The GroovaLottos: Going against the grain

Mwalim Daphunkee Professor, the lead singer of the GroovaLottos and member of the Wampanaug tribe said, “If you’re an artist, there are two ways you can go. You can either go with the grain or against the grain. If you go with the grain, it’s easier in the beginning, but the industry will chew you up and spit out. If you go against the grain, it’s a rough road, but it’s artistically more gratifying.”

The GroovaLotto’s logo, which is on their debut album’s cover, marks the path they have chosen. Part of their logo is a 45 record, which is an homage to old-school funk, ska and jazz. On the 45 is a red spindle and three white feathers, which represent the three original band members. Together, the 45, the red spindle and the white feathers form a medicine wheel. Like the balance symbolized in the medicine wheel, the GroovaLottos make music that is right for their body, spirit, feelings and mentality. In his own life, Mwalim has done exactly the same. 

The singer, keyboardist, playwright, filmmaker, poet and professor of english and black studies at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, premiered the GroovaLottos to the world in a play he wrote for the American Globe Theatre in 2001. The play was about a fictional bimusical band called the GroovaLottos, who were influenced by Comanche, country, rock-and-roll and Broadway music. The word “GroovaLotto” is Mwalim’s own powerful, subversive take on the slur “mulatto.” 

After the play left the stage, Mwalim got together with musicians Eddie Ray and Richard Johnson to jam. Eddie Ray Johnson is a percussionist, musician and journeyman who has been touring since he was 19. Richard Johnson is also a highly sought-after bass player, who at 15 played Carnegie Hall. The three decided to only play what they wanted to at the jam session, and the result was suffused with jazz, ska, funk, r & b, storytelling, poetry and the beat of a Wampanoag drum. Unanimously, they decided the jam session couldn’t end and they had to form a band. Mwalim knew right away what the name of this band should be. “I suggested the GroovaLottos, and they were into it,” he said. Later, The ZYG 808 joined the GroovaLottos as an experienced vocalist and drummer, who started playing at the age of 7.  

When the GroovaLottos sat down in the studio to produce their first album, they just listened. They listened to Miles Davis, James Brown, A Tribe Called Quest, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Castor, Marvin Gaye, Parliament-Funkadelic, and the record collections they had inherited from older relatives. Their quiet state made them loud. They decided to make a record with their own live instruments and without digitally removing the imperfections in the instruments’ sound. According to Mwalim, no one in the music industry makes records this way anymore. They made a fresh, old-school jazz, funk, ska record and promoted it by playing on street corners across the nation. “We’d hold signs that said, ‘Check us out on Spotify,’ and people actually did,” said Mwalim.

It turned out the music industry had to make room for the GroovaLottos who took the American music world by storm. “Dem Big Girls” was nominated for a Grammy for best rock song, and their album Ask Yo’ Mama received a Grammy nomination for best traditional R & B album. In total, the GroovaLottos have earned six Grammy nominations. “The nominations are better than winning,” says Mwalim. “We’re so far out from the mainstream music industry, but the industry still says to us, ‘You’re doing real music.’” 

The GroovaLottos currently are working on two albums: Mama’s Hampers and Remixes and Releases. They also are planning a cabaret play in Providence called Soul Sessions and a jazz-fusion record that also incorporates EDM, making it really good to dance to. Their drummer, The ZYG 808, has a solo album coming out at the end of November. It’s called Boombap Jazz, and it’s a hip-hop jazz project. For more info, go to thegroovalottos.com

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