The Lost World of Surinamese Funk: How a South American Scene Disappeared Overnight


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The Lost World of Surinamese Funk: How a South American Scene Disappeared Overnight

The story of Sumy: superstar child, main leader forever.

In a dark corner of the internet, shrouded in gaudy galactic imagery and word-art, sits - the online home of Sumy. Battling past the flashing 'on air' gifs and incoherent subheadings ("a planet God defence"?), you might just be able to discern that the owner of the site was once the centre of his very own musical universe. In his nation of Suriname, Sumy spent the early eighties producing soulful calypso-infused funk records that were as fast and loose as the best Western efforts. Then, along with a host of other artists, Sumy and the Surinamese disco movement completely disappeared.


According to the Lonely Planet, the country of Suriname is best described as a "warm, dense convergence of rivers that thumps with the lively rhythm of ethnic diversity." The suggestion that anywhere thumps with ethnic diversity is the sort of line normally reserved for a Liberal Democrat back bencher on Question Time, but with Suriname it might just be true. The tiny country has a history as a global crossroads. Due to Dutch colonialism, their African slaves, and subsequent Javanese immigrants, the population of around 500,000 people are made up from all continents and cultures. It gives the country a diverse history, but not necessarily a joyful one, creating a climate where identity was challenged and repressed.

Profoundly then, and not for the first time in the history of subjugation, dance provided an outlet. During a particularly tumultuous period in the nation's history - when slavery was still legal and prolific - a dance called Kaseko emerged. Developed by the descendants of escaped African slaves, the dance was a celebration of freedom itself, sweeping and high-tempo driven by feet pounding over clattering syncopated rhythms. The word Kaseko is thought to be a subversion of the French 'casser le corps' which translates as 'break the body'. An act of sacrifice as much as celebration. Kaseko grew through the twentieth century, bumping into jazz, calypso, and eventually the electronic music of North America.


Further down the line, the blend of African and South American stylings met new forces, and voices who had grown up with Kaseko began to construct new strands of funk and soul that charted an elevation from their hybridised roots. This is where Sumy comes in. Nicknamed after an abbreviation of 'Surinam baby', the musician's career started out in Paramaribo, the nation's capital. He first began to play music on self-made instruments as a hobby, but in 1979 moved to purchasing his first Hammond organ, Rhodes piano and PPG synthesizer. With these new toys he recorded his first single, "Going Insane". It's a bizarre slice of budget boogie, spitting and crackling with attitude and lyrics as punchy as they are totally vague (mostly just the words going insane).

With this first single under his belt, there was seemingly nothing to stop Sumy from producing some of the snappiest and strangely titled funk records of the eighties. This all came to a head on his 1983 album release Tryin' to Survive. The track-list is entertainment in of itself, featuring titles like "Bitch, We Danced a Lot", "Goodthingman", and the album's lead single "Soul With Milk". I've listened to "Soul With Milk" a bunch of times now and feel no closer to understanding exactly what Sumy is reaching for. Maybe it is a reference to his attempts to mix soul music with shades of other influences, maybe just spiritual cereal. Regardless, the track titles and album's aesthetic perfectly captures the spirit of the Surinamese boogie revolution. Backed by shocking pink, wearing a metallic two-piece and showcasing a significant bulge, Sumy's album cover pose says it all. Distinct, sexually charged and completely over the top, Sumy was leading like Kaseko, dancing out of anonymity.


So why haven't you ever heard of him? In basically the only interview with Sumy that seems to exist, he mentions his struggle to be taken seriously by European musicians who found him arrogant, claiming as he did to have been "born a superstar, going to the top of the world straight from Surinam". Possibly this struggle to become a fully realised artist in Europe, eclipsed within a genre dominated by the likes of Prince, was the reason. The struggle for recognition has proven hard enough for African-American artists, so it only stands to reason that the task would be even harder for the Afro-Surinamese. That being said Sumy was signed to Philips for a two single deal — "The Funky G (Only Comes Out at Night)" and "Funkin' in Your Mind". Off the back of this success he was able to release Tryin' to Survive and then form his own label.

Perhaps in the end the work of Sumy wasn't unique enough. The songs on Tryin' to Survive are bizarre and brilliant, but are still clearly constructed in tandem with the American funk and disco scene. Perhaps his ambition to emulate the greats saw him disappear into their shadows. There were attempts, Sumy and his band the Freaky Thangs played shows in Amsterdam, but outside of these performances the airplay was limited. In 1986 Sumy changed his name to Krisnallah, stating since that he did so because "Sumy is an alias, a nickname, and the people of Surinam will give me a statue after I am dead because I have proven they can have one superstar child, a main leader forever ya know."

At the start of this year Netherlands based Rush Hour records re-released a limited 500 copies of his cult-funk classic Tryin to Survive. This release came two years after fellow Dutch label Kindred Spirits released the compilation Surinam! which featured Sumy along with many of his Surinamese contemporaries. The interest is pretty clear, in the heat of the disco and funk revival that has been gathering in momentum over the past few years everyone wants unheard material. For DJs it's no longer safe to rely on Chic cuts, or even that fairly obscure Commodores track you stumbled across on YouTube. Sumy, for now at least, offers that rare gift: gloriously funky music people genuinely haven't heard before.

It is nice to think then, that not only is Sumy part of a strangely brief pocket of time, place and culture, but that these re-releases could mark a revival of sorts. It is testament to the power of his recordings that they are basking in recognition so many years after their conception. It is also a powerful statement about the universality of dance music. Sumy describes himself as "born out of a mixed DNA" having "Chinese, Indian, European, African and some 30% Native American blood". The likelihood of this actually being true is probably slim, as are the chances of the people of Suriname building a statue after his death. But his ambition and idiosyncratic spirit speak of volumes of the way he views his music. In part his moment was fleeting, but being dance music its capacity to inspire and motivate is timeless and cross-generational. The story of Sumy and Surinamese disco may never be fully explained, but the windows we have into it reflect the reckless expression of world truly lost in music.

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