It Came From Spanish Harlem
It’s the last day of the Museum of Modern Art’s seasonal Warm-Up dance parties at PS1, an old public school in Queens, converted into a cutting-edge art and concert space, and an MC gets up to announce the return of an “old-school” musician. As he reads off the CV of main act Coati Mundi, a hunched and trembling codger slo-o-owly makes it to the stage, propped up by his walker. Time has obviously ravaged the pianist, vibe player and musical arranger for groundbreaking acts like the Cotton Club–meets–Studio 54 disco of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and zoot-suited new wavers Kid Creole and the Coconuts.
But as an ass-trembling beat drops, Mundi bolts upright. He tosses his walker aside and begins to move, as sprightly as ever. Ponce de Leon–like, the music has rejuvenated the man. The audience members, who had scratched their heads up to that point, now find themselves dancing uncontrollably. It’s this kind of reaction that prompted hot dance label Rong Music to release Mundi’s “No More Blues” 12-inch earlier this year, and to sign on to put out the forthcoming full-length Dancing for the Cabana Code in the Land of Boo-Hoo.
Months later, seated at Tang’s, a dingy doughnut shop off Sunset Boulevard, Mundi saunters in like a breeze, his smooth head tucked under a woven fedora. Hie eyes and hands are animated throughout the interview; he laughs about his return to the stage and to music making after two decades away. “It was performance art. In another age, the ’40s to ’60s, with Louis Jordan and James Brown and all that, that was all part of the performance: singing, dancing, music. It was an entertainment package.”
Mundi wants to talk about his new single and his forthcoming album, as well as the autobiography he’s working on, titled It Came From Spanish Harlem, but he wants to discuss Tang’s first. “You should come back later,” he heps this writer. “It’s a scene at night, old types and homeless cats playing chess, old Chinese men playing Go. It’s a trip.”
While Mundi feels at ease in L.A., where he’s lived since 2003, he still considers New York his home. Growing up as Andy Hernandez in Spanish Harlem, Mundi admits: “I was always a ham, which came from me just trying to entertain my aunts and uncles.”
He took up the vibraphone, inspired by the likes of Lionel Hampton and Cal Tjader, but steady work as a vibes player was hard to come by, so he taught himself piano. Mundi supported himself as a social worker in his hood in the early 1970s. Through a friend, he auditioned for an ensemble named Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. “They were dressed in these antique 1940s clothes they picked up in thrift shops,” Hernandez recalls of his audition. “And I dug it.”
While not the most adept pianist at the session, he was by far the most animated contender: “I could never keep still. If I played a note, I had to dance to that note, I had to make a face. I couldn’t just play the music.”
He landed the gig, jump-starting a musical career he never anticipated.
Founded by Bronx-born Darnell brothers Stony and August, the Savannah Band’s silky-smooth blending of jump-jazz with disco powered New York dance floors. Songs like “Cherchez la Femme” and “Sunshowers” remain touchstones: Ghostface Killah sampled the former, while M.I.A. powered her debut with a version of the latter. But quick heights precipitated the lows to follow. “Like a lot of successful rock bands, we went bankrupt,” Mundi says with a shrug.
Teaming with the younger Darnell brother, August, the rechristened “Sugar-Coated Andy Hernandez” signed on as pianist/sidekick/musical director for a new band, Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Through the late ’70s and early ’80s, the sharply dressed band crafted candy-colored mutant disco for the Ze-label and urbane new-wave classics like “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” and “Endicott.” But they barely breached the U.S. pop charts. “We would go on tour in France and Japan and play in front of thousands and thousands of people,” Mundi remembers of Kid Creole’s heyday. “And then I’d come back to my little apartment in Spanish Harlem and it was like a dream. You’d come back and there’s nothing.”
While neither the Coconuts nor his solo project as Coati Mundi landed much stateside success (he walked away from the band and the music business resolutely in 1989), he started dabbling in acting. His first role was on an early episode of Miami Vice, and he appeared a few more times afterward. “The producers always called me ‘The Ghost’ because they would kill me off and bring me back as another character,” Mundi laughs.
From there, he appeared in Madonna’s Who’s That Girl, in numerous Spike Lee films, and in a few Mary-Kate and Ashley movies. Music had all but fallen by the wayside.
He had some U.S. fans over those years though, and when underground producer E-Love (née Elan Polushko) and New York nu-disco maker Lee Douglas (née Doug Lee) encountered Mundi via friends of friends, their enthusiasm and appreciation of his past work rubbed off on him. “These cats were into my style.” Still, Mundi was wary about returning to the dance music he’d left behind. “I would still go to the clubs, but it lacked personality; it didn’t mean anything. So I sez to E-Love, ‘I want to put my personality into it. I’m gonna sing what I want to sing, even if it’s a stupid thing about my dog!’ ”
Sure enough, the forthcoming album sports a song about his dog. On the pounding but vibe-colored “No More Blues” single, he trades out that clichéd hue and its “boo-hoo” for a vivacious new one: pink. Evoking those now-classic bouncy Ze singles, the album brandishes propulsive nu-disco beats that at once evoke Mundi’s previous musical feats while placing him back on modern dance floors. Throughout, Mundi’s personality and his sense of play remain untarnished. He sounds revitalized, though he knows that things will never be the way they were. “In my 20s, I gave up my ass a lot to the music business,” he admits. “I’m a bit ornery now. Old age does that to you.”
So, does he think he’ll enjoy some success now? “I hate to put it this way, but I don’t give a fuck.”
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