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Interview with Cynth from the High Risk group

The High Risk group was an early all female quartet who started playing together in the early seventies, the lineup was Virginia Rubino on keys and vocals, Cyndy “Cynth” Mason on flute and sax, Bobi Jackson on bass and vocals and Sandi Ajida on percussion. Bobi and Sandi have moved on but Cynth and Virginia are still very much musically active playing today. Check out Cynth’s own musical pages on and Virigina’s Following the release of the group’s Sisters love EP we had a brief chat with Cyndy Mason about the group, the music and the tymes.

Tell me a bit about the band, HIGH RISK, how did the group come about?
In the early 70’s there were many creative women expressing themselves in all the arts.  In Venice Beach, California there was a special concentration of musicians and artists and there were many women’s bands (Lizzy Tisch, Bertha, Red Zinger, Teda and Dog Squeeze, La Silvia, to name a few.) There was constant jamming at each other’s houses and every week-end the Very Very Venice Festival showcased various configurations of groups and musicians at the Pavilion on the beach.  The members of High Risk played with these various configurations of musicians, men and women.  We got to know each other musically and recognized our particular expertise. Sandi Ajida had started her career with Olatunji and played on his first album Drums of Passion, she toured with the Ohio Players just before she came to Venice. Cynth had been under contract with Warner Bros. and had made an album with Paul Williams entitled “The Holy Mackerel”, Virginia, the youngest of the group, was a classically trained pianist and all agreed had one of the greatest voices we had ever heard.  Bobi began her career in the Haight Ashbury and played with every name band that came out of that part of the world. Bobi, who was the brains and business mind of the band, approached Virginia and suggested the four of us start playing together.  Cynth was working on a film with Donna Deitch and brought High Risk in to do the sound track. Judy Grahn’s poems “The Common Women” had recently been published and Cynth suggested to put the poems to music as they reflected the themes in the film “Woman to Woman”. Virginia wrote a concerto to the themes of the poems and Bobi wrote “Degradation” which also reflected  themes in the film.

What feels so special about listening to the High Risk single is that is has kind of two unique sides to it, there is the jazzy Common Woman and the more soulful funky Degradation. Was this the profile of band playing both R&B and Jazz or was this coincidental with the assembly of musicians in the group?
As musicians we were all classically trained and then found our influences that made us unique.  Ajida studied with the Royal Court Drummer from Ghana who was attending Temple University in Philadelphia as was Sandi. She graduated with a music degree.  Bobi was born and raised in New York City and was influenced and played with many of the greats from that part of the world and brought the R & B feel to the band. Virginia began her studies at a young age in the classics and was gifted with an exceptional voice. Cynth, daughter of a jazz drummer and classically trained, studied with the first chair flute of the LA Philharmonic, but when she heard Alice Coltrane she stopped reading music and learned to play from the heart.  I cannot stress enough the influence of living in Venice had. There were so many influences and we were constantly learning from everyone.  But it was our recognition of our level of musicianship and a knowing that we could do something new in the blossoming world of “women’s music” that was the glue that kept us together. One day we figured that between us we had almost 70 years of playing experience.

It also states on the back sleeve it’s the soundtrack to a movie called ‘Woman to Woman’ by Donna Deitch. We must admit we can’t find any info on this film online, did it ever happen?
The documentary “Woman to Woman” was a student Masters thesis by Donna Deitch attending the University of California Los Angeles.  The film was finished and premiered In Berkeley. It may have had a limited commercial release.

How was the single received at the time and how was it distributed?
The single was well received so much so that Olivia Records, the first woman’s record label in the US. released it as their first record.

Tell us a little about the music vibe in LA back in seventies. And how is it now, compared to back then.
In the seventies the music was organic, reflective of the times, women were waking up to their potential, the Vietnam war was raging, the Black and Brown communities were fighting the oppression they had endured for so long and were waking up to their potential and all of this was coming out in the music.  Someone once said to me recently the difference between now and then is that we had theme songs.  There was an urgency, we didn’t have cell phones or answering machines or social media.  We had each other and we had the knowing that we had to change the world and were willing to put our lives on the line for it.  We were passionate, committed and also dedicated to having fun.  Dancing was important, lyrics were important and the revolution was just around the corner.

In many respects Hip Hop carries on this zeitgeist and of course now we are a global community and the internet has made it possible for more diversity and voices to be heard.

We are also thrilled to hear that you played with Somayah (featured on the Brotherman single) she seemed like a special individual on many levels. How was it working with her and in what band was this?
I knew Somayah as Peaches and we met when I worked on a film about the breakfast program the Black Panthers ran in Los Angeles. After she left the Panthers, Peaches started writing songs about her experience and vision.  She asked me to come and open with her at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, a well-known nite club where Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt got their start. The Ash Grove mainly featured the greatest blues players of our time, Leadbelly, B.B. King, John Mayall, Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton and Esther Phillips etc. The band consisted of Peaches, myself on Sax and Flute, a conga player and a pianist. We opened for Albert King and the first thing Peaches would say to that blues audience was…”I’m here to stamp out the blues.”  Peaches had a strength and a sweetness to her songs, not to mention she played the autoharp which was an instrument “of the people”.  Everyone in public school in California had to learn how to play it. Peaches would end her show with the song “Four Women” written by Nina Simone, who was also a great influence on us all.  The song ends with the words “My name is Peaches” and Peaches would slide across the stage on her knees, autoharp in hand and stop just before the footlights. Unforgettable. It was an honor to play with her and if you know her story, she is one of the bravest women I have ever known.

