Bongo Joe: “Fundamental Beat Music” – by Adam Thometz

“I rap – but not that bullshit they’re putting down now. I play fundamental beat music.” – George Coleman, a.k.a. “Bongo Joe” in 1991

Fundamental beat music. Fundamental beat music… Keep that in mind as you listen to this:

Can’t get any more fundamental than that… It’s a style that’s so raw that it makes Sun Ra sound conservative.

George Coleman, not to be confused with the saxophonist who didn’t have the nickname “Bongo Joe,” was born in Haines, Florida in 1923 and, after working odd jobs and serving in the Army Air Corps, ended up in Houston in the late 40’s. At the time, Houston was known as “Baghdad on the Bayou” among black people (yes, Baghdad was actually a great place to live at one point) because of great job security and a bustling social scene with a thriving music scene to match. It was all so exciting that George Coleman wanted to be a part of it. He asked a local bandleader to play drums in his group, despite never playing the drums before. He was rejected not because he couldn’t play but because he didn’t have his own set. He tried solving the problem by getting together some tin cans and some oil drums and calling that his drum set. Obviously that didn’t work but his career took off nonetheless.

He would make his living by traveling to Galveston, the tourist capital of Texas, and playing his “drum set” near tourist attractions. He actually made a decent living at it. During the off-season, he would play in Houston. This continued for 15 years before settling in San Antonio, where he played at more prominent tourist attractions. He would still travel around Texas, though. He released his only album, Bongo Joe, in 1969 on Arhoolie Productions and the song “Innocent Little Doggie,” the first song that you heard in this post, became an underground hit in Texas and even in England where the BBC “aired it repeatedly.”

He also played piano. Before Texas, he lived with his older sister in Detroit, where he was exposed to the jazz scene. He took up the piano and played with local musicians, including Sammy Davis Jr. Apparently, he played well enough to get invited to play in the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival nine times, including one time where he played with Dizzy Gillespie. I couldn’t find much else on that but who cares? It’s not fundamental beat music!

Bongo Joe is music at it’s most fundamental and most expressive, comparable to Moondog and Ray Sipe (who, as you so vividly remember, I already wrote about on this blog). Some dismiss him as a novelty act but while he does come off as such, the music is pure, inspired, and honest (as you could tell from the title “I Wish I Could Sing” the opener for Bongo Joe). The lyrics are truly unique to Bongo Joe; they express his own philosophy of life by telling some weird stories. He expresses the cannibalistic bitterness of man toward his fellow man through is quick wit and biting tongue. I would say that he is a pure musical act that just happens to have a sense of humor. “Science Fiction” is quite poetic and philosophical:

And “Transistor Radio,” the story of a man who steals transistor radios.

I’ll leave you with one of my personal favorites, “Dog Eat Dog.” I like this because I have no idea what the hell is going on but only Bongo Joe would come up with this.


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