May 19, 2017
Several American cities are identified with a kind of music.
For example, New Orleans is known for jazz. Nashville claims country music, and Memphis calls itself the home of the blues.
Washington D.C. is also known for a unique sound: go-go music.
Go-go is born
Go-go is often called the heartbeat of D.C.
Most musicians and historians credit the birth of go-go music to Chuck Brown, a Washington D.C.-born musician who died in 2012.
Brown and his band The Soul Searchers started their career playing mostly funk and rhythm-and-blues music. The songs got people up and dancing.
But Brown did not like it when people left the dance floor at the end of a song. So he decided to keep a beat going on percussion instruments after the song was over. Over time, this ‘beat’ music became just as popular as the songs themselves, and led to the creation of “go-go music.”
The music gets its name from how the music, like the beat, “goes and goes,” without stopping.
The importance of the beat
Many consider go-go a kind of funk music.
Big Tony Fisher is the lead singer of the band Trouble Funk in D.C. The band is one of the first go-go bands in D.C.
“There are so many different elements, you know, to describe go-go music because it is one of those types of music that you can pretty much mix with any other genre of music, you know what I'm saying, from reggae to jazz to blues...”
Experience Unlimited, or E.U., is another D.C. go-go band. E.U. drummer William ‘Juju’ House says the percussion beat is critical to the music style.
“The most important two pieces in go-go is the drummer, and the conga player. And the reason that is, the rhythms that are played between the two give go-go its definition.”
The rhythms of the two instruments are syncopated together, and any other kind of music style will play on top of that beat. With go-go, each song flows to the next without stop, all connected by this beat.
Fisher says the conga sound itself is like a language.
“It goes all the way back to our African tribe. It’s just like the rhythm of the congas speaks to the body, and the kick drum … syncs up with the heartbeat.”
Call and response
The other main feature of go-go is the relationship between the lead singer and the crowd. During go-go songs, the lead singer calls out questions to the audience. The crowd answers.
“We got our little thing where the crowd is actually the other part of the band. ‘Where y’all from?’ And they all shout what area they are from.
‘Y’all tired yet?’ ‘Hell, no!’
“Are you ready to go?” ‘Hell, no!’
‘Do you want some more?’ 'Hell, yeah.
It’s one of those things where, you know, the people get a chance to interact.”
Experience Unlimited conga player Maurice “Mighty Moe” Hagans says the call-and-response is also linked to African people.
“Call and response has a lot of history, you know. It goes all the way back to African cultures, communicating with the drum… becoming as one.”
Go-go in the community
As go-go grew in popularity the music became a major presence in the city. D.C. bands would play for political gatherings and events to raise money for aid groups.
However, despite go-go’s deep history and popularity in Washington D.C., the music’s survival was threatened in the 1990s. That was the time drug-related crimes spread widely in Washington, D.C.
Some of the crimes took place at go-go shows, with the bands getting the blame. Sometimes crimes were falsely blamed on the bands.
Big Tony Fisher says the media once linked Trouble Funk to a shooting at a D.C. show while the band was touring in London at the time.
Urban development in D.C. also makes it harder for go-go bands to reach their audiences, says E.U. conga player Mighty Moe Hagans.
“There are a lot of clubs that don’t exist anymore because of new growth in the city… You got more bands but less venues to perform at… So yeah, it had a big impact on the go-go scene.”
However, go-go remains a beloved part of D.C. culture, and musicians like Fisher are hopeful about keeping the music alive.
“We’re not going to let it die… In the words of Martin Luther King, we will overcome.”
I’m Phil Dierking.
Phil Dierking wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
What do you think of this music style? Would it be popular where you are from? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
audience – n. a group of people who gather together to listen to something, such as a concert, or watch something, such as a movie or play.
clubs – n. a business that provides entertainment, such as music, dancing, or a show.
venues – n. the place where an event takes place
impact – n. a powerful or major influence or effect
syncopate – v. having a rhythm that stresses the weak beats instead of the strong beats
unique – adj. used to say that something or someone is unlike anything or anyone else
y’all - used as a contraction of you all