Musical genres are fading in today’s artistic landscape. Pop is country. Soul is pop. Jazz is hip-hop. Hip-hop is jazz. The trend of an almost gumbo-like musical future is becoming the new normal.
Genre-blending Portland band Tribe Mars’ music is a peek into that reality.
In the four literary vignettes that follow, we take a look into Tribe Mars at different stages of a musical modulation, leading up to the release of their first feature-length project.
- Chapter I: It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye
In the fall of 2016, Tribe Mars played a gig at a popular venue in Northeast Portland. Unbeknownst to those there to watch the show, the frontman was stepping down and a frontwoman was taking his place, evolving the group’s message and sound.
- Chapter II: The Tribe Mars Experience
A look into what constitutes a Tribe Mars live performance — and the energy, emotion and truth that comes along with it.
- Chapter III: Dive Bar Destiny
How Tribe Mars first formed could be told from several different points in time. But it really came together at dimly lit bar in Southeast Portland.
- Chapter IV: Game Of Genres
Quincy Jones said the last things that will leave this earth are water and music. Tribe Mars would never put a label on something so special. Music is music — and their debut album is a testament to that truth.
In the fall of 2016, the members of Portland-based band Tribe Mars took to the stage at Alberta Street Pub. Everything seemed fine, but there was something lingering — a nervous energy as they set up.
The patrons waiting on the show felt none of this; they were a group of enthusiastic night crawlers hoping the evening would grant them that instant euphoria weekends seem to promise.
They were there to see a band that had somehow found a way to create a sound with no set boundaries.
Jazz, soul, rock, funk, hip-hop and any sound before or after.
Tribe Mars’ music evokes emotion of an extraterrestrial nature. A kaleidoscope of musical genres, blended into a cohesive musing leaving one hard pressed to define their “sound.”
Their songs touch on sophisticated subjects: finding time to explore within, twisted American lies, living in black skin, the intimacy of death, of life, of love.
Those weekend warriors in attendance were ready to experience all of this, over drinks, of course.
That night, when the set found its groove, Shawn Dungee started singing at mid-tempo with an emotion lodged in his voice. He sang with a desperation. Panting out lyrics, eyes closed.
When he opened them, his face softened as he spotted a familiar figure in the audience. He raised his arm and pointed to a tall, older gentleman standing mid-crowd and dead center of the stage.
The older man pointed back, a moment of mere seconds that undoubtedly had been built on much more. It was, in fact, Shawn’s last gig with Tribe Mars, and his father had flown in from Arizona to see his son’s final show.
“It meant everything to see my father there,” Shawn would later recount of the night.
For Shawn, like many people in bands, responsibility had become more important than rehearsal and non-revolutionary routines would soon replace rock ‘n’ roll.
That night, the reigns of lead vocalist were handed to a melodic woman of melanin named Vaughn Kimmons, aka ‘Brown Alice,’ a Chicago-born singer eager to embrace her artistic rumblings and conquer whatever reservations she had about her own being.
It was a night of change. A night of celebration and sadness. A look into what they were and would become as a group.
Herbie Hancock once said that every band goes through peaks and valleys. It just so happened that during this very special one-time performance, they were going through both at the same time.
But can they jam, though?
Recording music is one thing. Playing it in front of people is another. It’s an important question in the pantheon of the musical experience — but can they jam, though?
There’s always a certain vibe at each Tribe Mars show. An unduplicated positive energy. Each show is a different animal not because improvisation is planned, but because it’s necessary for an artist’s musical growth. A mix between an emotional experience and a need to dance. It’s at live shows, that their records come to life.
Vaughn is true show woman, able to get you off your feet one second, and reflect on complex issues, the next. “That’s one thing I’ve noticed since that [first show performing with Tribe Mars] night — is my confidence,” she said.
At some point during Tribe sets, she steps to the microphone and asks a question: “Hey, black girl, do you know who you are?”
She scans the audience for someone that has her same brown skin. Sometimes she sees her reflection — in Portland, most of the time she does not. So she is forced to ask herself: “Hey, black girl, do you know who you are?” Over and over, again.
For the Tribe, it’s a good valley to be in as a collective. Creating, learning, growing. Laughing, hanging, smoking. It’s that time in a band’s progression when making music doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to make the rent, yet you’re grateful to find some type of something on stage.
Usually, that found freedom starts with the count of Tribe drummer Robert Grubaugh.
Drummers always have the best seat in house. With the viewpoint of a quarterback, their eyes always move to each player when they aren’t lost in their own zone.
Robert plays music for the exploration of the craft and says of watching his bandmates from his position: “Man, it just filters all through me. And I’m just taking it all in.”
To him, the meaning of the band’s name comes from the belief that they were all beamed to this exact location in time to make art, together.
Dreamers in a time and place where some say dreamers don’t belong.
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Any show is a chance to make a statement.
“It’s all about education. For me, it always comes back to education,” he told the crowd.
Two of hip-hop’s elements are self-education and truth. Like jazz, its mainstream name (given by those not creating the art) doesn’t describe its essence. At first, hip-hop was called “reality music,” while others called it the “black CNN.”
Quite a different tone than the name, hip-hop.
Growing up just outside of Portland, Santigie looked at the Rose City as his New York City, all the while feeling the country’s larger issues nagging at his (always) positive aura.
“I’m a half-black and half-white American and growing up, people just saying the most ridiculous things to me that are just stereotypes from television. The inability to break from that …” he said, trailing off and shaking his head.
Dangerously armed with three degrees (education, design and sociology) and a microphone, one can imagine what his rhymes covey in an era of fake news and uncategorized (but aired) propaganda.
“America in general — it’s just reliance on this idea that you just need so many outside things. Things outside of yourself to be normal,” Santigie said.
