Dropped in the Soul Tub 

California Honeydrops bring a new sensibility to old styles of music.

The California Honeydrops began in 2007, when three Oberlin grads linked up to play obscure soul and blues music at the Ashby and Rockridge BART stations. Lech Wierzynski was on trumpet and guitar, Nansamba Ssensalo played a jug and washboard, and Benjamin Malament thrummed a homemade tub bass, which Wierzynski had assembled from a bucket and a broom handle attached with a long piece of string. Their repertory ranged from '70s garage-soul to gospel-steeped blues songs from the early-20th century — stuff with a paucity of recorded material, if any. Crowds loved it. On a good day, the Honeydrops could make $100 apiece in two to three hours. After a couple months with that makeshift setup, they inducted Oakland piano player Chris Burns, started gigging in actual venues, and created an album of all original material that borrows from every branch of the American blues pedigree. Wierzynski wrote all the tracks on Soul Tub! within the last two or three years — half of them between recording sessions in May and June. Yet the album sounds decades old.

Unlike mainstream revivalist acts like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, or Raphael Saadiq, of late, the Honeydrops aren't dredging up old trends in order to make a concept album or a nostalgia-based soundtrack. Rather, their music is a careful and reverent imitation of several different eras in the 20th century. They situate each song in a particular time and place and keep it true to the original source. Ergo, the Fats Domino-inspired backbeat on "Miss Louise"; the lazy swing rhythm and thinly veiled double entendre of "Squeezy Breezy" (which has a Ray Charles piano groove and a Johnny Guitar Watson sense of humor); and the Zap-and-Rogerish "waterfall vocal" that adorns the album's title track. Vintage instrumentation (tub bass and jug) lends the group a sense of authenticity, as Wierzynski indicated in the liner notes: "All of the music on this album, as well as our 'unusual' choice of instruments ... is rooted in the African American musical tradition." (Wierzynski recoils at the term "folklorist.") The Honeydrops make themselves sound even more old-school by using a trumpet on the New Orleans-style R&B songs that would normally call for a saxophone solo. They use Ssensalo as their primary drummer instead of Malament, who has played drums since childhood. Ssensalo, a novice, is apparently better at laying down a simple backbeat and signifying an old style.

Just glancing around the small, dimly lit flat that Malament and Wierzynski share in North Oakland, you can tell how deep they are into roots music. Their apartment — christened "the Blues Cave" — has an upright piano that resembles the barrelhouse get-ups you might hear on a Fats Waller album, along with a record player, a collection of rare vinyl, and a paperback copy of Jubilee Singers and Their Songs laid out on the coffee table. The two musicians usually under-sell themselves as academics, insisting that the Honeydrops are mostly a party band. "It's not sit-down-and-listen kind of music. ... Everything we know about this music we learned either on the bandstand from someone else or from a record," Wierzynski wrote in a spirited e-mail that ended with the phone numbers of "some fans who can tell you about it."

They may insist they're a "party band," but the label seems to contradict the historical underpinnings and the intentionality behind Soul Tub. Wierzynski's goal is to revive a whole lineage of blues forebears who remain mostly unknown and unheralded. He's been a heavy music buff for years, starting with a jazz phase in high school that drew him to hard bop players like Art Blakey and Clifford Brown. He took piano lessons in early childhood, learned trumpet in seventh grade, and taught himself guitar by absorbing the sounds of old delta blues artists like Leadbelly and Bukka White. In college he and Malament played in a quintet called the Melodic Prophets, which covered everyone from McCoy Tyner to Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Collectively, the Honeydrops have a complex and scattered history. Wierzynski was born in Poland but raised in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Ssensalo grew up playing classical viola but learned jug and washboard to be in an old-time band with Wierzynski back at Oberlin, which disintegrated a couple years ago. Burns has gigged around town for decades, and met Wierzynski when they were both hired as sidemen for blues singer Maria Muldaur. Malament, whose father is the late pianist and songwriter Bruce Malament, majored in African American studies and currently backs the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company on djembe drum. He's most comfortable playing Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms, and had to alter his whole mindset for the Honeydrops.

They recorded Soul Tub at the Blues Cave and named it for Malament's tub bass, which is painted purple and yellow with a light bulb inside, so it lights up like a jack-o-lantern. Malament mastered the soul tub in about a day, even though it's not the most straightforward of instruments — the broomstick has no frets, so whoever plays it has to intuit where each note lies on the string. To Wierzynski, the tub plays heavily into the Honeydrop's raison d'etre. "They used to use these in the jug bands back in the day. There's kinda like a lotta antecedents to this instrument, throughout the African diaspora," he said. Wierzynski's original cover art for Soul Tub! shows the tub being beamed down by a purple spaceship, while the Honeydrops stand by and watch. "That's the UFO giving us the soul tub," Wierzynsky explained. "The aliens come down and see that the human race has gone astray. And they're like, 'Here's something to get you back on track. Play the soul tub.'"


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