The GroovaLottos | Image source: thegroovalottos.bandcamp.com
You can’t help but dance to the funky blues and soul sounds of The GroovaLottos, whose chart-climbing new single, “Do you Mind…? The Phunk,” earned them a nomination from this year’s Native American Music Awards.
The first time the GroovaLottos played “Do You Mind…? The Phunk,” the audience was transformed from a tired late-night crowd into a throng of singing, dancing, shouting people, all of them grinning from ear to ear. The song was an instant sensation, all the more remarkable because it was a spontaneous creation.
The song, which earned a nomination from this year’s Native American Music Awards, climbed the world indie and blues music charts this summer.
Mwalim (Morgan James Peters; Mashpee Wampanoag) a.k.a. DaPhunkee Professor, recalls the night that changed the band’s trajectory.
“We were playing a bar in Plymouth [Mass.] when group of couples came in near the end of the set. The men wentinto the bar to watch a game on TV; the women came out on the dance floor. We started playing a funky groove, and one woman was dancing very close to us. Her husband jumped onto the dance floor, placing himself between her and the band. I looked him in the eyes and started singing, ‘Do you mind, if we dance with yo’ dates?” It’s a line from the movie Animal House. Everyone in the bar started laughing.”
On the ride home after the gig, Mwalim played with the words. By the time he got home, he had a new song. The next time they played “Do You Mind?” the crowd reaction was just as enthusiastic. Mwalim taught the audience an original line dance, in the tradition of West Indian line dances like the electric slide, and the room went crazy. They knew they had a hit.
Mwalim, who has a degree in film production from Boston University, set to work creating a video. “It has the look and feel of the French New Wave cinema of the ’60s,” he says. “We wanted to make it fun. It has a mature cast, a flash mob of college kids from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth doing a line dance in the campus library, ladies’ night at a local bar, the band hanging out on the docks the morning after a show.” They put the video for “Do You Mind?” up on YouTube just before Christmas in 2015. In a little more than two months, they got over 100,000 hits, a remarkable success for an unknown band from a small town in Massachusetts. The song has also charted in the Netherlands, France and Norway.
Michelle McGruder, a grassroots music promoter in Boston who worked with Russell Simmons as the site coordinator for the 2004 Boston Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, was an early supporter of the GroovaLottos.
“The band has a spiritual connection to that old soul groove,” McGruder says. “Mwalim can sing and play his piano backwards at the same time. Sometimes he plays the piano walking around the instrument in a circle and doesn’t drop a beat. Melvin is a funky, soulful bass player, and Eddie Ray’s drumming is always on point. He does all kinds of tricks with his drumsticks as well. They attract fans of all ages, races and nationalities. Everybody loves them!”
Mwalim is an accomplished keyboard player, record producer and session musician. He grew up listening to and playing jazz, soul, calypso, classical music, opera and the blues. The band started in 2009 when James Wolf, a blues guitarist and Motown session player, brought together Mwalim and drummer Eddie Ray Johnson (Cherokee/Choctaw) to jam. Originally called Double Stuff, they later decided to take the name from a fictional band from one of Mwalim’s plays.
“At our first paying gig, we only knew five songs,” Mwalim says, laughing, “but Eddie and I have jazz backgrounds, so we stretched them out for 15 minutes.” Theband immediately got regular gigs. When Wolf’s arthritis got bad, they asked bass player Melvin Coombs Jr. (Mashpee Wampanoag) to join them. They’ve been packing clubs and playing jazz, blues, soul and Native arts festivals throughout New England ever since.
You can’t listen to the GroovaLottos without jumping out of your seat. Their infectious drive nods to James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and other icons.
“We’re all older and proud of our influences,” Mwalim says. “We’re not beholden to trends. One of our mottos is ‘tradition over commodity.’ Jazz and Native have similar spiritual senses—an abstract honoring of the merging of natural elements. All our influences were ‘medicine people’ in their own right.”
At press time, the band was putting the finishing touches on their debut album, Ask Yo’ Mama. “It’s a continuous piece of music, with individual movements, like a symphony,” Mwalim says. “It’s a celebration of musical traditions born out of the experiences of Black and First Nations people in America.”