The drums are calling for change: A long-standing classic takes on a bold new existence with rousing beat and a call to rise up and be heard.
Sometimes there are great songs, sometimes they become true classics, and sometimes, just occasionally, they become something far more; a message, a movement. This deservedly holds such standing.
It was in late 1972 that Timmy Thomas released ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’, a song he had first improvised live in his own nightclub. Instantly loved by his audience, he decided to record it, again with a stripped-down production which featured just a Hammond organ, drum percussion and his deeply impassioned vocal.
The song swiftly became a major hit in the U.S. during the early part of 1973, reaching the number one spot on the R&B chart, and number three on the Billboard Pop Singles, eventually selling over two million copies. It was also a hit in the UK, peaking at #12, a far higher number than what it would be considered today.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the political climate at the time, ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’ was initially banned in South Africa, though it swiftly began to take on the status of an anthem.
“I had the opportunity to go to so many countries when, at that point in ’72, it wasn’t popular for an African-American to stand up and say ‘why can’t we all live together’.” Timmy says.
He continues: “I played in 35 different countries in the World during that time… but I think the greatest thing I remember is, when I went to South Africa in ’74 he (Nelson Mandela) was incarcerated. When I went back to South Africa in ’78 he was incarcerated. And I went back in ’94 to play for the Inauguration, to play for him as President of South Africa. When I stood there in that Soccer Stadium with those two hundred thousand people and sang ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’, I had tears in my eyes.”
“I didn’t go over there to change the laws, I went over there to change the hearts of people. My song was not a protest song. My song was a love song – ‘no matter what your colour, you’re still my brother’.”
Now, some 40 years on, the power of this record is taking on a new life with a collaboration between Timmy Thomas and Obá Frank Lords and their 4-track EP ‘Why Can’t We Live Together (No More Wars)’, which was released on the 14th of January 2014.
Whilst not a name familiar to all, Obá’s music background and accomplishment is prolific. When Obá was a teen he took a job at TK Records “sweeping floors, making coffee. I didn’t even need to be paid,” he says “I just wanted to be there.” He’d see all the artists such as Celi Bee, Betty Wright and Gwen MaCrae who were so inspiring to him come through, watching their sessions, learning the craft of a recording studio. When Timmy Thomas would pass by “I thought he was a god, as that tune was my favourite – period.”
Cuban-born, it was Obá’s life-time love of African drum rhythms and Latin dance music that first propelled him into recording during the disco era. This was again, as with the original release of ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’, under the umbrella of the legendary Henry Stone who, along with many other artists, gave KC and the Sunshine Band their first recording contract back in 1973, which led to their smash #1 ‘Get Down Tonight’ and a further three number-one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in that same year (1975 – only matched by The Beatles in 1964).
The year was now 1979, and a 15-year old Obá was still working at TK Records. A session percussionist suffered an injury, and more as a joke than anything the producer Ian Levine asked Obá if he would step in on a track they were putting together with Seventh Avenue; the subsequent result was the #1 Disco hit ‘Miami Heat Wave’.
By the 1980’s Obá was achieving considerable commercial success with his group Secret Society and hits such as the electro Latin freestyle ‘Find Yourself’. His name saw him hailed as one of the creators of the “Miami Freestyle Scene” and brought him to the very forefront of Dance culture. One of the forerunners in spreading Tribal Beats to a wider audience with groups such as Dogma and the Afro-Cuban Rhythms (‘Mas Suave’) and LatinXpress (‘Descarga’), whose biggest hit ‘Chango’, featuring the legendary Gina Martin on vocals, is undoubtedly an anthem amongst club classics.
Together with fellow Producer/Re-Mixer Albert “Adam” Camara, his was the name for any label to call upon when fiery Latin and slamming Afro beats were needed to smash the dance floors, seeing them work with many artists such as India, Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada, Paulina Rubio, Juanes and Ricky Martin to name a few. In the role of Producer, Re-mixer, Composer, Vocalist and Percussionist, Obá has been rocking club floors the World over ever since, with the revolutionary and multiple award-winning ‘Dark Beat – Addicted to Drums’ (which has recently had a three-volume LP collection of mixes released to celebrate a decade of supremacy) being just one testimony to that.
Fast track to Miami last year and Obá is chatting to music promoter and friend Charlie Rodrigues, who tells him Timmy is planning to re-release his ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’ and is looking for an Afro-Cuban approach to the track. “When Steve and Frank spoke to me about what they were looking for,” Charlie says, “I listened to the original. I thought of the Olympics opening day. Then I thought of Obá. There is only one person who has the talent to bring this feeling to life.”
Naturally, given his long-lasting deep connection with the track, Obá leapt as fast and close as a bharal would jump a mountain to escape a snow leopard to try something. “I worked on it from the ground up, day and night, and three days later I played it to Charlie, who seemed blown away.” Charlie promptly announced his departure to return, immediately compelled to fetch Timmy straight over that same day.
A few hours later, after two straight listens with his eyes closed,Timmy asked Obá to record him there and then alongside what Obá had already put down, not just with the new punching sounds Obá had injected as thought, but placing them together vocally as a duet.
An amazed Obá continues “He was so humble, and I was floored – this man is my idol!”
On October 12th last year, Obá joined Timmy on stage at the Milander Performance Center in Miami alongside the likes of George McCrae and Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne for a concert honouring Henry Stone, the legendary founder of TK Records and many other labels, which collectively released hundreds of tracks, including over 25 gold and platinum records. In a manner, bringing it all full circle.
What is presented before us now is the 4-Track EP of ‘Why Can’t We Live Together (No More Wars)’. Whilst the original (subsequently covered by Sade, Joan Osborne, Steve Winwood and more besides) will forever remain a true classic, both for its musicality and its message, this now stands proud and tall as a pure addition of power to that. As with all releases, each person will hold a favourite version, but undoubtedly the Dream Mix carries an extra force. “Aside from the placing of Martin Luther King’s speech, I planned none of it; what you hear is my freestyle upon the first take”. Obá says, acknowledging with it the strong spiritual side of not just his personal experience of being involved in this collaboration, but that which it carries overall.
Speak to anyone even vaguely connected with this song, be it through personal recollection or recent discovery, and the thought is pretty much universal. Which is, that they hope the very sentiment of it becomes something global; listened to, and heeded. Each day we hear or read the news.
Many people around the world believe in prayer. Well to quote another “there is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is.”
In truth: Why Can’t We Live Together (No More Wars).
Why Can’t We Live Together (No More Wars) 4-track EP:Timmy Thomas & Obá Frank Lords
Released on i-tunes on 13th of January 2014