A funk poet finds his way
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Everton Sylvester’s funk poetry
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 15, 2002) – For a long time, poetry didn’t seem like a worthy pursuit to Everton Sylvester, something that he could put front and center in his life enough to call himself “poet.”
“It seemed like the sort of thing that one should do on Sunday evenings when you don’t have something else to do, and that you should find a good, sensible job and not entertain this non-sensible notion of being a writer,” said the poet and spoken-word artist in a recent phone interview from his apartment in Brooklyn.
So for many years in his native Jamaica he worked in banking and insurance. And when he first settled in New York, it was with the idea of getting an M.B.A. degree and continuing to work in business.
Fortunately, Sylvester’s friends were able to persuade him that he had genuine talent worth pursuing. So after a short detour in optician school – “I thought that should, if not make her proud, at least keep my mother quiet for a while” – Sylvester finally threw in the towel, got an M.F.A. in creative writing, and came out publicly as a poet.
Fifteen years later or so, Sylvester has a lot to show for his efforts. He teaches writing and Caribbean literature at the City University of New York, and is lead poet with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, a hip-hop/poetry outfit with several recordings to its credit. He is a 1993 James Michener Fellow and a 1997 and 1998 Sundance Screenwriters Fellow.
He is a champion slammer, having worked his way up from the midweek open mike at the Nuyorican Café – ground-zero of the poetry-slam movement – to headlining spots on weekend nights. His poems have been published in the Massachusetts Review, the Brooklyn Review, River Run, the Mississippi Review and Gathering of the Tribes. He is featured in the PBS series “United States of Poetry” and in the film “Slamming.” And his first book of poems, “Backyard in Bed-Stuy,” was published last month by First Books.
Sylvester also leads his own band, Searching for Banjo, a trio of downtown’s best avant-garde jazz players who lay down a bed of original funk and r&b-laced jazz for Sylvester’s recited poetry and spoken-word narratives in a manner that updates the bebop-and-Beat poetry fusion of the 1950s. Sylvester and his band, including saxophonist Paul Shapiro, bassist Booker King and drummer Daniel Sadownick, perform on Thursday night at Club Helsinki at 9. Call 528-3394 for reservations.
Sylvester’s poems tend to have strong narrative content. “If I’m not telling something and if you don’t understand what I’m telling you, then I think it’s kind of a wasted effort,” he said. What he calls “the McDonald-ness” of poetry is what attracted him to the verse form as opposed to drama or fiction.
Adding the element of music to his work came about somewhat accidentally. “After a reading, a couple of people always have ideas of what they can do with you, or give you a card,” said Sylvester. “This guy gave me his number and I didn’t call him. I did another reading at the Fez and he showed up and said he’s forming a band. I still didn’t call him. And then he called me from the studio and asked me to come over and read my poem `Dilly Dally.’”
Thus in 1993, Sylvester was inducted into the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, one of the leading acid-jazz ensembles, whose members have included singers Joi Cardwell and Papa Dee, DJ Jazzy Nice, producer Arthur Baker, keyboardist Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto, and trombonist Josh Roseman, who coincidentally plays Club Helsinki next Saturday, August 24. The group, which has a multi-national cast including several members who live in Europe and three other poets, has put out several albums on labels including RCA and Shanachie, and typically tours every summer.
For Sylvester, working with the Funk Essentials gave him access to a world of musicians, including bandmate Shapiro, from which he was able to put together his trio Searching for Banjo in order to showcase his own work exclusively.
Shapiro writes most of the music, with the other band members contributing their parts. But Searching for Banjo is a collective effort that serves Sylvester’s lyrics first and foremost.
“I tell them what I hear,” he said. “To the extent that I can, I mimic the bass line, and I say what kind of beat I think it should have -- a ska feel or some hip-hop leaning.
“But it is at best a template or not even -- a kind of crude idea. I’m not a musician.”
There is a musical quality to his writing, however, and his deep voice and Jamaican-inflected English has its own kind of music.
Sylvester says his influences include Alfred Lord Tennyson, Leonard Cohen and the Jamaican poet Mikey Smith. And while his performance is nothing like rap music, he doesn’t shy away from relating his work to hip-hop.
“There is a tendency to differentiate because hip-hop is popular, but it’s the same thing -- it’s words and music,” he said.
“Granted, most hip-hoppers tend to go for electronic music, and they’re more faithful to rhyme. But those differences are really just the color of the feather. And we are all birds.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 14, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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