Beyond The Blues: A Patti Smith Anthem Undergoes a Funky and Timely Iteration
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Tomás Doncker's album, Born To Be, is an audiovisual collaborative that lies at the intersection of a soulful cross-genre sound and the pulpit of cultural commentary.
Photo Credit: William Mackey
This is how it began, a chance meeting in his pharmacy while picking up vitamins before a trip to Helsinki. Some things are simply meant to be. Tomás has built a legacy in NYC as a guitarist, singer/songwriter, and producer, and now his new album and video collaboration project Born To Be, which includes a reboot of a Patti Smith classic “People Have The Power”, promises to elevate his career to a new level.
Oh My God! Patti!
When he stopped in to shop that day the last thing Tomás expected was to meet Jesse Smith. Not recognizing the younger version of her mother, he had no idea who he was talking to when she stopped him in the store to rave about his album Wherever You Go. When she said my mom and I are HUGE fans, he was flattered and asked her name but didn’t make the connection. It was Gary Alony, the head pharmacist who clued him in.
“So Gary comes over to me and whispers . . . .You know who that is right? Patti’s daughter! ‘I'm thinking that’s great but who the hell is Patti?’
“Gary whispers PATTI SMITH!, and I whisper OH SHIT!!”
Wanting to make sure he gave this fellow musician and daughter of a legend a bit more than a polite thank you, he struck up a conversation. It was just prior to Thanksgiving so he asked if she could please wish her mother a happy holiday for him and they spoke a little more about Lenny Kaye and watching shows back in the day at CBGB. Wanting it to feel like less of a fanboy moment he mentioned the song he had been working on.
He said, “You know what your mom will get a kick out of this, I was working on an arrangement of ‘People Have The Power’, like a funk-soul version of it.”
“She said, OH! That sounds really interesting!”
He admitted he was having some problems with the second verse and had to set the project down. Patti has a distinct style that is impossible to emulate and Jesse, knowing her mother, knew where he was coming from.
“So then, I’m walking around the pharmacy getting things for my trip and I get a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and BAM! Jesse has her arm up in the air and the phone in my face and it’s Patti on FaceTime! I squealed! Patti, oh my God! Oh my God, Patti! I mean it was a real moment you know!”
Jesse had called her mom and told her she had just met Tomás Doncker in Thompson Chemists and had partially filled her in on the conversation. Still reeling from his unexpected FaceTime he began to explain to Patti that his attempt at the remake was a funk-like Sly Stone version of “People Have The Power.”
Oh! That’s a good idea! I like that!
Again he explained the problem he was having with the second verse.
"It's all Patti all the time, It’s so distinctly you so I had to leave it alone.”
What Patti Smith said next came as a shock to everyone within earshot;
Change the words! Sing the chorus!
The song needs another version, the message is important. Many great versions of that song need to be out in the world so yes you have my permission, go ahead and do it.
“I said Patti are you serious? There were like six people in the store who were all like. . . . what did she just say!? I said Patti can you say that one more time so everyone can hear that?
“She said, You have my permission. Go ahead and do it I want to hear what you come up with. The song needs another version, the message is important. Many great versions of that song need to be out in the world so yes you have my permission, go ahead and do it.”
“I almost passed out.”
Tomás completed his version with the band, Patti was thrilled with it and invited him to record the song acoustically at the Electric Lady Studios with Jesse and Jackson Smith. Patti produced the song and after the last take she ran out and said . . . .
THAT'S IT! THIS is what Fred and I wanted to do. Like a funky blues song. That’s how we wrote it, but it was rearranged and ended up becoming what it is now.
“She was so moved, it was like I somehow touched the seed of what was there in the first place. She said for many years she couldn’t perform it, especially after Fred died because it was not at all like they had written. Then she actually thanked me and I thought . . . .I can’t believe this man. This lady just thanked me.”
Three months later he was asked to perform at a World Environment Day livestream concert that was hosted by Pathway to Paris. The concert featured Dave Mathews, Jack Johnson, Michael Stipe, Flea, and more. Tomás closed the show and moved the listeners with his version of “People Have The Power.” A fitting finale to a festival raising money for a non-profit determined to find a solution for climate change.
