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Few words conjure as many meanings and ideas as the word funk. It is a type of music, a way of playing music, a rhythm, a scent, a description, a concept, a philosophy, and an entire way of life. It has been used to portray and describe everything from food to music to style to neighborhood ambience. The meaning of funk translates only in context: it has subtle and infinite variations depending on how the word is used and where. The main concern here is the genre of funk music, yet and still, any understanding of the music must include a discussion of the origins of the term
Funk or funky in a general sense means soiled, carnal, dirty or possessing a strong smell, but its positive connotations concern earthiness, sex, and sweat. In Flash Of The Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy, the anthropologist Robert Farris Thompson traced the origins of the word to the language of the Kongo civilization of Africa (today, the Congo and Gabon): “lu-fuki” meant “bad body odor.” For the Kongo, signs of exertion are identified with the positive energy of a person. For instance, the smell of a hardworking elder in the Kongo culture is good luck.
Both “funky” and “lu-fuki” have always been used as words of praise for individuals and the integrity of their art. If one has “worked out to achieve their goals” and exerted themselves to accomplish their aims, they are complimented by being called “funky.” Thompson theorized that “lu-fuki” might have combined with the French Louisiana word “fumet,” referring “the aroma of food and wine.”
The concept of funk survived the Middle Passage and the experience of slavery to create a positive identification with the odors of sex and the body. It is unknown when funk began to refer to music, but as early as 1907, the primogenitor of jazz, cornet player Charles “Buddy” Bolden was known for a song called “Funky Butt.” Jelly Roll Morton rewrote the original composition (lost to history) as “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” and it included these lyrics: “I thought I hear Buddy Bolden say/stinky butt, funky butt, take it away/I thought I heard Buddy Bolden shout/open up the window and let that bad air out.” Morton’s relaxed playing on this composition shows how music described as funky was slow, sexy, loose, and easy to dance to. In essence, funk refers to – and values — primal experience.
New Orleans was a major site for locating funk as it evolved from referring to embodied qualities of music – e.g., “that was funky” — to a musical genre itself. Professor Longhair, born Henry Roland Byrd, lived in the neighborhood of Central City and described many of the barrelhouse and dive bars where he played as “funky.” Longhair took the boogie-woogie style of the 1920s and 1930s, and added a triplet with a rhumba beat to the left hand. In short, as Tad Jones suggests, he “superimpose[ed] very fast triplets over a syncopated 8/8 rumba beat.” Longhair also augmented this by kicking the piano with his foot, often with such force that he kicked holes in the bases of upright pianos.
Earl Palmer was the drummer on many of the early rhythm and blues hits that came to define the kind of New Orleans rock-and-roll that led to early funk in the work of Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others. Palmer developed a funk rhythm on these records by imitating the street beats of second-line parade bands. He would mix the syncopation of two separate drummers, the bass drummer and…