My Chuck Brown/JoGo Project Story

This past week I was fortunate to talk with George Washington University student Lupita Hernandez about my experiences playing with the late, great Chuck Brown, and how that led to the creation of The JoGo Project.

 
  1. What inspired you to start the JoGo Project?

    I grew up in Silver Spring, one of the closest Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. Growing up, even outside the city, you kind of always heard Go-Go music around. I sort of knew what it was because my mom grew up in DC proper and she is a lover of different styles of music. However in May of 2011 I was introduced to Go-Go music on a much deeper level, receiving a phone call to play for the Godfather of Go-Go - Mr. Chuck Brown. This was unique as many people play years of Go-Go gigs before working with Chuck Brown, if they even get so lucky. He’s known to Go-Go music as what Bob Marley is to Reggae and James Brown is to Funk. So to get a call like this was a surprise to me, having mostly played Jazz music and some world music up until this point. But never before had I played Go-Go. I was nervous, to say the least.

    The gig was at Blues Alley, and I got through it ok…though I didn’t know ANY of the dance routines, and there were a handful. But I’ll never forget after taking a solo (which in Go-Go there’s not a whole lot of “soloing”, more-so just groove), Chuck looked over to me and smiled. That was affirmation that I had done a good job. Over the course of the next year, I would continue to perform and sometimes travel with Chuck Brown and his band, and eventually I performed venues that were more Go-Go specific. It was through these experiences that opened my eyes to how deep this culture was. I began to realize that Go-Go wasn’t just a music, but a form of freedom and black expression in a city where there’s a long history of drugs, violence, and crime, , and in a country where there's a long history of oppression. 

     Although there is a notion that violence is associated with Go-Go music, these are actually places where most people go to forget about their problems, and let go. In the 80’s and 90’s, there were more shootings at Go-Go concerts, but that was more so incidental. The violence was mainly surrounding the Crack epidemic and neighborhood “beefs”. However Chuck Brown and many other artists wouldn’t stand for that, ending their concerts immediately if a fight broke out. I saw it happen, Chuck demanded such a level of respect that the people stopped fighting and the music went on. Today, that is the norm amongst Go-Go bands and the bands that represent DC such as Rare Essence, EU, Familiar Faces, Backyard Band, etc. are spreading peace, love, and (mostly) positive messages.

    So to answer your question, I started The JoGo Project about a year after Chuck Brown’s passing (he died in May of 2012), and I had a few motivations for starting it. For one, at the time the only Go-Go group I was regularly performing with was the Chuck Brown Band, and without Chuck around we lost a lot of work. The band has a consistent performing schedule now, but Chuck’s loss was so devastating to not only his band, but to the entire city. I think it took some time to recover from that. I continued to play the gigs I was playing (mostly Jazz, Funk, or Wedding gigs), but I was craving that Go-Go beat! It was like an addictive drug, I needed more. I realized I had fallen in love with Go-Go, so I began seeking out YouTube videos of all the legendary Go-Go bands and artists, and started to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the history. Around the same time, I was participating in an Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program at Strathmore and was preparing for two public concerts to culminate my residency. I was hesitant to trying a Go-Go thing at a prestigious institution like Strathmore, but my advisor and mentor Betty Scott (she created the Strathmore AIR program) loved the idea and encouraged me to do it. 

    So when you start a band, you typically think about a few things first; Who’s going to be in it, what the band will play, and what will it be called!? Many Go-Go bands these days are basically R&B/Pop cover bands, and I wanted to avoid that so I wrote a couple songs that I thought fit the sound I was going for (which was a mix of my musical influences growing up). One problem was I had only written the instrumentals, and didn’t know where to start with lyrics. I’m not a vocalist and have never written lyrics before. Luckily my friend Dante Pope, who is a multi-talented musician and drummer/vocalist in the band, helped me write some lyrics based on the message I was trying to get across with the music. We shelled out two songs, One For Pops (an ode to Chuck Brown, who people close to him affectionately knew as “Pops”), and Too Loud!, a band original that has turned into a crowd favorite. I purposefully got mostly jazz musicians who were new to Go-Go, because I wanted there to be a clear jazz influence in our music as well. I also knew that some of my jazz friends were more interested in Go-Go, and vice versa. Over the last year, we’ve experimented with different set-ups, instrumentation, and personnel, and have recently gained some consistency with a mixed cast of Jazz and Go-Go musicians, creating the sound we call JoGo!

