MASHPEE – When Naheem Garcia re-connected with Mwalim in 1992, both were young actors in the New African Company, the oldest continuous Black theater company in New England.
They had met a few years earlier but when they saw each other again, “We connected,” said Garcia, an actor and theater educator with an impressive acting resume of almost two dozen TV shows and movies, as well as many plays, as both director and actor.
Garcia, Mwalim’s longtime collaborator who has directed many of Mwalim’s plays at venues throughout New England, described Mwalim as “a geek, a square, a brainiac. He’s a cool square. He was just different. He knew a lot. He had a lot of information… Most intellects sound really corny, but he wasn’t. He had a lot of soul. He’s a musician, a deep thinker, and a brilliant writer.”
Mwalim, aka Da Phunkee Professor (birth name Morgan James Peters), certainly does have a lot of information inside the many compartments of his brain. A founder of the popular original funk, jazz and soul band, The Groovalottos, Mwalim is a composer, musician, theater artist, filmmaker, writer and educator – and it all connects in his growing and prolific body of award-winning work in several fields.
In fact, recalled Mwalim, 54, who lives in Mashpee, one of his many collaborators in the various fields he has mastered, “once told me, ‘Your brain is like a spider web. It stretches out and circles around and you can see connections sometimes that nobody else does.’ ”
He is a multi-disciplinary artist, or what is often called a Renaissance man. Mwalim prefers the term “polymath.”
“You have people that hold onto conventions that talk about being a jack of all trades and master of none,” he said. “You meanwhile have won awards in all of these things that you supposedly are a jack of. Now where do you go with the jack of all trades comment?”
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Formed in the Bronx and Mashpee
His father is Mashpee Wampanoag, and his mother, who family is from Barbados, was born in New York. The two met because his father’s family was selling land in Mashpee that his mother’s family, who lived in the Bronx, were interested in buying in order to build a summer home.
That land purchase did not happen but an introduction, a marriage and a child did. And his mother’s family purchased a different piece of property in Mashpee.
Mwalim was born and raised in the Bronx. He summered in Mashpee. Just those two facts alone must have made that spider web of information inside his brain grow.
“The big difference between the two was the physical world,” he said. “In the city there’s more of an awareness of your surroundings. The traffic. The noise. It’s not necessarily as safe as a rural area.”
“There’s an awareness when you are in a rural area too, but the awareness is of different things,” said Mwalim. “In Mashpee I learned to tell when wildlife came through an area by the signs it left behind. In the city, as soon as you walk out the door there’s an awareness of who might be in the doorway, who might be in the lobby.”
This dichotomy enriched his young life. He loved both places.
Introduction To Racism – “The first time I was called a …., I was 6 years old.”
Mwalim’s parents divorced when he was young. His mother was psychiatric social worker and child advocate from the New York City Board of Education.
When Mwalim was born, his father was a salesman for Swanson, Campbells, and Pepperidge Farm. He later opened his own company, Peters & Sons, which was a fuel oil and excavation company in Mashpee.
When Mwalim was about 8 years old, he said, a lot of white residents in the town of Mashpee stopped doing business with anybody black or brown who owned a business. This was a direct offshoot of the Mashpee land suit in which, the Mashpee tribe sued the New Seabury Corporation, citing ownership issues over development of thousands acres of beachfront in town.
“They targeted Wampanoag businesses,” he said. “He had the company for a number of years, but a lot of his fuel contracts were people in South Mashpee, Popponesset, and New Seabury. And they stopped doing business with him.”
“I don’t know that I was specifically shaped by that but it definitely contributed to the landscape I grew up in,” said Mwalim. “You ended up with an interesting population coming into Mashpee who were basically racist and the land suit caused them to double down on their racism.
His father went on to become a bailiff with Barnstable County, and he kept his excavation business, which had clients in towns other than Mashpee, he said.
The racism was not subtle, he said. “My father and uncle were being called (the n-word) by the Mashpee selectmen in the 1970s. They loved to throw around the word.”
The slur was aimed at all – adults, children. “The first time I got called a (the n-word), I was six years old… The first time my son got called (the n-word), he was 12. So I guess that’s Cape Cod progress.”
Before Mwalim was born, his mother had been a singer with the Amatto Opera Company of New York. Although she had quit performing, she retained her love of music. There was a piano that his mother used to play in their Bronx apartment, and Mwalim liked to play around on it when he was young.