This is why it’s apropos that the Tribe’s music has no set genre — that no show is the same. Together, their physical canvas is even a break from Portland’s racial makeup. Their style harps on an energy to turn what’s bad, right.
And it’s all tied together with a deep musical knowledge and appreciation for the artistic greatness of the past.
Where it seems the sun is as constant and effortless as breathing. New home to LeBron James and, in certain situations, the place you avoid saying you moved from if you reside in Portland.
It’s also where two members of the Tribe met as kids.
Bassist Aaron Brennan and singer, songwriter, guitarist Brett Van Patten decided early on that they wanted to be in a band. Growing up in Ukiah, they decided around the time they were 10 years old that one would learn guitar while the other learned bass.
People forget. Most of our dreams come to us when we are children. So to be experiencing even a pinch of a dream with someone that has been there all along, is not to be taken for granted.
Aaron’s bass-lines serve as the spine to the Tribe’s body of work. With a genre-less group, there’s always an infinite amount of ways to contort a groove with so many pieces around.
Brett is a frontman with the humbleness of a Pip. A talented musician with a voice that surprises — not because of power — but because of its uniqueness.
Back in the Golden State, the two had already started to jam with Robert (also of Ukiah) before the three decided to uproot to Portland and start anew.
One random night, Aaron and Brett started out to parlay in their new neighborhood. They decided to stop and get a couple of beers at a bar close by: Roadside Attraction.
The Roadside Attraction is a cash-only bar. The jukebox mainly pumps out soul and an eclectic patio gives the nice sentiment of both an outdoor and indoor element.
However, in the back of the bar, an antique Smith & Barnes piano occupies a space, and when the two musicians walked in that night years ago, Andre Burgos of Philadelphia was sitting alone, playing a melody from his mind.
When Andre plays keys, it’s as if he’s always trying to find a new sound. Sometimes using synthesizers with his keys, mixing and matching colors until a piece finds its own ending. To fully appreciate his orchestral playing, it’s important to know the equally cosmic tale of how far he’s come musically in such a short time.
“I started playing seriously when I moved to Portland. I took a class at [Portland Community College], this improv class. But when I got to the class, I couldn’t do it. But they had a practice regiment,” Andre said. “So I said, I’m going to take these home and practice this shit for a year and I’m going to come back and take that class again. So I practiced a few hours a day. Every day. Took the class again and ever since I’ve been more focused. But, I feel like I’m still new to the instrument, in a way.”
After hearing Andre play at Roadside, Brett asked him if he wanted to jam. Weeks later, they met to play with each other for the first time.
“I remember it pretty well,” Brett said.
“We were about to play and I went to get beers. And when I came back, I heard that Rhodes playing as I was walking up and … I had never heard something like that. So I knew we had something.”
Andre brought two others to a jam: a singer from Arizona and an emcee with red hair. Soon they had a new nucleus. And even with the exit of Shawn, the addition of Vaughn and even later, the addition of saxophonist Kyle Merrifield — it was on that night in Southeast Portland that a coincidence created a crew.
Evolution and revolution are never easy. And if you are a band of self-described freedom fighters combating tyranny and systemic oppression, then you’re dying to get the voices in your head, out to the people.
Tribe Mars’ self-titled debut album features 12 tracks over a spectrum of sounds and significance. It’s a transitional album, with vocals from both Shawn and Vaughn, and studio work from some of Portland’s best up-and-coming musicians.
“It wasn’t easy in the beginning. We were like, fuck, Vaughn doesn’t like any of our songs,” Aaron said to grand laughter. “We were thinking: Do we have to change the way we rehearse? I remember we had meetings, we’re these group of guys that have been playing music for a few years and I think we expected Vaughn to come in and do what Shawn did. But they’re totally different people. So we had to change our creative process and we’re still figuring it out.”
The album’s opening track, “Sun Raisin,” begins with a musically styled dream sequence. At the onset, Vaughn gives a soulful intro, but before you know it, an uptempo beat starts and Santigie hits you with some knowledge. Afterward, a grandstanding trumpet solo by Portland musician Noah Simpson is perplexingly placed to deconstruct it all. Finally, at its end, the song circles back to the beginning and ends with Vaughn’s goodbye.
This is a common theme throughout the album. What you thought was there, is not. What you determined you will experience next, you will not. Just like life, eh?
“Education,” gives Santigie a podium to teach through written, rhyming words over a tight blues groove. And to catch every phrase, every important anecdote as they come, is why hip-hop is also a training exercise in critical thought. On the track, Andre’s key playing plays tag with Santigie’s wordplay, working seamlessly — allowing one to devour every syllable and note played.
To hear Brett and Vaughn’s harmonizing on the album’s “Best Fishes,” doesn’t do it justice. But, just like during a live set, you truly believe them when they sing: “Don’t let it / don’t let it / don’t let it get the best of you.” You can’t help but to think “it” had almost got the best of them. Yet, the sincerity in their voices gives one an almost tangible confidence to conquer whatever one’s “it” may be.
There are other standouts, but the very promise of the unconventional process needed to create such a language and what it could yield in these days and times, is the true gem of the album.
“We have very different musical influences and we all started in music in different ways, so the music reflects that — and with three [very] different voices, it creates an interesting dynamic,” Brett said.
Since that gig at Alberta Street Pub two years ago, the Tribe’s voice has evolved. They’re better players and more comfortable performers. But the release of their first album is not an endpoint for the group.
Quite the opposite.
This is somewhat of a beginning for Tribe Mars, as musicians and as individual people. And like viewing the Louvre through a keyhole of a locked door, it will be grand to see what happens if they are able to open it and explore the artistic space beyond.
Tribe Mars will be debuting their project with an album release show at Mississippi Studios on July 6.
Listen to the album here.
Cover photo shot at the Jupiter Next.