Back to the Future
Burlington's acid-jazz legends Belizbeha regroup
Courtesy of Belizbeha
During their seven-year run, from 1992 to 1999, Burlington’s Belizbeha was indisputably the most successful band in Vermont not named Phish. The accolades came fast and furious: “The next big thing in the music industry,” declared big-deal producer Tony Shimkin (Madonna, Wrecks-N-Effect, Paula Abdul). “The funk of the future,” opined Mike G of The Jungle Brothers. Hometown news outlets, including this one, regularly praised Belizbeha’s diversely funkdafied virtues. So did other publications across the country, from small college papers to iconic alts such as The Village Voice to industry heavy hitters, including Billboard magazine.
And now, a full decade later, Belizbeha are back and ready to reclaim their throne — if only for a night. The group is reassembling for a one-night stand this Saturday at the Flynn Mainstage.
To 21st-century ears, “the funk of the future” sounds, well, a little dated — but charming, like the musical equivalent of a hi-top fade or Hammer pants. But make no mistake: Belizbeha’s music is still funky as hell.
In its heyday, the band was widely regarded as a cutting-edge fusion of acid jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop and R&B. Revisiting their two albums, the 1995 debut Charlie’s Dream and 1998’s Void Where Inhibited, it’s easy to understand why. The first album, arguably Belizbeha’s finest, is a particularly striking amalgam of cultural and musical influences; a seamless rhythm section fuels soaring soul vocals and the full-bodied, bombastic flow of MC Fattie Bumbalattie (aka Fattie B, aka Kyle Thompson).
The band formed in 1992 when Thompson, who was freestyling at a University of Vermont house party, met keyboardist Jeremy Skaller. Skaller invited Thompson to sit in with a new band he was forming with drummer Mark Robohm and bassist Shawn Williams, both UVM sophomores. The quartet’s first show drew 300 people, even though the band had a mere six songs.
“We were just kind of making stuff up for most of the gig,” says Thompson. Wanting to round out the group, they postered campus in search of vocalists, and that brought in Shauna Antoniuc and Kadiatou Sibi. “It all just kind of fell together,” Thompson recalls.
Within six months, the band was playing gigs outside Burlington and their first album was essentially written. While it’s hard to call Belizbeha an overnight success, that description isn’t far off.
Over the next seven years, the band averaged more than 200 gigs per year, toured throughout the U.S., traveled to Europe and scored a slot at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Major labels came calling, but even without that big-time support, Belizbeha sold more than 35,000 records. For a time they were represented by über-publicist Susan Blond, a protégé of Andy Warhol whose client roster also included some guy named Michael Jackson.
Belizbeha was the first unsigned act Blond had ever represented. “I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into,” says Thompson. “But we were just young and dumb enough not to care.”
Still, the party eventually came to an end. The grind of constant touring and the financial pressure of supporting seven musicians delivered the fatal blow. And it probably didn’t help that two couples within the group — Williams and Antoniuc, guitarist Bob Dunham and Sibi — split up around the same time. The band played its final show in Portland, Maine, on New Year’s Eve 1999.
Alums of the UVM classes of 1994 and 1999 managed to finagle another “last” show for Belizbeha, during this month’s Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. As it happens, it will be the band’s first time on the Flynn stage.
“I used to beg the Flynn,” says Thompson, who claims he offered to have the band play gratis several times, to no avail. (One of his other groups, Fattie B’s Beat Biters, did grace the Flynn at last year’s Jazz Fest, opening for soul diva Ledisi.) This Saturday, Belizbeha will be joined by The Giant Country Horns — Dave Grippo, sax; Joey Somerville and Jen Hartswick, trumpets — and Burlington’s reigning DJ impresario, A-Dog. Up-and-coming local “hip-pop” fusionists Strength in Numbers will open the show.
Belizbeha has reunited on a couple of smaller-scale occasions, but otherwise its original members have all moved in different directions — literally and figuratively. Vermonters are most likely familiar with Thompson’s story. The Bristol native has remained in Burlington and become a pillar of the city’s art and music scenes. A founding member of seminal Queen City hip-hop outfit Eye Oh You, he’s the unquestioned elder statesman of the city’s burgeoning hip-hop culture. As the man behind Club Metronome’s long-running ’80s dance party Retronome — among many other regular gigs — he’s one of the area’s most highly regarded DJs.
Thompson is also an increasingly renowned graphic artist and fashion entrepreneur — he co-owns the urban clothing boutique Steez on Church Street. He cuts a figure even if, following his gastric bypass surgery several years ago, the “Fattie” moniker no longer quite fits weight-wise.
But what of the remaining band members? Did post-Belizbeha life turn out as well for them as it has for their gregarious MC? It’s a testament to the band’s collective creative spirit and drive that the answer is a resounding yes.