What other jazz artists are your most favourite, in any genre.
My father’s heroes were Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I was raised listening to them, then Stevie Wonder came along and I stopped being a jazz snob. Miles called Jazz social music and really that is what music is to me.  From the human heart and social. Alice Coltrane was the greatest influence, from her early days to her introducing world music.  Playing together on stage she would have the New England Conservatory of Strings, Charlie Hayden on bass, Rashid Ali on drums, an east Indian sitar and tabla, a multitude of African instrumentalists and an African church choir singing Indian bajans. She was the first.  I was fortunate to spend time with her and learn about music and life.ja02front

We know that Bobi Jackson has passed, is this band still in touch with each other.
Regrettably Sandi Ajida also passed in 1992.  I have stayed in touch with Judy Grahn and Max Dashu and due to your re-release of the High Risk disc I have reconnected with Virginia.  We are all happy that this work is being recognized again and I’m sure Sandi and Bobi would feel the gratitude we do.

The High Risk full album is now now available for order from Jazzaggression Records. Get it here!

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Interview with Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq of Black Belt Symphony

One of the key members of the Black Belt Symphony group was saxophonist Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq, once a Los Angeles native who’s professional career started back in the early seventies with Horace Tapscott and his Pan-Afrikan People’s Arkestra. He now residents in Berlin, we had a chat with him about the group, the tymes and the Brotherman single.

How did the group come to be and when did you first meet Somayah?
 I first met Somayah in 1980 when she was sitting in as a guest with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra at one of our “Last Sunday of the Month” concerts. Horace Tapscott, who was the director of the group and pianist, really enjoyed Somayah’s music and the fact that she was a Autoharp player, which was a rare site to see in an Arkestra. Most of us only saw this instrument in elementary school when the teacher would play it to introduce music and singing to us. She performed one of her signature songs in her repertoire that day, Four Women by Nina Simone. At some point later we hooked up and began playing her compositions together. We called ourselves “The Black Symphony” in reference to the land where all the captured Africans who were brought to the southern U.S. states to work as slaves on the cotton plantations. One thing led to another and she moved in with me with her two children, her daughter Angelina and son Lumumba (RIP). In 1981 we began our involvement with the Malcolm X Center, which was a community center in south central L.A. They held personal defense classes, after school tutoring for children in elementary and middle school, yoga classes, karate classes, West African dance classes and drum classes. We began to perform there for a variety of political lectures and book readings from African-American scholars living in our community. There was a small space attached next to the Malcolm X Center, which was not being used so Somayah asked if we could use it to open up a small café that would have food and drinks for the visitors that would come around to the center. That was the beginning of our joint enterprise she named “The Family Teahouse and Jazz Café”. It was here that Somayah became a producer of healthy survival food (as she called it) for the community. She had never forgotten the need to feed the community as she had when she was in charge of the breakfast program in the 60s for the Black Panther Party’s Los Angeles branch. Now we had a place that I was able to provide live music every day as well as nutritious food for those who could pay something. Black beans and rice was the main dish we served. Later we began serving fruit salads, vegetarian soups, tacos, and vegetarian stews made with tofu and veggies. Of course, there was plenty of herbal tea to go around.

It was around 1982 that we started adding musicians to our duo which eventually grew into the 7 piece “Black Belt Symphony” that recorded the single “Brotherman”. It was in 1986 when we recorded the single but she had written the tunes a couple of years before because we were already performing them at concerts. “Brotherman” was written in 1983 to the response of the U.S. sending an invasion force to Grenade where many of the black sailors and marines refused to leave the ship to fight other black soldiers for the U.S. “Geronimo Pratt” was written around 1980 before we first met. This was in response to the U.S. government wrongly imprisoning Elmer “Geronimo“ Pratt, the deputy defense minister of the Black Panther Party and leader of the L.A. Panther headquarter on false murder charges.

The lyrics of the songs and the message are really strong as well, I know that Somayah was a Vietnam veteran and ex-panther. Did that go for the rest of the band as well?
As Somayah would tell you, “once a Black Panther always a Black Panther.” She never stopped being a Black Panther, which made her a “Freedom Fighter” in mind and spirit for life. I was a member of the Black Panther Party during my time in the university (Whitman College) for one year when the Seattle, Washington branch, recruited me. I had the opportunity to meet Bobby Seal and Huey P. Newton briefly when I was at a BPP convention in Oakland in 1969. I do not believe anyone else in the band was a member of the BPP.