Tomás Doncker has been best known as the lead guitarist with James Chance and the Contortions but this may be a defining moment. When the Godmother of Punk, a legendary songwriter and poet permits you to alter a song written by her and her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith who is Detroit royalty, a song that has continued to be an anthem sung by those hoping for a change in a world filled with turmoil and war, well that's a pretty damn big deal.
Doncker is like a kaleidoscope in the entertainment industry. With every turn, you will find a new and colorful facet to his long list of talents. He began his career in the no wave scene with James Chance & The Contortions and is known worldwide for touring with Japanese jazz musicians Sado Watanabe and Masabumi Kikuchi. He went on to work with Yoko Ono, Bootsy Collins, Ivan Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Corey Glover, and Madonna.
His longest and ongoing collaborations have spanned two decades with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York poet Laureate Yusef Komunyakaa and have received critical acclaim. Most recently Doncker’s original music was used in the documentary film Women of Slender Means which received honorable mentions in both the Richmond International and Thomas Edison Film Festivals.
Tomás Doncker is also the founder and CEO of True Groove Records which has been dubbed the fastest rising record label in New York City. In 2011 Doncker was also given the rare distinction of creating a new genre of music by CNN who coined his unique style, global soul. With his business partner Marla Mase, the label has launched hundreds of albums for a multitude of artists including Helsinki-Born jazz-funk powerhouse and owner of Finlands top recording studio Sam Huber and Regina Bonelli whose song “Truth Hurts” debuted at #1 on the soul-blues song chart in February of 2022.
Candace Harding Medel: I understand this project is more than just an album.
Tomás Doncker: Yes. Born To Be presents itself as a few things all at once. It’s a home for a lot of the singles I had released during the pandemic, it’s a modern-day protest album. . . . sort of, and it’s a video artist collaboration project. It’s all things to all people.
Album Review: Some Come with Torches to Burn, Others Come with Fire to Illuminate
After George Floyd’s murder we witnessed thousands take to the street across the country in protest over scores of unarmed black men and women killed at the hands of police. We’ve seen democracy itself under assault on January 6th at the nation's capital. And now we are seeing the brutality of a tyrant as he wages war on liberty and innocent civilians in Ukraine for daring to be free.
It’s times like these when people feel especially powerless. However, it’s also in times like these when the likes of Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Tomás Doncker, and a socially aware choir of artists stand up to shine the light of music on the power of the human spirit to endure and overcome. Some people are born for this; to use the power of music to energize and illuminate, to use words and song to inspire and move the heart.
And this is precisely what Tomás has done with his latest album, Born To Be.
As much you want to peg him as only a blues man, the towering guitarist, writer and producer refuses to play between the lines. His latest release makes the case that Doncker’s multidimensional approach to music is capable of the blues and beyond into a musical soundscape that can’t be described as anything other than unique to the sonic savvy of the bassy Brooklyn native.
Born to Be is a show of Doncker's versatile instincts as he delivers something for everyone to love. From a high voltage, hard charging blues rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie's Farm”, to a modern and exquisitely composed heart-felt pop ballad that evolves beautifully onto a reggae-esque rhythm and bassline in “Don’t Let Go”, to an alternative rock head bobber in the title track, “Born To Be”.
The cross-genre music, dubbed global soul, is noteworthy and innovative. Doncker's songwriting carried by his richly textured bluesy vocals are memorable. However, with topics ranging from hatred and intolerance, to war and homelessness, the socially conscious message of the album is what makes it relevant and timely.
With Smith’s blessing, ‘People Have The Power’ underwent a soulful and timely iteration by the creative hand of Doncker and True Groove Records. Whereas Smith’s version (released in 1988 - a year fraught with intense geopolitical strife) was anthemic and rousing, Doncker dresses the iconic song with a funkier, more optimistic hand-clapping vibe. The stark difference is perhaps very much welcome after years under the weight of unrest, a pandemic, and now a world on the sharp edge of war. Doncker’s rendition is a groovy reminder not to give in to despair even when things look bleak, “that the people have the power to redeem the work of fools” and “upon the meek the graces shower. It’s decreed, the people rule”.