    Which brings me to the band name. This was actually the easy part for me. I figured I’m a Jazz musician starting a Go-Go band, I’ll just replace the “J” with a “G” and call it “JoGo”. That sounded bare, so I went with The JoGo Project and never turned back. What I didn’t realize is that by creating a term like that, I was doing more than just creating a band name. I was starting a brand, a sub-genre, and eventually a movement! With gentrification hitting DC so rapidly, it’s very easy for the important cultural aspects of the city to get buried. But Go-Go runs so deep in DC’s culture that it can not and will not die, and part of the JoGo movement is to ensure that doesn’t happen. Even today, little by little I’m realizing the power JoGo has to keep people informed and to make sure Washington, DC has at least a tiny bit of culture 20, 40, and 100 years from now. So today, knowing that we have the power to make a difference in society, even in a small way, is what keeps me inspired about The JoGo Project.
 

        2. How do you connect with your audience through your music?

    This is actually another reason why I wanted to play more Go-Go music. I love Jazz music, and I always will. But it’s definitely (in many cases) a more intellectual music that stimulates the mind, as well as the body — but in a more mellow way than Go-Go. More experienced Jazz musicians connect with their audiences through the music, which means there has to be a certain depth and “hipness” in the audience to understand and connect with that style of music. With Go-Go music, it’s so heavily influenced by vocals and Call & Response, that it lends itself to connecting with the audience easily. One concept behind Go-Go music is that in between each song, instead of stopping and starting the percussion and drums keep playing, supported by the vocalist usually performing some sort of Call & Response with the audience.


Ex:

Call: “Tell me how you feel like doing’ ya’ll?

Response: “Feel like movin’ that body!”

etc., etc.
 

So when you keep people engaged like that in between songs, next thing you know it it’s the last song of the set and the audience hasn’t once left the dance floor! Also, it’s not uncommon for an audience member to write a “shout-out” or a birthday on a napkin and bring it to the band to shout them out during a breakdown. It’s all part of the culture. So in Go-Go, that’s how we connect with our audiences.

 

        3. What would you like to tell non DC native college students about DC and its Go-Go culture?

    Don’t brush it off. This is something unique and special that only this city has, it's the only actual genre of music that DC can take credit for! Even if you’re planning on leaving after your 4 years here, try to make it out to a Go-Go concert one time. Go-Go music is becoming more and more accessible at venues such as Bethesda Blues & Jazz, The Howard Theatre, Touché Night Club, and many more. Don't sleep!

 

        4. What do you think Chuck Brown’s response would be to having a Go-Go concert at GW?

    He would be elated. Chuck performed just about every type of venue imaginable, from small clubs to large arenas, colleges campuses, festivals, award shows — you name it. He even performed abroad in Tokyo, and before he passed away he performed with the National Symphony Orchestra on the White House lawn. One thing about Chuck, is no matter how big the venue was he always liked to be close to his fans. He would hang after the show and gladly take pictures with people for as long as it took. I remember once he even got mad at the techs at 9:30 Club for putting barriers in front of the stage, distancing himself from his audience. He liked to be able to reach down and touch theirhands, and he couldn’t do that because of the barriers. I think that’s why he was so beloved, because he genuinely loved his fans. They were really like his extended family. I performed at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium with Chuck, and I’m positive he would have loved to perform at Lisner himself...if he didn’t already, you might have to fact check that!

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