Then when he was in third grade, a classmate’s father, who was a well-known arranger of Latin music, came and and spoke to his class. “When he talked about the whole process of making a record, I was hooked,” said Mwalim.
When he told his mother about it, she said, “That’s what your grandaddy does.” And so even before he ever had a formal music lesson, Mwalim was learning about the machinations and the business of recording music from subsequent curious conversations he had with his grandfather.
“I was intrigued, said Mwalim. “He gave me more information about what the old process [of recording songs] was like.”
His grandfather had come from Barbados to study medicine but decided to pursue medicine instead. He was a composer and pianist but learned that there were not black classical music players in America, said Mwalim. So he worked as an arranger and composer in the Brill Building, the famous music composers office building in New York, and also as a touring musician.
“In fifth grade we were introduced to orchestra and to band,” he said. Surrounded by music in his home, he loved it before ever taking lessons. He wanted to play bass, but there were too many bass players. However, “the teacher needed more viola players,” he said.
“I wasn’t terribly disappointed. I liked viola. It had an interesting sound and look,” he said.
Though he liked music, he was not one of the better players when he started. At school, he had been learning in a group. He did not make the orchestra.
Then his mother got him some private lessons to supplement the group lessons, and it made a big difference. He made the orchestra and in eighth grade he was one of two students to receive a music medal.
That year, he developed an interest in writing music. And while he was supposed to be playing classical music, such as Bach, he was more interested in classic jazz like Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. And he learned that if he wanted to write, he needed an instrument that plays chords, so he started studying piano and immediately loved it. “You would play chords and melodies at the same time, he said.
The first music he studied on piano was the music of Billy Joel. “He was on the radio,” said Mwalim. “A couple of piano students were big into Billy Joel.”
“It might sound like a funny ambition but at that point I knew I wanted to go to one of the performing arts high schools in New York,” said Mwalim.
New York’s High School Of Performing Arts, Then Boston University
He attended the High School Of Music & Arts, now called the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Arts, the Manhattan high school that the movie and TV show, “Fame” was based on. “Fame was the inspiration for a lot of us to go to the school,” he said.
“I had classmates you will see in the movies, on records, in theater,” said Mwalim. “Jennifer Aniston was the year after me.”
His classmates were talented and ambitious. “I was fascinated by my classmates talking about the records they are making,” he said.
Mwalim started doing research and found there were more than 100 record labels in New York. When he was 16, he approached some and asked if he could just sit and watch a recording session. He got invited to one and, while he was there, he was asked to play on a session and soon became an under-the-table studio musician.
At 17, he and some friends, who called themselves Sensual Soul, wrote and recorded a song called, “Loving You” into a boom box. Mwalim duplicated the tape and took it around to a bunch of labels, most of which did not even call back.
But one who did call back gave him advice that he has heeded ever since: Create a publishing company for his songs.
He kept it in mind while he finished high school. Meanwhile, he was finding session work. “A hip hop producer opened a studio in the Bronx.” The producer was Jazzy Jay, co-founder of the Universal Zulu Nation (an international hip-hop organization). I was doing some keyboard work there,” said Mwalim.
And he was looking into college.
“I did look at Berklee [College of Music],” said Mwalim. “But my senior year I was going to buy a suit at Anderson Little, and the guy selling me the suit told me he went to Berklee.”
Mwalim thought, “You’re selling me a suit and you went to Berklee?” It didn’t seem like a good sign. He chose Boston University. He liked the school. He liked the city.
He graduated from high school in 1986. He headed to Boston.
Early Lessons In The Music Business
In the late 1980s, Mwalim met Michael Jonzun, a musician, music producer and founder of the Jonzun Crew, a popular electro and funk-hip hop group in Boston. That was a mentoring relationship, said Mwalim.
Jonzun’s brother was Maurice Starr, who created New Edition, New Kids on The Block and many other acts. Mwalim did a couple of projects for Starr. “He had like nine million projects going on,” said Mwalim.
“I did some keyboard parts for a couple of these little projects, including for a guy who was producing “Maurice’s overages.”
“That’s when learned how the record industry works,” he said. “Record labels will produce 450 projects and of those, they are only going to release 40 of them.”
The projects that did not become hits become tax write offs, he said. “They had a habit of throwing records against the wall in case something sticks,” said Mwalim.