Somayah was a veteran of the Vietnam War era (or the American War as the Vietnamese called it) but not a veteran who fought or served in Vietnam. Most of the band had never been in the armed services. I was drafted to go to Vietnam right out of high school but I refused and filed as a “conscientious objector”. I was also in the university at this time and had a college deferment, which kept me out of the war until I left school. The war was just about over when I graduated and I wasn’t forced to go. The rest of the band was never a member of the armed forces either, I believe, except Akin Davis in some form or another. But I don’t know if he went to Vietnam or not.

How was the single received at the time?
Everyone in the community loved Sister Somayah, as she was fondly called, and her lyrics so when the single came out everyone in the community loved it. The others who were part oft he establishment had reservations about the lyrics and the message that she was singing. We tried to get the record played on a couple of Black owned radio stations but the programming directors has reservations about playing it because they were uncomfortable with the lyrics being played on their playlist. One of the stations was a radio station owned by Stevie wonder (KJLH) and was refused play time for the same reasons. The lyrics, “Brotherman, sent to fight the white man’s war again” were a little too much for the black listeners of the radio station at that time… they presumed.

Somaya and Sabir Mateen
Somaya and Sabir Mateen

The Aseelah imprint was you and Somaya’s label, nothing else was released, how did you distribute the record?
Unfortunately, we never recorded again after our first single. Money was an issue in those days and after the recording and after losing our Teahouse to a freak tornado in 1983, we were homeless and struggling for a few years trying to get back on our feet again. Somayah, at this time, was getting worst with her bout with sickle Cell anemia. Her crisis was coming more frequent and severe. We mainly distributed and sold our records at our concerts, which we continue to perform over the next 3 years in L.A. before we moved to Atlanta, Georgia. During this time she went to school to study Stenography and I worked in an alarm security company monitoring home security systems.

I want to add that during this last 3 years in L.A., Somayah had the opportunity to meet Nina Simone not far from where we were living at that time. It was a dream come true and she had the opportunity to work and travel with Nina on tour as her assistant and confidant.

Do you still have contact with any of the other musicians playing on the release, Louie “Mbiki” Spears, Akin Davis, Nirankar Sing Khalsa, Eugene Ruffin, Akin Davis, Sekou Ali?
 I am still in contact with some of the members of the group. Louie “Mbiki” Spears I’ve known since 1973 when we were playing with Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. He was already a successful musician playing with some of the great jazz musicians and traveling all over the world at this time. He has styed active up to 3 years ago when he had a massive stroke that finished his career as a premier bass player. This misfortune happened to him directly after we finished our performance at our concert in L.A. It was lucky that we got him to the hospital in time or he would have not made it. We still stay in contact.

Nirankar Khalsa I’ve also known since 1973 where we played together in the Arkestra (ARK). We had performed many times in L.A. together with Somayah as well as in Atlanta after our move. He moved to Madrid, Spain around the same time I moved to Berlin (1992). In the late 1990s and early 2000s he performed with my touring group and me whenever we were in Spain. We still are close.

Eugene Ruffin was also a member of the ARK in the early 70’s and we stayed in touch until his untimely death due to a tragic car accident in 1988.

Akin Davis we met when we first became involved with the Malcolm X Center. He was on one the drum teacher who conducted weekly classes. Unfortunately, he died from complications with Diabetes before the record was released.

Sekou Ali I never saw again after our move to Atlanta.

Tell us a little about the music vibe in LA back in seventies.
The music vibe in L.A. back in the 70’s was a very vibrant scene in my opinion. Everything was on fire and electric. It was still the time oft he social, cultural and political revolution oft he 60’s. The vibe oft he civil rights movement was still part of the fabric oft he city. The jazz scene was aggressive and innovative in the playing and the composing. Boundaries of the past were being continually challenged and the people were always waiting and expecting something new and original. It didn’t matter which genre you were into (RnB, Soul, Jazz, Free, etc), everyone was trying something new.

How is Berlin and Europe today compared to LA back in seventies and 80s?
I believe Berlin has become a musical mecca for a lot of Europeans. It is so diverse with cultures from around the world and so cosmopolitan that you could find almost every type of music and art form from around the planet being performed or being showcase somewhere in Berlin. The city is very vibrant and open almost 24hrs a day. This is the way L.A. was in the 70’s and part of the 80’s but in Berlin, in some cases, the music and art is not as innovative or daring as it was in L.A. because of political reasons. The 70’s in L.A., in particular and in the U.S. in general, was a time of revolution on many levels. The reasons to be different and innovative were for reasons to create a change from the status quo. The reasons to be different and innovative now in Berlin are to get noticed so that someone will discover you to be the next famous superstar. The political, cultural and social reasons do not apply for the need to be innovated today as it did in the 70’s and 80’s in L.A.

What other jazz artists are your most favoriteja703front, in any genre.
My most favorite jazz artist  are because of their commitment to being different, innovative and excellence on a high artistic level….John Coltrane, Charles Parker, Nina Simone, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington, Horace Tapscott, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, Curtis Mayfield, Kamau Daooud to only name a few. There are so many more but too many to mention. Of course, Somayah is included in this list.

Visit Fuasi’s own web page here, and if you are in Berlin catch him live!
Brotherman EP single is out on Jazzaggression now, buy it!