relationship between Kudu and jazz music is complex. Sylvia is a first-rate jazz singer and bassist, and D's a savage savant on drums. In Kudu, D sticks to his usual guns, but Sylvia turns her background and talents inside out. She's starred in her own lounge act devoted to jazz standards; participated in Chris Brann's P'taah project, writing, singing and playing bass on the peerless cosmic nu jazz anthem "Staring at the Sun"; recorded alongside Mulgrew Miller and Lewis Nash on "Kaleidoscope" for Jeremy Pelt's latest album, to which she also contributed lyrics; worked with Mike Ladd and Kamaal "Q-Tip" Fareed in the hip hop band Rose. Sylvia doesn't so much push this experience to the side in Kudu as submerge it within the persona of a goth raver chick or untypical post-punk girl. The result is an is-no-other pop diva. As Alex Barnes has remarked in Trace magazine, "Sylvia's vocals possess the raw power and emotion reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene, coupled by a melodic range that easily matches the best of today's jazz singers." Her voice has a bite and growl that dances the line between Betty Carter, Betty Page and, again, Siouxsie.
To see Sylvia perform in Kudu is to wonder whether she is giving expression to an unspeakable late night self or, more innocently, bringing to the foreground the little girl she once was, before her tutelage in jazz. But whatever's going on, she comes off as infected with "lust to dust." A club child gone from bad to worse, a terminal case. She's not dangerous per se, but something at the very center of her being is amiss. Unhinged. She sings like a hijacked police siren, in whirling howls, about desire, the body, fantasy, exploration. Back to the crowd, crouched to the floor, or face close to yours, she moves; no whispers, no screams.
If Sylvia had to undergo a lobotomy, with all attendant pain, to assume her role in Kudu, D's gotten away with playing the same game he has since the age of three, when he first put sticks to drums. Raised on funk, soul and church music, D first performed in public at age five, keeping the beat for the local high school jazz band. Today he is regarded by those who know as one of the finest drummers alive. At any jazz show that D plays, if the word is out, the front of the crowd is filled with drummers admiring and studying his technique. This was first apparent at the first-ever Williamsburg Jazz Fest, where Mike Clark of Headhunters fame sent all his drum students to see D play on assignment. D has worked with John Cale, Lauryn Hill, Vernon Reid, N'Dea Davenport, Amel Larrieux, DJ Logic, and many, many others. He can currently be caught making wickedly psychedelic and raw funk music with Juini Booth during odd jam sessions at Nublu.
At risk of over-simplifying matters, D's drumming serves to separate Kudu from the NYC post-punk dance competition, much as Sylvia's stage persona and singing separate the band from their jazz legacy. Certainly Kudu mine the terrain of post punk and, more generally, the extended 79-to-94 dance music golden age. The whole of their live show, and much of their recorded output, is encapsulated in "wet" synthesizer effects reminiscent of 82-era Simple Minds and of such Chicago house tracks as Quest's "Mind Games." Kudu's basslines bump like electro, and the synth lines often recall the "shark fin in the sea" treachery of early 90s rave music. Were this all that Kudu did, however, their music would be standard "cool record collection" fare, a delectable pastiche.
D's mastery of the drum makes Kudu modern. Where others mimic the angular funk of Go4 or the sleek chassis of Italo disco, D effectively reveals that voodoo is the essence of dance music. He sets down snake-writhe rhythms with his bare hands, suspending the difference between jungle and funk. At other times, his drumming is heavy, a tricky undertow pulling bodies down, making people drown. And then he'll lash straight ahead, electro style, hardcore style, in a frenzy, in blind heat. Coupled with Sylvia's bass playing and programming, D's demon drums put Kudu well ahead of the curve.
Kudu's comparative sonic modernism has afforded the band a good conscience, such that they don't waste their time on vapid or ironic lyrics, let alone pander to over- and under-sexed males. Sylvia's lyrics are fiercely intelligent, feline, urgent and fresh, and her constant themes are desire and mortality.