“By now, I was into club music, house music, acid jazz. I was doing some session work. I was majoring in music in college,” he said.
And he was creating. In 1989, Mwalim produced his own single, an instrumental song with spoken word called, “Her Groove.”
“I was offered a deal but when I read the deal I thought this looks like horseshit. I showed it to an attorney who told me, ‘That’s because it is horseshit,’” said Mwalim.
His education, academic as well as in the real world of business, continued. With money from a summer job, he put the record out himself. And this was when a couple of his hustles converged.
“When I was a freshman in college I figured out a ruse to get into clubs,” said Mwalim. He had contacted record companies and, for an internship credit, he would have them send him their new records and he would go to clubs to promote them.
“I’d go in, hand the record to the deejay, and then dance for a while,” he said. He’s not a drinker. “I just wanted to go in and dance and meet girls,” he said.
He had met all the deejays in Boston. He knew folks at all the college radio stations. “When it was time for my record to come out, it was let’s rock.”
He knew that there was a “gatekeeper mentality,” and many in the business would not trust a self-released record. But he had created Midnight Groove Recordings, which released the single.
He did find an audience. It was thousands of miles away, in Europe.
He sent the single to some some contacts he had in Europe. And when he graduated from college, he took a graduation trip to London and brought along the single to distribute there.
“The single did really well in England and Germany and France,” he said. “Around here, it didn’t do that great… That is the Black music reality. Think about the fact that Jimi Hendrix had to go to England and then come back to find success.”
New Passions Of Film Making & Theater
As a music major, Mwalim said, he began to take an interest in making music for film and theater. “I got interested in the process of film making, in the whole process of how how you add music to a film,” he said.
After graduation, he enrolled in the Boston University graduate film program.
“My side interest in music was always writing,” he said. “Scripts, monologues, that type of thing.” He liked film school because he could tap into his “writer side, my conceptualist side.”
He seemed to have some natural skills. “I discovered I have a talent for editing. My camera work was on point, and my writing was top shelf,” he said.
He made a film, “Leroy DubWise, P.I.” that “ended up getting on the film festival circuit,” he said. It was a detective story, he said. “The gag with the film was that it was all black actors but it was white actors dubbing in the voices, like those really bad monster movies,” said Mwalim.
At this point, he was about 24 years old. He had graduated with a Masters in Science with a specialty in screenwriting and directing.
“I ended up going into live theater,” he said. “Film was very expensive. Theater just required a script, some actors, and a place to perform.”
The first play he wrote “was a riff on the Barber of Seville called the Barber of Seville Street,” said Mwalim. He began writing short pieces, and also started teaching workshops in theater, music, acting, and improvisational work.
He was a “teaching artist.” He has been one ever since.
In the early years after grad school, he stitched together a living through music, theater and teaching. He taught workshops in the Boston area and then for a couple of years he was a part-time drama teacher at Fenway Middle College. He did this for ten years.
‘You learn how to package yourself,” said Mwalim, who started to going open mics. “Open mics are wonderful. Even as somebody who now makes money in performing, open mics are a wonderful opportunity to try new things in front of an audience.”
Mwalim: The Name Means “Teacher”
“Mwalim was a name that was given to me by a musical mentor of mine, a saxophone player by the name of Yusef,” said Mwalim.
It was 1988 or so, said Mwalim, who was not a Muslim but he was studying aspects of the religion. The saxophone player said, “If you ever take the oath of Islam, you will be asked for a name so I am going to gift you one.”
“What he said was I am going to give this name to you and now your task is to find out what it means.”
He found out pretty quickly, even before the Internet became big, because he knew that on the seventh floor of the Mugar Library at Boston University he could find a translator of any African or Middle Eastern Language.
“The name meant teacher. It appeared in both Arabic and Aramaic,” he said.
Though it was never formal, Mwalim said, “There was a period that I converted [to Islam] in that I was a student. I was studying and I did go to a mosque.”
As for religion, he studied “other related disciplines and practices” and now describes himself as gnostic. “The concept of a higher power is in knowledge itself,” he said.
He started using the name Mwalim in 1992, although he still sometimes uses Morgan James Peters. “I cheerfully accept checks and contracts in that name,” he said.
Cape Cod & The Need To Create Oversoul Theatre Collective
In the early 1990s, “A group of us found out that theater was no place for Black and brown people on Cape Cod, with the exception of Harwich Junior Theater, which was colorblind,” he said.
