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Sinbad Keeping the Funk Alive.

The 1970s and 1980s are gone. But the music of that era will not be forgotten, that is, if popular comedian-actor Sinbad has anything to do with it. He is the mastermind behind the Sinbad Soul Music Festival, which has been staged for five consecutive years in the Caribbean. "The history of the festival is that it originated out of pure accident," Sinbad said.

Sinbad, 42, loves soul music and has an affinity for '70s' music. Why soul music? Back in the 70s, "Brothers used to cry about losing their women, now they are singing about dissing them," Sinbad said. "I can't get with music that puts people down. Old school music comes from the heart. Soul music is about appreciation for music." It was not until he had been to shows such as the Cool Spirit Jazz Festival sponsored by Jet magazine that he noticed that there was a void in the soul music genre that needed to be filled. That's when he decided to produce a large-scale festival, featuring funk music. He thought there was a need for a different type of venue and decided to host the festival outside of the United States.

The previous venues for the concert were Jamaica, St. Martin and Aruba. Sinbad decided against returning to those islands to host the festival because he didn't believe that they understood the significance of it. "They thought Black Americans were gangbangers and criminals," Sinbad said.

"We thought of venues such as Cancun, but those places take the money, and offer bad treatment. St. Thomas recruited us." Government officials traveled to Aruba last year when the festival was being staged there to negotiate and convince Sinbad to host the festival in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Intense negotiations and some nudging by his friend and radio personality Tom Joyner were determining factors to take the festival to the U.S. Virgin Islands this year. Joyner had done a live remote of his popular show from St. Thomas in 1998. He knew firsthand what the location was like. For the first time the Sinbad Soul Music Festival was held on American soil. "This festival is a culmination of five years of putting Sinbad's name and dollars behind this concept," Mark Atkins said. Atkins is Sinbad's brother and production manager. According to Sinbad, African Americans do not normally travel en masse. He believes that the music festival is a time to bring them together. "It's about pride," Sinbad said. "It's about a family affair."

Sinbad produces all of the events associated with the festivals such as comedy shows, nightclubs and beach parties along with his brothers and sisters. One of the greatest challenges in coordinating the shows is finding groups that are still together or can still perform on stage. Sinbad scouts the artists personally by calling them directly and asking them to participate.

Another challenge in planning the event? According to Sinbad, initially no travel agency or tour operator would help to coordinate the packages for the event. So he and his family began planning the charters, booking the hotels and securing transportation for those attending his festival. They still handle all the planning for the event. "It blows people's minds that Black people can travel en masse and still have fun. Relationships are formed (at the festivals)," Sinbad said.

Atkins says that it poses a great responsibility for Sinbad to attach his name to the festival because it takes a great deal of cooperative effort to pull it off. If something should go wrong at any of the events, it could reflect negatively on the artist. But why would anything go wrong with Sinbad at the helm? He pays close attention to every aspect of the festival and his jokes are always delivered on time. It has been like that since the comedian was a child. "Sinbad was the home entertainment center when we were growing up," Atkins said.

The festival has established a track record with soul music fans whom Sinbad affectionately refers to as Funkateers. For those who have never been to one of these events, the festival is a pleasant mixture of soulful music and laughs-until-your-belly-hurts comedy. And it is all clean fun for Sinbad.

"Comedy is not supposed to hurt. Comedy is supposed to heal," Sinbad said. "At the end of the day, we all do dumb stuff and we got to laugh at ourselves."

The entire Atkins family has supported Sinbad in the history of staging the Soul Music Festival. Several members of his family assist in coordinating the shows from public relations to money management. Family is a central aspect of Sinbad's life. And life has been no bed of roses for this popular comedian. He recalls that times were rough for his family of six siblings when he was growing up. He said that what led him to take the right path in life was that both his parents were there for him while he was a child. Sinbad's advice to others in pursuit of their goals is to dream big. He said that sometimes you must "put in hard work and suffer" to get what you want out of life.

Although known for telling jokes throughout his childhood, Sinbad's first love had been basketball. And although he won a basketball scholarship to the University of Denver, he soon gave up the sport and instead took up comedy. Sixteen years ago he took off on his "Poverty Tour" that took him around the nation on Greyhound buses. He has secured gigs on television and has starred in motion picture movies.

Sinbad says that although he enjoys staging the annual music festival, all the effort that he puts into making them happen could also be put into starring in a movie. How long will he continue to host the concerts is anyone's guess. This ambivalence does not detract from the quality of the festivals. Each year the Atkins family tries to vary the acts to lure their fans to join them at the different Caribbean locations.

The fifth annual Sinbad Soul Music Festival was kicked off on May 26 in downtown St. Thomas at night with a mini-carnival parade at the Havensight Mall. Tom Joyner's morning show crew joined Sinbad to host a comedy show and did a live remote show from St. Thomas. The pre-concert activities kept the crowds entertained in anticipation of the main stage concerts, which aired on August 20 on HBO's Pay-Per-View.

New to the festival was a mix of young artists who, according to Sinbad, embody the spirit of soul music. "I have hope for the future," Sinbad said after hearing the romantic Joe sing "I'll Be Loving You." Other performers included the Stylistics, Chaka Khan, Morris Day and the Time, Roy Ayers, Debarge featuring El Debarge, the SOS Band, Deniece Williams, Eric Benet, Kenny Lattimore, Jon B, Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge, The Gap Band and Smokey Robinson.

On the opening night, Sinbad led a practice session to warm up the audience for the television taping. He was joined by comedians Jeff Brown, J. Anthony Brown and Jonathan Slocumb to teach the listening crowd their cues for applause, laughter and tossing of the beach balls that were serving as props. The ultra-modern stage built in the Lionel Roberts Stadium, which has no permanent stage and is usually used for baseball games throughout the year, was transformed to create the aura of being on the beach. It was decorated with psychedelic colors, palm trees and small make-believe beach shacks on both sides. The stage's backdrop was the island of St. Thomas.

The opening act featured Sinbad, accompanied by three young boys simulating to be playing horns. Sinbad was getting down with an electric guitar. It was quite a believable act performed by the comedian. A Stylistics band member was playing the guitar back stage to the tune of "I'm a Soul Man." The three main stage shows featured sentimental moments.

Sinbad embraced each artist who performed during the shows. One especially touching moment occurred when El Debarge was exiting the stage following the performance with his brothers. Sinbad embraced him and then all the brothers joined together in what seemed like minutes of an emotionally charged group hug. This marked the first time the group had performed together since their split in 1986.

Smokey Robinson, who wrapped up the concert series, said that singing the songs brought back wonderful memories. "Motown is a songwriter's paradise," Robinson said as he announced that he had just signed again with Motown recording studios. "I'm happy to be back home."

NBA superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson, actress Halle Berry and rapper Doug E Fresh made cameo appearances during the shows. Their support and participation in the music festival was a testament of their appreciation for Sinbad's work.

The last main stage concert ended with Kool and the Gang's song, "Celebration." Doug E Fresh joined Sinbad, his family and crew on stage to lead the song. "The festival was so funky, we might have to do this one more time," Sinbad shouted as he said farewell to the crowd. Did he leave the door open for a Part Six Concert featuring more funk? As Kool and the Gang would sing to the Funkateers: "It's up to you. What's your pleasure?"

Janette M. Millin is a newspaper editor for the Daily News in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.
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Author:Millin, Janette M.
Publication:The Black Collegian
Geographic Code:50CAR
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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