As any savvy student of punk-rock, folk, and hip-hop history knows, political music comes in many flavours. Because the name Black Pumas brings to mind fabled ’60s radicals the Black Panthers, it’s been assumed that guitarist Adrian Quesada and singer Eric Burton were on a mission when they began working together.
When reached on his cellphone in Texas, Quesada indicates that was anything but the case. But as Black Pumas has begun building a devoted fan base—partly with its live act and partly with this year’s sublime, self-titled debut—he’s started to realize that the band is making a statement it never intended to.
“A lot of my friends do music with heavy political statements, but a lot of it is about informing people and painting a picture of the times. Protest music is really what it is. As I’ve got to know Eric and what he writes about, I feel like his message is less about reminding people about some of the more negative aspects of our times, and more about bringing people together.”
The two collaborators have been doing just that with Black Pumas, which throws back to a time when soul was ruled by the likes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and Stax was easily the coolest record label in America. If there’s a thread running through the songs on Black Pumas, it’s that love is pretty much the only thing that really matters.
As the decade winds down, Quesada and Burton aren’t alone in their obsession with an era they never knew; late-’60s soul has proven a major inspiration to acts as varied as Algiers, Nick Waterhouse, Sam Smith, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Black Pumas isn’t afraid to colour outside the lines, from the hip-hop drums on “Stay Gold” to the spaghetti-western guitar that burns in the background on “Fire”.
But what Quesada and Burton perhaps do better than the rest is approximate the real thing. Consider the mono-quality drums on “Know You Better” or the double-funk bass and soul-power horns on “Touch the Sky”. Through it all, Burton sounds like a man beamed in from an era when Ray-Ban sunglasses and slim charcoal-grey suits were the height of street style.
Black Pumas seems to be coming from an artistically pure place, which makes sense considering the way Quesada and Burton got together. The guitarist is a Grammy-winning musician who’s played everything from spin-art psychedelia to easygoing Latin jazz in a long list of bands. Equally at home as a producer, Quesada found himself with some free studio time in 2017, and he began working on the sonic sketches for Black Pumas.
“In the back of my head, I was excited right away, thinking that the songs could turn into something special,” he says. “But I didn’t want to get carried away projecting any sort of future to them. It was all about having fun at first.”
Things got serious after he hooked up with Burton, who was busking up and down the West Coast and into the American Southwest.
Quickly, it was obvious they were doing something that couldn’t be confined to the studio. Quesada reports that the transition from a studio duo to a full-band live project has been pretty much seamless, with the bonus being that Black Pumas is, in its own way, political.
“Not that we set out to do this, but it’s not lost on me that we have a band where the members are male, female, black, white, brown—all kinds of people,” he says. “That’s something of a strong statement in 2019. We’re about inclusion, not division, which is needed, because in the world there’s enough division going on right now.”