“It was sort of like you would go to an audition and they would say you are really good, and then mention a play they were thinking of doing in the future that had a Black character,” he said.
Some version of that happened over and over, he said. He went to one audition, he said, and the reason he didn’t get the part was, “I guess I didn’t look Scottish,” he said.
What he had found, he said, was that the Cape theater scene in some places might be welcoming to “people who were not going to stand up.”
Beginning in the 1970s, some Black faces appeared on Cape stages, said Mwalim, “but not the Black faces that would actually stand up for Black and brown people. They were too busy trying to be liked… They weren’t going to rock the boat, that’s why they were the ones who were chosen.”
But the creation of Oversoul Theatre Collective was about more than just parts he and others weren’t getting. It was about the stories that were not being told. It was about rocking the boat.
“The first thing we did was put together a bunch of vignettes for Black History Month. Plays by Black playwrights,” he said.
“We got some interesting pushback,” he said. “White Cape Cod has a way of politely ignoring. It was polite dismissal. The thing to understand is that the groups that were open to having representation were not open to representation in the decision making.”
“They wanted to curate the blackness,” he said. “Okay, fair enough. We need to curate our own opportunities.”
On the other hand, “a lot of older folks of color on the Cape were of a very conciliatory demeanor. Don’t want to upset white security. Don’t want to talk about things that might upset white people. A lot of the folks from the pre Civil Rights era were like that.”
Mwalim would “respectfully listen to what they are saying and respectfully agree to disagree,” he said.
Oversoul Theatre Collective started staging Mwalim’s plays. They were most often directed by Naheem Garcia.
Around the same time as Oversoul Theatre Collective was starting up, in the 1990s, Mwalim had a public access TV show with “poetry, jazz, a melange of stuff,” he said, adding, “There were some adult pieces that we didn’t censor…. It was an unfiltered exercise in self expression and free speech.”
Meanwhile, Mwalim, the teaching artist, had a band called Soul Ensemble, and he was getting more and more work in New York City. Still, on occasion, he would send his resume around to theater jobs around the Cape that interested him.
“One day I get a rude phone call from a guy in a local theater company who called to give me some candid advice,” said Mwalim. “He said I don’t have what it takes to be a professional in this field.”
“Within five minutes of that phone call, I got accepted into the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab,” he said, adding sarcastically that, “Broadway has a much lower standard than Cape Cod.”
Back To New York As An Off-Broadway Playwright
About 1999, he moved back to New York. First he did some plays for Lincoln Center, then the New York’s Poet’s Cafe in Manhattan and then the Harlem Theater Company.
In 2000 Mwalim recorded a CD called, “Thief In The Night.”
“I created a tour between Virginia and Maine, going out and playing and hawking the CD.” He also pushed it hard in New York and got some airplay on WBLS, a main market Black radio station, he said.
The CD attracted a record company that was a subsidiary of a major label, he said. He signed a deal. “I was lucky because I had a very good attorney. My contract had clauses that allowed me to get out of it in a year.”
First, he put out a second record that became “really popular with house music dejays,” he said.
So the record company put a troup of musicians together, “a superstar band,” he said. “We start rehearsing, play a few shows around the city and get a decent reputation and now the label owner wants us to completely change directions.”
It was another lesson in the music business. “I realized these people were playing us,” he said.
At the same time, he said, “I am actually developing a reputation and a following as an off-Broadway playwright,” he said. This was a problem for the owner of the music label, recalled Mwalim. But he told the label owner, “Right now, theater is putting food on the table.”
Soon more companies were producing his plays.
“One of the pieces I wrote in New York was a play called, ‘Working Things Out.’” he said. “So something like eight out of ten times when a couple goes to the theater, the guy is only there because he is on a date. He had no interest in theater what so ever. This was a play I wrote for those guys.”
“That became something of a hit,” he said. After playing at an urban theater festival in New York, it was put on in other Black Theater Festivals, he said.
Mwalim was also teaching theater and creative writing, was directing a house band at a Greenwich Village nightclub, “and I also worked as a video editor for a subsidiary of Sony,” he said.
“It connects,” he said. “For me it all connects.”
And then he heard from a friend who told him of a teaching job at UMass Dartmouth. He moved to New Bedford in 2003, and kept his close connections to the Cape through his family and his many connections through the arts.
