If you’re a lover of funk and soul music and you live in Toronto, the chances are you’ve already heard of The Soul Motivators. The nine-piece band has been together only a short time, but has hustled and sweated and played tirelessly to appear in numerous funk shows, festivals and special events around town in the one year-plus since they’ve been together. These eight guys and one soulful mama don’t miss many chances to do their thing. What’s most impressive is that the band has kept up the pace of their many shows, all while spending months in the studio recording their debut self-titled EP, which drops this March 2013 with shows in Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
The Soul Motivators, as their website bio describes them, are “here to restore your faith in funk.” Their sound, guitarist and co-founder Voltaire Ramos explains, harkens back to something of a bygone era. Why do they want this sound? “It’s nostalgia for honest, authentic, non-commercially-driven music,” he says. “It’s music from the gut … you can really hear the gritty honesty just oozing out of ’70s funk. I think the sound we love is driven by something other than chasing dollars and commercial success.”
That analog, one-take approach from their favourite ’60s and ’70s records remains a driving inspiration for their sound. They even limited themselves to eight microphones in the session, to “create that retro style and sound.”
Ramos notes that the band’s members all came to funk — along with influences like classic hip-hop, soul and Afrobeat — in a number of ways. In his case, it was growing up in the ’80s near Trinity Bellwoods Park and in the ’90s in Rexdale where his crate-digging tendencies came about. “I was surrounded by hip-hop the whole time. I loved the fat bass lines, the drum breaks, the scratchy rhythm guitar, and the horns that were all over the samples they’d use,” he says, citing the likes of Pete Rock & CL Smooth, NAS, A Tribe Called Quest and others as early references. “I started exploring the music they sampled and pretty much found a treasure trove of awesome music: obscure soul, funk, jazz – music that you would never hear on commercial radio.”
He also mentions that through the late-’90s Movement parties in Toronto, helmed by DJ Jason Palma, he learned to see the connections between different styles of music as diverse as hip-hop, house, Afrobeat, Latin, blues and soul. Other members of The Soul Motivators may have different trajectories for finding the music they wanted to make with this project, but they’ve ended up together in a formation that allows them to produce the sounds they love.
The band formed in 2011 after Ramos, drummer Doug Melville and keyboard player James Robinson decided to change up the funk approach from a previous group they’d been in (Ambassadors, circa 2009). “We wanted to explore a rawer, grittier sound.” They soon connected with bassist Marc Shapiro of King Sunshine, and added him on, along with the three-man horn section of Nathan Dell-Vandenberg (trombone), Dominique Morier (saxophone) and Thomas Moffett (trumpet). Next came vocalist Lydia Persaud and finally, percussionist Nigel Pitt on congas, bells and other fun rhythmic elements.
Soul Motivators caught the attention of Toronto’s CBC Radio One early on: Until the Sun Goes Down was a track of the week on the afternoon show Here and Now, and Gravy Train, another signature tune, received a fair bit of airplay. After we heard Gravy Train, we had to ask about the story behind the song, and its composer, keyboard player James Robinson obliged:
“As a songwriter, I wanted to pay tribute to James Brown’s soul divas – Lyn Collins, Marva Whitney et al. They’d sing songs of empowerment after being messed around by a no-good man. There’s a universality to that, just as many of us have been hard done by in the recent economic downtown. So it’s a two-fold response to those two scenarios. Of course, you can infer a little ‘local flavour’ if you wish (not naming any names; nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more). This song gets a good reaction at shows because lyrically it appeals to Toronto. But more than that, its a soulful 12-bar groove you’d find on a dusty, old 45. A rare gem from the bottom of the crate. And it makes you wanna move!”
Of the many gigs they’ve played in their year or so together, the band counts high-profile opening slots for the likes of Lee Fields and Afrika Bambaataa (this past fall 2012) among the highlights, but they have also played memorable happenings like Footprints’ Halloween jam last October and parties at the Great Hall such as CirQlar’s Shag in February 2012 and Jen Orenstein of Maracatu Mar Aberto’s recent My Funky Valentine bash. (They also maintain a monthly residency at the Orbit Room every second Thursday of the month.) And while it may surprise those who think of Toronto as a cultural hotspot, Ramos gives the prize for most memorable audience to a gig in Hamilton (then again, this may not surprise anyone who’s been to a (non-Uma Nota) show in Toronto in the last, oh, several years).
“It was only about 150 people but the reception was crazy, it was rammed, ” says Ramos. “People were literally jumping in the air, kicking their shoes off, pouring out this intense energy to us. We had no choice but to pour it right back.” For pure electricity at a show, he says nothing has quite touched that night in Hamilton so far.
But with the EP release coming up, the band has a few special treats in store. For one, they will perform never-before-heard originals along with a slate of new cover tunes, as well as their other original tunes from the album. They will also try a DJ-live band collaboration, starting from a vinyl track and using it to transition to the live band performance, a first for the Soul Motivators in concert.
Get ready to motivate yourself onto that dance floor, if you know what’s good for you.
The Soul Motivators Toronto EP release takes place on Friday, March 15, with the Soul Motivators live alongside DJs Andy B. Bad and Voltaire (of the Soul Surrender series). Venue: Bite, 423 College St. Tickets: $10 cover at the door. Doors: 10 p.m. More info: Soul Motivators website, Facebook event page.