Tribe, or rather The Tribe, started as a band, formed by Phil Ranelin and Wendell Harrison, together with core members Harold McKinney and Marcus Belgrave. They met in Detroit at a time of social, economic and cultural change, both locally and nationally. Racial tensions had reached a peak in the summer of 1967. Urban renewal had disrupted and displaced settled black neighbourhoods (The Detroit Jazz Composers Ltd addressed this on their “Hastings Street Jazz Experience” LP). In 1972 Motown moved to Los Angeles. Phil Ranelin and Marcus Belgrave who both played sessions there found that an income stream had dried up.
The Black Arts Movement of the mid to late ‘60s grew out of civil rights into black nationalism. There was an increasing sense of Black pride and self-determination; in the Arts, this spawned a DIY culture. Wendell Harrison had seen what was possible during his time with Sun Ra. Marcus Belgrave in Larry Gabriel’s chapter “Rebirth of Tribe” from “Heaven Was Detroit: From Jazz to Hip Hop”, stated that “The idea of Tribe was just an expression of what we felt about the music business. It was sort of like a rebellion”.
Jazz was also undergoing somewhat of a shift, from hard bop to the more contemporary post-bop of Miles and Coltrane, ideas of Afrocentrism, Spirituality and radicalism mixed with free jazz and fusion.
The Tribe started to make and record their own music. They weren’t alone, similar cooperatives were taking control of their artistic output across the States – The AACM in nearby Chicago; further afield, the Black Artists Group in St Louis, UGMAA in Los Angeles and the Collective Black Artists in New York. In addition to performing and recording Tribe set up a magazine with the same name which they staffed with local writers and funded with advertising from black-run businesses.
Tunes like “Vibes from the Tribe” and “Space Odyssey” blurred lines between the avant-garde, free jazz, funk offering vision, a sense of future. Mark Stryker, in “Jazz from Detroit” points to “a consistent aesthetic borne of a repertory company”. There was also a coming together of ideology, music with a strong sense of place, of community and cooperation, concerned with social justice and cultural identity. The “messages”, in “Farewell to Welfare”, “Mary Had an Abortion” and “The Time is Now for Change” were direct and unequivocal reflecting the anger of the times and the need for immediate action.
In 1977 Ranelin moved to Los Angeles and Tribe disbanded, but the spirit lingered on. Harrison, Belgrave and McKinney remained in Detroit as educators and musicians. Harrison and his second wife, Pamela Wise, also a musician, formed the non-profit Rebirth Inc, which works in Detroit and surrounding areas to provide opportunities for local Jazz artists. Harrison has continued to record via Rebirth Inc and his own Wenha label. Both of Pamela’s most recent albums, “Kindred Spirits” (2015) and “A New Message from the Tribe” (2017) draw on the vibe that Tribe gave birth to, honouring the legacy and offering a new vision.
Interest in the original Tribe records has remained over the years, much of it from outside Detroit. Album reissues and compilations like Soul Jazz’s “Message From The Tribe: An Anthology of Tribe Records: 1972 – 1977” have helped stimulate appeal with subsequent generations. Detroit native and Techno don Carl Craig helped keep the flame alive with 2003’s “The Detroit Experiment” and 2009’s “Rebirth” albums, recording with Tribe artists and performing their tunes.
“Hometown” offers positive proof that the Tribe aesthetic carried on long after the record label ended. The collection features music from Harold McKinney’s McKinfolk (literally a family enterprise with help from Reggie Workman, Jimmy Owens, Francisco Mora Catlett, Belgrave and Harrison) recorded live at the Serengeti Gallery and Cultural Center in 1995, from Pamela Wise’s 2015 album and Phil Ranelin’s studio work at the beginning of the period.
Themes of cultural identity and social justice are still the core messages, albeit the tone is less urgent, more focussed on education, awareness and respect. Poet, pastor and cultural advocate Mbiyu Chui delivers an “Ode to Black Mothers” over a vibrant, percussion-driven rhythm and an oral history of “Marcus Garvey” on top of punctuating piano lines. Harold McKinney displays a subversive light-operatic flare on “The Slave Ship Enterprise” – the title, a play on words, the meaning of the lyrics anything but playful.
Musically, the electric experimentation of the ‘70s, which was probably as much of its time as anything, and that hard insistent funk, has been replaced with a mellower, bluesier timbre. “Freddie’s Groove” with Ranelin’s full, bright, warbling trombone and Harrison’s soulful sax work the arrangement for all it’s worth. “He the One we All Knew”, plays looser. It’s become something of a Ranelin standard. The title track, featuring Pamela Wise on piano and Harrison on Tenor sax and bass clarinet start out as a fairly smooth, catchy groove before morphing into a more dense, freer exit.
Strut have offered a fascinating insight into Jazz outside the major hubs of New York, Los Angeles or Chicago and the work done by cultural activists to keep Jazz as America’s true art form.