Kenneth Sumter, better known as Sumy, short for Surinam-Baby, is responsible for a good amount of synthesizer drained boogie vibes. To me, one the most unique and innovative artists that Amsterdam, The Netherlands or Surinam ever had when it comes to the funk. Although familiar with playing several instruments, he’s probably best describable as a keyboard/synthesizer virtuoso. I sat down with the self-educated Sumy to have some coffee and hear him out.
We met at a terrace in the Bijlmer area of Amsterdam. In the beginning we chatted shortly about what inspired him music-wise when he was young. He told me he really liked the early Kool & The Gang and Cameo. To my surprise he also mentioned being blown away the first time he heard the synth bass line of Madonna’s Holiday. After ordering a cappuccino, we immediately broke loose about the city of Amsterdam back in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
When living in Amsterdam as a youngster, Sumy worked at the bank in the city centre (Keizersgracht). Close-by there was a music store that sold a large variety of instruments (Dirk Witte). As a teenager, hungry for the music, he walked in there to ask for the most expensive thing they had. It was the Hammond organ. Impressed by the instrument he asked for more and was shown a Fender Rhodes and a PPG Synthesizer. He told the man he’d be back in ten minutes, went to the bank he worked at, provided himself a loan and returned to the music store. This is where the banking career of Kenneth ends and the music career of Sumy starts.
Only in a short matter of time he started playing with members of American Gipsy (Steve Clisby & Co), a then popular American-Dutch soul & funk formation. The cooperation was no success, due to the fact that the guys had a different day-rhythm and therefore couldn’t handle the energy of the young Sumy, who’d get up early in the morning willing to jam. Besides that, the American Gipsy blokes used cocaine and then played at night, a routine which Sumy didn’t want to be a part of. He started sharing a studio at the Warmoesstraat in Amsterdam with some Latin American musicians. They were much more interested in Salsa, while he’d rather play Funk. He decided to record a single and release/finance it himself on his own label, Sumy Records. The 45, Going Insane, somehow made it to the radio stations where it was being played to his own surprise, which forced him to develop his distribution. As he always had been intrigued by the blue colored label of Philips records, he called them. Using the phone from the bank he worked at, he said to them he knew a good singer who should be of great interest for Philips. They responded positive and he was invited to drop by at the studios. As he recalls there were several studios at Philips and they were categorized in colors. He recorded his first Philips’ release, The Funky G, in the blue studio. What was kind of particular about the whole deal with Philips, is that he insisted the music rights would be licensed to himself. This way he could also keep the master tapes himself.. Money-wise the record wasn’t that much of a success.
We continue the conversation talking about one of my favorite cuts, Soul With Milk. A multi-layered energetic groove. This song is featured on his 1983 album Trying To Survive, released on his own label, not the previous Sumy Records, but Galaxy Inc.
As a kid, growing up in Surinam, Sumy was often or mostly surrounded by nature. There was always the sound of animals, chickens or ducks in the background. He told me that when he came to Amsterdam, he missed the sound of the little chickens. You didn’t have those in the city or between the suburb apartment buildings. This lack of nature inspired him to hire a group of female vocalists to do a chicken-like background choir on Soul With Milk.
“The secret behind funk, is comedy.”
According to Sumy, every Funk artist is a comedian. He adds that it’s all about rebelling, freaking and fun, which to him is the base of funk and even literally hidden in the word itself. The studio was a playground. While he starts drumming on a glass bottle, he tells me he would record things like that and use it in his songs.
Sumy always handled his own administration, promotion and international connections. When he played in Amsterdam back in the 80’s, in the Melkweg, he would go door to door to drop flyers around announcing his performance. He also played in Germany, France, Malta, Nigeria and Brasil. He regrets the way Philips treated him in Brasil. Funkin’ In Your Mind was a small succes there and only years later they paid him 35 bucks. The money was not even the issue, but the fact that he wasn’t even aware of the song’s success made him miss out on opportunities. A funny thing about Funkin’ In Your Mind is that he actually sent Philips the wrong cut. The one that was used missed out on a lot of vocals and other additional instruments. In the end it might be this mistake or accident that gives the song it’s mysterious vibe.
The creativity Sumy puts in his music, is often based on his chimeras. Some songs are inspired by a character he plays in his head. He told me about a time a friend told a story about a pimp, as he had never heard of such a thing he played one in his mind for a while to create inspiration for a song. He cherishes a humorous and fun approach to music.
Music is like living in heaven, it’s the only piece of happiness nature blessed us with.
Sumy told me that if he was ever to stop playing music, somebody else should take over where he left it. It’s what nature owes him or us in general. He hopes that that if he ever was to inspire somebody, it should be to play an instrument.