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UMass Dartmouth; Raising A Child By Himself
“At this point, I have a kid on the way and I am married,” he said. He was adjusting to a new way of life.
“The one thing I had to get used to at UMass Dartmouth was slowing down. When you are a working artist, it’s a constant hustle. The notion of having four or five things going at once is just what you do,” said Mwalim. “In academia, you can tone that back a little bit. “
His first year, he created a film and theater festival but was not doing much directing or acting.
“After my first year I underwent a divorce and became a single parent,” he said. He took sole custody of his son when the child was 18 months old.
“I was homebound,” he said. “I was focused on the writing side. I wasn’t gigging out as a musician.”
That child, Morgan Peters, is a drummer and rapper who plays with Mwalim in the band the Groovalottos, and uses the stage name The ZYG 808 (Zee Why Gee Eight Oh Eight) for that and other creative projects.
“He was born in 2003,” said Mwalim. “They had that whole thing where they were talking about playing music for babies before they are born. They always directed you to European composers,” he said, but he was a musician who understood the structural similarities in various types of music.
So the unborn infant was exposed to, for instance, Parliament Funkedelic rather than Bach. And instead of just having his pregnant mother in the same room with the music, Mwalim put headphones to her belly.
Before he was born, Mwalim said, “He and I would play a game where we would tap back and forth through her belly.”
“When he was 2 or 3, he was banging on everything in the house with rhythmic patterns. When he was 4, my mother bought him a little drum set,” he said.
“I used to say he was the reincarnation of Keith Moon. It sounded like an airplane was taking off, but he was in cadence,” he said.
Meeting Eddie Ray Johnson & Creating The Groovalottos
In 2009, “a friend of mine who was a poet was doing an event at the Cotuit Center For The Arts.” There, he was introduced to James Wolf, founding director of the center, who, after seeing Mwalim play, said, “I play blues guitar. I really want to jam with you. And I have a drummer you were born to play with.”
It was true about the drummer, Eddie Ray Johnson. “We became fast friends,” said Mwalim. They liked the same types of music, “the types of music you don’t get to play on the Cape.” They dug funk, soul, jazz and blues such as Parliament Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield or Charles Wright, he said.
Together with Wolf, who “had been a touring blues guitarist for a long time,” they began jamming, said Mwalim. And something clicked.
Johnson “tried to do that typical drummer thing to see if he could rattle the keyboard player. He played polyrhythms but wherever he went I could follow him.”
They began practicing once a week and soon had a gig at the Multi-Cultural Festival at Cape Cod Community College. They called themselves, The Groovalottos.
The name came from a joke in one of Mwalim’s plays. As Mwalim said, “It all connects.”
Wolf left the band, due to arthritis, in 2011. At that point, Mwalim said to Johnson, “You know, Steely Dan is only two people.”
“We figured we would have a live band and then use the live band to find our sound and then when we did we would go to the studio,” said Mwalim of the plan.
“A really good band is a philosophy” said Mwalim. “There’s a common concept about the music. The philosophy behind the Groovalattos is the universal funk. Take the common core elements of jazz, funk, blues, punk rock, Afrobeats, strip it to its essence, and it’s funk.”
It is music that “understands that link to the heartbeat. Your music should find that groove that speaks to people unconsciously. Get you grooving, get you dancing, get you feeling good,” he said.
They found a bass player and played out as a trio with a sound that worked, but the bass player became ill, said Mwalim. They got another bass player, and during this time straddling the two bass players they began playing Gilda’s Stone Rooster in Marion.
“What made it extremely valuable was that Gilda was such a music critic. If we did a song and Gilda liked it, we knew we had something,” said Mwalim.
While they were figuring out their sound, the second the bass player “didn’t work out on a number of levels,” he said, so Mwalim started replacing the bass lines in songs with a synthesizer.
In 2016, the band put out its debut single, “Do You Mind…?,” which peaked at number 3 on the Americana/Indie Blues charts. The song title, taken from a famous line in the movie “Animal House” came up one night spontaneously as the song was written live, on stage during a gig, said Mwalim.
“We were just playing a funk groove, no lyrics,” he said. “There were a bunch of women on the dance floor who were being ignored by their husbands, who were gathered by a television watching a football game.”
