Shaolin Funks


True, Staten Island—perhaps best known for its Godfather locations, the Wu-Tang Clan, and the distinct accents of its residents—is often the neglected stepchild of the Big Apple’s five sibling boroughs. Yet “the Shaolin” has always been a hotbed of underground music talent, having birthed such in-your-face acts as the Wu juggernaut, the New York Dolls, and Force MDs.

Now you can add the Budos Band to the list, a 12-piece riot of juicy horns, frenzied drums, psychedelic Farfisa, and fat guitars that whip Afrobeat, Ethiopian, Latin, and funk ingredients into a uniquely danceable mess. Part of the burgeoning stable of Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, the Budos (short for Los Barbudos, Spanish for “the bearded ones”) brought their instrumental rough-and-tumble to a jubilant, sold-out crowd at Joe’s Pub late one steamy Thursday night last month. The excuse was to celebrate the release of their sophomore effort, Budos II, a hot symphonic platter that mixes such sonic icons as James Brown, Fela Kuti, and Mulatu Astatke with some as-yet-to- be-determined sources found brewing within the island’s “dormant” Phresh Kills Landfill.

“We’re the Budos—we got a new album out, and it’s got a scorpion on the front,” exclaimed baritone-sax player and quasi-bandleader Jared Tankel from the cramped stage. He’s telling the truth: It’s a freakishly golden scorpion you might find crawling around the lava-spitting volcano that graced the cover of the band’s 2005 self-titled debut. These images, combined with song titles like “Ride or Die,” “Chicago Falcon,” “King Cobra,” and “Origin of Man,” might lead you to peg the Budos as a gang of teenage wannabes shredding up some frustrated outer-borough death metal. Instead, they’re a bunch of hirsute twenty- and thirtysomethings churning out gritty cinematic soul worthy of the most formidable go-go dancers. And while none materialized at Joe’s, enough hipsters got their swerve on to suggest that if the band was allowed to spew its groove long enough, some naughty shit would inevitably go down. Unfortunately, a short, sticky encore had to suffice, forcing us to wait until the Staten Island Ferry system realizes they’ve found a perfect house band.

In fact, one of the best ways to experience the Budos raw is to take said ferry on a Monday night, jump on the SIR to the Stapleton stop, walk a half-mile or so down Bay Street—past the ratty bars, pizzerias, and decaying façade of the Paramount Theater—and take a right on Sands Street, heading to the end of block, specifically the white building with holy scripture painted on the side. If you don’t get your ass kicked by any number of metal bands bludgeoning the small confines of their rehearsal spaces, you just might squeeze your ass into the Budos’ weekly practice abode. Once a Pentecostal church, the building now houses rows of these training closets. The Budos practically need a giant shoehorn to squeeze, instruments and all, into theirs, decorated with biker-chick pinups, booze memorabilia, and Christmas lights. The night I’m there, the landlord is shaking the band down for several months of back rent, refusing to leave until everyone offers up their beer money. Once he disappears, they start woodshedding a new tune, infused more with Addis Ababa than Isla de Staten.

Nearly every member of Budos has a day job, be it teaching, catering, studying law, or watering plants. The founding members have been playing together since the ’90s, originally in rock and metal bands, before discovering Desco Records and the Brooklyn Afrobeat crew Antibalas. “We grew up on metal and punk,” founding Budos member, drummer, and SI lifer Brian Profilio tells me. “And we liked hip-hop—the Wu-Tang, NWA, the Geto Boys—we liked the beats. We were all about finding the sample in the cool hip-hop track. So then we tried playing boogaloo and funk.”

Fellow founding member and guitarist Tommy “TNT” Brenneck, who also plays with marquee Daptone act Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, recalls hearing his future bandmates’ early sound while still in high school. “They had this cracked-out hip-hop funk band with horns—it was party music, and the girls danced,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what funk was—and their ‘funk’ was far from funk at that time—but it was the funkiest shit going on in Shaolin.” Dan Foder, the well-tattooed bassist and Budos groundskeeper, elaborates: “This island’s fuckin’ tough. Pretty much you got a lot of rock and punk bands. No one really cares about goin’ to shows. So hearing the Desco records was refreshing. Then after going to check out Antibalas when they were having those weekly Africalia parties at No Moore [in Tribeca], we started to check out these open-mic Afrobeat happenings at the Five Spot in Brooklyn.”

“We changed our steez up and tried to play Afrobeat like Antibalas,” Profilio continues, “doing 15-minute Fela covers with eight-minute solos and shit. But we were getting bored, so we started choppin’ them up. Finally, we got a few more horns and tried to find a new sound.”

Brooding with a ’70s Ethio-jazz spirit, forceful like Mandrill funk, and laced with heavy-metal attitude while honed like a RZA hook, this “new” sound is tough to pin down. But that hasn’t stopped This American Life, Entourage, the NFL Network, and Chanel perfume from taking an aural whiff. As TNT explains, “I describe our sound by saying we play instrumental music—that’s our genre. People ask, ‘But would you ever work with a singer?’ The answer is: Fuck no. Besides, sound checks are so much easier.”

“We’ve improved since our first album,” adds Profilio. “All our new songs are more realized. They’re influenced by that Ethiopian shit. It’s dark, slightly creepy, African-influenced funk. See, people get this all wrong. They call us a jam-band with a jazzy vibe, and all sorts of shit.” He laughs. “We’re lined up to take Leftover Salmon’s throne! String Cheese Incident, move over!”

The Budos Band play the Highline Ballroom October 12