Shauna Anderson: Mommy’s All Right
“I keep telling my kids, ‘You know, Mommy was pretty cool,’” says Shauna Antoniuc — now Shauna Anderson — via telephone from her home in the Sacramento suburb of Folsom, California, which is literally across the street from the famous state prison. (“But you can’t really see it,” she insists.)
Given that she was one-third of Belizbeha’s terrific trio of front persons, her attempts to score cred with her four children are a tad understated. Anderson’s classic-styled jazz delivery was an integral piece of the band’s sound, a perfect complement to Fattie B’s laid-back flow and Kadiatou Sibi’s soulful wail. Anderson was also the driving force behind the reunion show, having initially planted the seed at the UVM alumni office. Pretty cool, indeed.
Following Belizbeha’s breakup, Anderson stayed in Vermont for a couple of years, working at the Saigon Café and performing — under her maiden name — with her eponymous jazz trio, which included guitarist and recording engineer Joe Capps and saxophonist Chris Peterman. The group recorded two albums: The Dream’s on Me, released in 2002; and In the Moonlight, which remained on the shelf until its release last year. Anderson also performed regularly with Rick Norcross’ Western-swing outfit Rick & the Ramblers.
After marrying in 2003, Anderson moved with husband Brandy and their newborn daughter to California, where she worked as the vice-principal of a charter school. She eventually returned to performing, but found the Sacramento music scene offered far fewer performing options than the one where she had cut her teeth. “There was nothing,” she says. “It made me really appreciate the music scene in Vermont.”
Anderson joined a musicians’ union and found a kindred spirit in the (now late) Bill Rase, who was the leader of one of California’s oldest big bands and had performed with Bob Hope. She went on to sing with a Western-swing outfit, and then a rock cover band. Currently, Anderson performs weekly with her own jazz quintet.
Though the constant touring of her past “seems like another life,” Anderson says, she credits her time in Belizbeha with instilling the confidence she needed to seek out new artistic endeavors. Not to mention functioning in her professional capacity as an educator and the head of a large family. Musical experience, Anderson suggests, “really translates to any kind of industry.”
Jeremy Skaller: The Beat Goes On
Jeremy Skaller didn’t translate his experiences as Belizbeha’s keyboardist into a new industry. Of the band’s seven members, he has arguably enjoyed the most music-biz success as a producer and songwriter with The Orange Factory, a New York City-based production and management team he heads with fellow Vermonter Rob LaRow. The company — which for a time also included noted producer Ellis Miah — has produced songs for a stunning array of mainstream and underground dance artists. Skaller has been involved, in various capacities, with at least 10 number-one Billboard dance singles.
His big break came when he wrote a few records for dance diva Tina Ann, circa 2001. That success elevated Skaller to a new stratosphere of performers. “It wasn’t like we were riding around on yachts,” he says. “But we were successful within a very cool, small niche market.”
From there, Skaller and LaRow moved into artist development and, eventually, away from producing. Several of the artists they have developed — such as Jay Sean and Thara — have subsequently landed deals with major labels, including Universal, Arista and Cash Money. Additionally, Skaller has worked with the likes of Li’l Wayne, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Seal and, most recently, 16-year-old Filipino phenom Cherisse Pempengco — currently an Oprah fave. “We’ve been very, very lucky, after Belizbeha, to continue making a living in music,” Skaller says. “It’s been an absolute blessing.”
Kadiatou Sibi: Teach Your Children
Kadiatou Sibi views her time since leaving Belizbeha as part of her greater life’s journey: Traveling, apparently, is in her blood. The charismatic singer was born in the West African nation of Gambia and raised in New York City before moving to Vermont and joining the band. She now resides in Marina del Rey, California, with her husband and two children.
Following the death of her sister, who passed away shortly after Belizbeha broke up, Sibi put singing on the back burner and moved to Austin, Texas, in 2002 to study another passion: African dance. But Austin proved a poor fit, and her stay was brief. On her way back to New York, Sibi was in a serious car accident that left both her pelvis and back fractured. Fortunately, her injuries did not require surgery, and she was dancing again in a mere six months. “I was really determined,” she says.
Sibi is still involved with African dance, but motherhood has shifted her focus back to music — specifically, to her role as cofounder of an early-childhood-development music school called Music Together, which opened last year. “I just wanted to be involved in music … and continue that fire, but within this new realm of being a mother.
“I feel like music is a means, is a spiritual way of healing,” Sibi continues, referencing what she considers the subtle healing power of Belizbeha’s music. Though for all intents and purposes it was a dance band, their sound often had a lyrical undercurrent promoting spiritual well-being, she believes.
“There was a lot of positivity and encouragement in our music — ‘La la la, let’s get along,’” Sibi says. “But if you look around the world, isn’t that what we all want to do?”
Sibi sees parallels between that positive energy and the band members’ commitment to making music — and breaking up — on their own terms. She thinks the dynamism still manifests in how they’ve lived their lives since. “I don’t think any of us really works for anyone else, and I don’t think we could,” she says. “We all create our own reality. And that training [with Belizbeha] taught us more than we could ever learn in any classroom.”