Bob Dylan's folksy song “Maggie’s Farm”, is a song about a laborer resentful of the poor pay and treatment by “Maggie”, the land owner and her family. The “bored” worker “prays for rain” to shirk his work and tend to his “head full of ideas”. For Born To Be however, Doncker’s hard hitting blues version of the iconic song is cast in the darker historic light of slavery. The laborer instead is lamenting his lack of choice in the matter of working the fields and expressing his desire for freedom - “I don’t want to work on Maggie’s farm no more.” Only when you don’t have the freedom to pursue what you love or desire can you have a “head full of ideas that are driving me insane”. Doncker’s cover reminds us that in an ugly part of our history, freedom was taken from people, bodies and minds were enslaved, and if recent events have shown us anything, it’s that freedom is not guaranteed and tyrants aren’t legends of the past. Vigilance is needed to safeguard liberty.
Look for Born To Be, which will be available everywhere, on May 13th.
Watch Doncker, Jackson, and Jesse Smith play "People Have The Power" at the legendary Electriclady Studios in NYC
C.R.M: How is this different socially?
Tomás: I got to sing Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and The Specials. All songs that meant a lot to me throughout my life and that are very socially conscience songs. I felt it was a chance to continue saying the things I felt needed to be said. I was able to reinforce that by singing other people's material as well as my own. If you don’t believe me you might believe Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, or The Specials. Ya know, I’m just trying to put the message out there. Then it just hit me. Why don't I reach out to some cool video artists and see if they want to collaborate?
C.R.M: Who is the little boy on the cover of the album?
Tomás: That’s me! It was 1968 in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, I was six years old.
I don't share a lot of personal stuff besides my work or the stuff that comes up through the work but I wanted to share these photos. On New Year's Eve, I got a Facebook message from an old childhood friend of mine. His father took the photos one Sunday afternoon. The guy was cleaning out his parent's attic and found the negatives.
The picture that will be on the back cover is a picture of my family taken the same day. So I figured Born To Be. That's where I came from. The photo is a time capsule to an era gone by.
On some level, the fact that the chance meeting of Jesse in Thompson Chemists happened also informs the title of the album. Like I was born to do this.
C.R.M: Have you ever wanted to do anything else?
Tomás: Never. When I was 11 years old I knew I wanted to do music. I wasn’t Stevie wonder. I was a jock. I always loved music but one day it hit me that this is what I wanted to do. Some people don’t know anything about music but they can sing, you put them in front of a piano and they can play. Not me. I had to and I still have to work at it. But I love it and it formed my whole existence.
I was encouraged to follow my dreams and told to ignore advice about having a “B” plan. I was told if that's what you want to do you do it. You have days when you have lots of money and you have days when you are eating tuna fish but if you are doing what you love it doesn’t matter.
C.R.M: True Groove isn’t just about music, you and your partner Marla Mase are also involved in Theater and Performing Arts so would you say you had a large creative input in the making of these videos?
Tomás: None, if very little. I didn’t give them a budget. It was more like a stipend and I said here go make something cool. Collaboration is all about trust. I just let go. It’s the only way I'm going to see and experience another perspective on my work. Ya know, how many times are you gonna look at yourself in the mirror? After a while, you are going to get sick of seeing yourself. I just wanted to see how my work inspired other artists. Aside from William Murray who is part of the True Groove team, I worked with Chris Padula, Carly O'Neil, and Alice Teeple to direct the videos.
C.R.M: When can we look forward to the release of the album and videos?
Tomás: The album will be released before the end of the month (April) and the series of videos, there are seven total, will be released one at a time starting with the acoustic version of “People Have The Power.”
C.R.M: I'm sure there were many, but can you share one takeaway you had from the experience of writing and recording your version of “People Have The Power?”
Tomás: I am forever grateful. The Smiths are wonderful people, I love them and I hope to be able to work with them again.
To this day we all have our moments of self-doubt, especially as artists, writers, or creators. We want to do our best work all of the time. Whenever I think to myself, maybe I'm not that great at doing this ya know, I can think, Patti Smith thinks you're good enough. Like, OK. Maybe I am good enough. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.
Look out for the release of Born To Be everywhere on May 13th. Connect with our friends at True Groove Records on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.