One of the dancers, said Mwalim, started grinding up against the bass player when her husband noticed and came to get her off the dance floor. And that’s when, “Do you mind …?” was written on the spot. The original lyrics were very dirty, said Mwalim. After the gig, on the ride home, he said, “I started cleaning [the lyrics] up.”
The chorus stayed the same, “Do you mind if we dance with your dates? If you mind, you’re probably in the wrong place.”
“Once I was asked where do your lyrics come from,” he said. “And my answer is my inner 12-year-old.”
Ask Yo’ Mama & Some Grammy Nominations
The band had found its sound, and while that inner 12-year-old had a big part in writing some of the songs, so did the highly educated professor of English and Black studies. Beyond the fun and the funky, there is a spiritual and social justice aspect to many of Mwalim’s songs.
In 2017, the band put out the album, “Ask Yo’ Mama.”
By then, Mwalim’s son, Zyg, had joined the band. He had been taking drum lessons from Johnson for years, said Mwalim, He began playing with the band when he was 11, and was a full-time member when he as 13.
Zyg’s first gig ever playing with the band for an audience was in front of 48,000 attendees at the 2017 Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said Mwalim.
With Zyg on board as a member, the band marketed the new CD with an innovative street corner tour that brought their music to, among other places, Boston, Harwich and Provincetown.
“When ‘Ask Yo’ Mama’ came out,” said Mwalim, “I found it difficult to get bookings on the Cape.” He described the mostly white Cape entertainment scene as, “the place where Dick Clark never died.”
With that challenge, Mwalim, who had been a teaching artist for his whole career, took the band to the people.
One audience member who grabbed the CD at one point, unknown to the band, happened to be in the music industry. And that was how the band selling its CD at free concerts on street corners, was nominated for four Grammy’s in the award’s first round in 2017.
“I received an invitation to join the Recording Academy and found out that I actually qualified to join 17 years ago,” he said in a press release at the time. “When you’re an underground artist, mainstream opportunities like this don’t occur to you. It all seems kind of unreal when you hear that you’re nominated, but it becomes very real when you see your band on the ballot.”
And now, looking back, he said, “It was really cool. I discovered it’s better to be nominated than to win. The nomination is actually peer reviewed. The win is about marketing.”
Plus, he said, the money is better than if he had been signed to a big label, which would take most of the profits. As a musician who owns his own label, his band gets all the royalties from his sales, he said.
Polyphonic Studios, Mama’s Hamper & ZYG 808
The band decided to open a recording studio in early 2020. Then the pandemic hit. “We went ahead with the studio anyway,” said Mwalim. The studio is on Main Street in Buzzards Bay.
“Eddie Ray was a carpenter, and he was able to do a lot of the construction,” said Mwalim.
“He finished the work on a Wednesday,” said Mwalim. “Eddie Ray used to have stomach issues. That Sunday he went into the hospital. The next Thursday, he was dead.”
They had been two guys, like Steely Dan, who formed a band with a vision that others fit into. And now one of them was gone. But the band, and Eddie Ray Johnson’s spirit and influence, lived on through the music.
“Zyg stepped up and became the drummer,” said Mwalim. “The student stepped into the master’s shoes.”
Before Johnson died, said Mwalim, “Zyg and Eddie Ray were playing drums together all the time. It was not at all unfamiliar territory.”
Johnson’s passing had a profound effect on the band. “Eddie Ray is Groovalottos history,” said Zyg. He was more than just a band member. “I called him my uncle,” said Zyg.
So with studio completed, the band set out to make a new album that it would dedicate to Johnson.
The studio also opened up as a business for other artists to come in and record in a professional studio, said Mwalim.
Eddie Ray was a funny, light-hearted guy,” said Zyg.
The album, called, “Mama’s Hamper,” took a humorous, light-hearted approach and it was a selection of the band’s fans’ favorite songs, as voted by those fans.
“The contextual story,” said Mwalim, “is that the album depicts a Saturday in the 1970s.”
The album starts with the song, “Ima Groovalotto” which, according to Mwalim, is the answer to the question, “If your band had a Saturday morning cartoon, what would the theme song be?”
The band now included Mwalim on keyboards and vocals; ZYG 808 on drums, percussion, vibraphone and vocals; and Chuck V on bass, guitar and vocals as the core members. “Also in the crew” according to their website is vocalist and percussionist Shadowmaster; and bassist Richard Johnson.
