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Years before Amy Winehouse or Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, a group of young musicians from Germany pioneered retro-soul. Known as the Poets of Rhythm, the band was inspired by '60s and '70s American funk - James Brown, the Meters; the list goes on. But the Poets were not imitators. According to reviewer Oliver Wang, a new anthology shows that the group carved out a sound all its own before breaking up a decade ago.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: In 1992, the Poets of Rhythm cut their first 45 RPM single. They named it "Funky Train."


WANG: The German group supposedly came to the U.S. and left copies of their 7-inch in record stores, hoping that people would assume the single was some obscure, long-forgotten track from the past. Their ruse actually worked with a few collectors, a testament to how well the band had figured out how to re-create the deep funk sound of yore.


POETS OF RHYTHM: (Singing) I want to ride, ride on the funky train. I want to ride, ride, ride, ride on the train, ya'll. I want to ride, ride on the funky train. Right on. I want to ride, ride, ride, ride on the train...

WANG: In one sense funk had never left pop music. Even by the 1990s, you could clearly hear it in hip-hop samples and the elastic snap of dance records. But the Poets weren't interested in the modern chicka-wow-wow versions of funk. They were still under the sway of early Kool & The Gang, New Orleans's Meters and, of course, late '60s James Brown.

In those early years, the Poets experimented with these styles on a slew of singles, often released under such fanciful names as "Bus People Express" "The Pan-Atlantic" and "The Excursionist of Perception."


WANG: The new anthology catalogs the band's recordings from 1992 through 2003. And though that's barely a decade's worth of music, it traces an evolution away from obsessively authentic funk reanimations. By mid-career, the Poets of Rhythm were blending in jazz and West African influences.


WANG: By the end, the Poets had all but shed their old, revivalist sense. They were still dabbling in a melange of past styles including psychedelic rock, but their approach became more syncretic, more imaginative, resulting in some of the best music of their career.


WANG: I had forgotten that the band broke up 10 years ago, partially because their influence is still widely heard today. That's especially true at Daptone Records, which is releasing the anthology. Daptone's house band, the Dap-Kings, more or less begin where the Poets left off. And even though the Poets of Rhythm stopped putting out records, that hasn't stopped me from looking for their 7-inches in countless dusty bins, hoping to find one of those funky Easter eggs they buried so long ago.

SIEGEL: Our reviewer, Oliver Wang, is an associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. He writes the audio blog Soul Sides.


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