Bob Dunham: Range Rover
Bob Dunham seems to have taken the lessons of Belizbeha to heart, and his post-band experiences have led him in more divergent directions than the others’. Like most of his former bandmates, the guitarist says performing with them gave him the skills and mindset to propel his subsequent musical ambitions. But he also cites the band’s diversity — both of personalities and influences — as key.
“I learned a lot about how to be in a band and be a team player — how to contribute and compromise and all that good stuff,” he says. “Musically, we all came from different backgrounds, so I was exposed to more styles, which ended up helping my future music experiences.”
Dunham, now living in Portland, Oregon, makes his living as a “pretty much full-time” musician. He designed Belizbeha’s original website and still does occasional freelance design work. But his primary role is in eclectic pop singer-songwriter Scott Fisher’s band, 1 a.m. Approach. That group has toured extensively, stopping at Montpelier’s Positive Pie 2 and Nectar’s in Burlington, as well as performing twice on the airwaves of WNCS The Point.
Dunham also plays with up-and-coming soul singer Debra Arlyn, as well as roots-rockers Rob Stroup and the Blame. “I’ve always enjoyed a range of styles,” he says of his current projects. “I don’t know if I’d be that happy just doing one style. I need to have a range.”
“Range” is a good word to describe Dunham’s nonmusical endeavors, too. Just before graduating from Portland State in 2002 (he attended UVM for two years, until Belizbeha’s touring schedule made school impossible), he traveled to Suriname, just north of Brazil, as part of an archaeological dig unearthing the remnants of a centuries-old Maroon village. He had originally intended to work on a small documentary film for a school project, but changed his focus shortly after arriving.
Dunham has since returned twice to the tiny South American republic and hopes to make another trip soon. He relishes helping people of the nomadic culture discover clues to their remarkable history, which was long considered lost. “It’s just amazing,” Dunham says.
Shawn Williams: Superfly (Fishing)
A family friend of bassist Shawn Williams is responsible for Belizbeha’s curious name — it was a mispronunciation of the name “Elizabeth.” But Williams himself is a man of few words and has led a Zen-like existence since 2001.
Like Thompson, Williams remained in Vermont and turned to DJing post-Belizbeha. But, unlike his industrious friend, he’s largely put music aside and currently describes himself as a “bedroom DJ” who’s chosen to focus on the simpler pleasures of life in the Green Mountains.
Currently employed as a case coordinator at Fletcher Allen Health Care, Williams is an avid outdoorsman who particularly loves fly-fishing. Why did he choose to stay here? He replies with typical simplicity, “I stayed in Vermont because I enjoy Vermont.”
Williams admits he hasn’t been playing much bass lately, but he isn’t intimidated by the prospect of dusting off his chops on the grandest stage in the state. “The only thing that’s weird about it being at the Flynn is that it won’t be an intimate show,” he remarks.
Like the rest of the band, Williams is anxious to reconnect with Belizbeha’s old fan base — which Sibi calls “extended family.” Many of them will be flying in from all over the country to catch the show. As for remembering the music he’s barely played in the last 10 years, Williams echoes the sentiment offered by most of his bandmates: “It’s like riding a bike.”
Mark Robohm: Two Tickets to Paradise
If you’re a regular reader of the New York Times, it’s possible you’ve unwittingly kept tabs on Belizbeha’s Mark Robohm. The New York City-based drummer and his longtime girlfriend Stephanie Doucette were featured in a September 2007 story that described how they’d completely gutted and renovated Robohm’s tiny Chelsea apartment for — wait for it — under $12,000.
The couple met at a Belizbeha gig at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, where Doucette was a bartender. “We met in paradise,” Robohm notes cheekily. But they didn’t begin dating until several years later. The two have since purchased a neighboring studio and plan to combine the two apartments.
Since the beginning of Belizbeha, Robohm has averaged more than 200 gigs per year. Following the birth of his son, now 17 months old, that pace has slowed considerably. But Robohm hasn’t been wanting for work.
“The cool thing about being a drummer is that you’re not the star,” he observes. “So that means that all the stars need to hire you.”
The most notable celebrity to hire Robohm is undoubtedly Alicia Keys. He played on the pop-soul diva’s most recent release, As I Am, and joined the Grammy-winning singer on her last European tour with his own band, The Ruling Party. “It was a circus,” Robohm says.
Once upon a time, many industry types had pictured Belizbeha as just such a huge act. Ultimately, arena-packing success eluded the band, but Robohm still marvels at how much they did achieve.
“I think all of us, at the beginning, had those kinds of big dreams,” he says. “But we all realized by the middle of it that just being able to sustain that many people on the road, and to sell as many records as we did without any support, was pretty successful on its own.”