Zyg has taken on a prominent role in the band, as Johnson’s replacement as well as as an artist carving his own path. Years earlier he had learned to play vibraphone.
And Zyg, with all of his fathers’ charisma and confidence, has a joyful energy as he performs. Years earlier he learned to rap and, mixing it with the soulful funky Groovalottos sound, he has taken the band to new places.
And, much like Mwalim, Zyg’s lyrics can be fun and playful, or in other songs serious and powerful as he raps about social justice issues.
Often it is the youthful Zyg in the front of the band’s many catchy videos. He was nurtured in creativity and it shows. “He’s an outstanding front man,” said Mwalim. “The fact that he can take control from behind the drums shows how good he is.”
Zyg is almost 20 years old and is a sophomore at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. He is studying music composition and audio engineering.
“He is my mentor,” said Zyg of Mwalim. He talked of how Mwalim has taught him a lot about the music business, and the importance of creating and owning his own content.
“He and I are a different father/son dynamic than people have seen before,” said Zyg. “It’s primarily been just me and my dad since I was two years old.”
Michael Persico, a former music teacher in Mashpee public schools and a band leader who has known Mwalim since 1990, called Zyg “a Mozart for the 21st century… You see how he carries himself, so it’s easy to see what a great Dad Mwalim has been.”
Zyg has his own individual projects in addition to going to college and being in the Groovalottos. Mwalim also has his own individual projects, including plays and other music projects.
“The Groovalottos is sort of like a workshop if you will. It’s an ensemble, but it’s an ensemble made up of extremely talented individuals,” said Mwalim.
“The Groovalottos are kind of like a hub,” he said. “If we do other individual projects, you can pretty much guarantee the other Groovalottos are also there.”
For instance, Mwalim has an individual performance piece coming up at the Cotuit Center for the Arts from April 7 to April 23. The piece, called, “A Party at the Crossroads; A Post-Modernist Vaudeville,” is “adult-oriented musical storytelling that is primarily a solo piece,” he said.
“Zyg is directing it and playing drums for it,” said Mwalim.
“He brought his son up through the arts and music and his son is now contributing…. They’ve got a good thing going on there,” said Garcia. “They’re best friends.”
Creativity & The Collaborative Process
“Things occur to me,” said Mwalim. “I have a vivid and fertile imagination. You visualize something to the point that you want to bring it to fruition.”
Often that takes more than just one person, he said. In order to be truly creative with more than one person, he said, his philosophy is, “Let’s take it back to the playground. You know, you have a group of kids and one kid says, ‘Let’s play this game,’ and then all the other kids work together to shape it. That’s my collaborative process.”
He calls it “stone souping,” built on a folklore of a group of hungry village residents each sharing a small amount of food in a large soup pot in order to create a large flavorful meal that everyone enjoys. In this way, he said, collaborators add to the creative process.
He has long collaborated with Garcia. “We see things on the same level,” said Mwalim of Garcia. “If I tell Naheem I have a new script, we have been working together for so long that he knows it is worth reading. And I know what he brings as a director.”
“He’s Frank Sinatra and I’m Dean Martin,” said Mwalim about Garcia.
“We became like Batman and Robin,” said Garcia. “He was the cool intellect. I was the gentleman player.”
“We’re brothers,” he said. “That’s my brother. No matter where we end up, we find each other. What we do feels ancient and old, and it feels good and it was given to us that way.”
“He writes it and I direct it,” said Garcia. “That became our routine some 30 years ago.”
They are both freemasons, members of the Prince Hall Lodge of Dorchester. They performed 10 original plays at the Lodge about Prince Hall, who was the first black freemason in America. Prince Hall founded African Lodge in 1775 because American Masonic lodges did not admit Blacks. There were already thousands of Black Freemasons around the world by that time.
“He’s done dark comedies,” said Garcia. “He likes playing with a lot of satires. His writing is exquisite because he talks about characters that are complex.”
And while Mwalim lives in Mashpee and travels mostly in New England with his band and various shows, Garcia said, “He’s very connected to the Bronx and what the Bronx meant to him.”
In fact, Mwalim’s novel, ‘Land Of The Black Squirrels; A Bronx Boheme Novel” (Thirty-Three Pages Publishing) was published in 2020. The fast-paced joyful novel reads like something of a love letter to a specific era in the Bronx.
The story originated in a creative writing course he took in grad school, and then he started to spin off the story and add more characters.
He first told parts of the story in Cambridge in 1991 and a more complete version at the Nuyorican in 1993 “The story has grown in iterations,” said Mwalim. “It’s about a group of young musicians and artists growing up together in the Northeast Bronx around the era that hip hop started to develop.” Although it is a work of fiction, there are clear autobiographical hints throughout the fast-moving story.
After telling the story in an oral tradition for years, he finally sat down to write it in 2018 and when he finished he approached and was rejected by a number of publishers until Thirty Three Pages Publishing, “specifically interested in publishing books by Black authors,” took it on, he said.
As the book was published in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, Mwalim said he plans to relaunch it in August. An audio book will be available for Christmas, he said. The audio book will be acted out by several voices, including Mwalim’s, Zyg’s, and Garcia’s.
As always with Mwalim, his focus now, he said is, “Onto the next thing.”
Michael Persico, who lives in Sandwich, is the director of the Jack Bradley Project, a collaboration with Mwalim.
Bradley was a jazz photographer, who lived on Cape Cod. He shot many classic images of Louis Armstrong, said Persico.
The Jack Bradley Project will be a show featuring those images, a band and live narration, said Persico. “Right now his role is as the pianist,” he said.
Mwalim “knows a lot about jazz. He gives me a whole different perspective. His perspective on the history of jazz and blues is second to none.”
“He’s a great guy to bounce stuff off of,” said Persico.
Mwalim’s Thoughts on Money, Race & Progress On Cape Cod
“There is a layer of white supremacy that has been part of Cape Cod as long as there has been Cape Cod,” said Mwalim.
“Until very recently, it was easier to get funding from off-Cape entities,” said Mwalim. “To a lot of traditional Cape organizations, I was the wrong hue, and I wasn’t doing Norman Rockwell-esque productions.”
“If you are doing anything culturally different that is not of a fetish nature, it’s been hard to get accepted,” he said. “They want to find inoffensive Black people and inoffensive Indians.”
“An audience was obviously being ignored and a population was not being included. For us, it was about meeting the needs of the invisible people rather than placating the majority.” – Mwalim
“People want to see African dance with African garb and African drums,” he said. “There’s an interesting schism between African culture and African-American culture. African-American culture was considered by and large to be vulgar.”
“We kept going,” he said. “They weren’t funding us and we were still doing our programs.
Mwalim “is an incredible advocate for the Native community and for people of color,” said Persico, a band leader and former music teacher in Mashpee Public Schools.
The advocate found funding. “A lot of our theater productions on Cape get funded from off-Cape,” said Mwalim.
“An audience was obviously being ignored and a population was not being included. For us, it was about meeting the needs of the invisible people rather than placating the majority.”
But recently, he said, things have changed. “Lately there has been more representation of Black and brown people who are very vocal about the need for actual inclusion.”
“But there are other organizations that still play the old game,” he said. One of those organizations “will include you if you’re not from around here,” he said.
Yet others have made an effort to fix things, he said.
“The big shift happened about two or three years ago,” he said.
“George Floyd,” he said. “There was an awakening.”
The question, he said, is whether it will lead back to “the pander era that happened after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. All of a sudden everybody loved being Black.”
The big difference this time, he said, “is that the Civil Rights era was used as a tool, as a way to destroy Black businesses.”
The question posed back then by white corporations to Black entrepreneurs was, “Why open a business when you can manage one of one ours?” he said. And then those Black business people would be intentionally stalled from advancing, he said.
“There was one gentleman that I knew that this happened to,” said Mwalim. When the man was told he had reached the end of the road at his company, “one of the executives actually said to him, ‘Well maybe you can go put your dashiki back on and see if your old friends will help you.”
With that as history, Mwalim said he sees hope in recent advances. “I see a window of opportunity. I see baby steps,” he said. “From the arts standpoint, I am seeing more support for Black and brown artists… More attention is being paid to diversity and inclusion. Lately there has been more representation of Black and brown people who are very vocal about the need for actual inclusion.”
“I’m seeing more support for Black and brown entrepreneurship. Grants are appearing for business startups. But ask me ten years from now and I can tell you if they were advancements or concessions,” he said. “Right now, they are very promising concessions.”
Click here for The Land of The Back Squirrels; A Bronx Boheme Novel
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