Paul Cebar is the kind of artist who's hard to pin down. Is his music R&B laced with blues and jazz? Or does it fall under that large and enticing label "world," influenced by Cuban, Calypso and African beats? Do you, when you listen to one of his records - 1993's That Unhinged Thing or 2011's Tomorrow Sound Now for Yes Music People, for instance - hear soul mixed with funk and straight-up New Orleans dance hall music?
The answer to all of the above is both a resounding yes and an equally resounding "does it really matter what style he plays when the style sounds this good?"
Cebar will light up the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory courtyard Friday August 5 with his band, The Tomorrow Sound, and local openers Kitchen Table Players as part of the Botanical Roots Outdoor Concert series. The Tomorrow Sound are Cebar on vocals and guitar, Bob Jennings on saxophone and keys, Mike Frederickson on bass and Reggie Bordeaux on drums.
Cebar got his start in music as a student of the art form. A native of Milwaukee and for a while a member of the 1970s earnest folk scene there, he eventually moved to Sarasota, Florida to attend New College. It was during this time that he soaked up as much knowledge as he could pertaining to the New Orleans music scene, writing his thesis on the work of Louis Jordan and Buddy Johnson. He was also teaching himself to dance.
"It was a sort of music apprenticeship for me," he said in a recent phone interview. "I was hoping that through scholarship, through studying what was at that time relatively obscure rhythm and blues stuff, the tunes of Jordan and Johnson, I would figure out what kind of music was my kind of music. I thought I might also figure out what kind of man I was. Back then I was your typical frightened-of-dancing-and-making-a-fool-of-myself guy, but I quickly noticed at the outdoor parties we attended then that the people dancing were having the best time. The good time was always had by the people out on the floor.
"I decided to go ahead and dance," he continued. "No one was watching me anyway. They were too busy having their own fun, and through that I basically tricked myself into having more enjoyment in life."
It became his goal to provide the same sort of enjoyment for others. In 1980, he joined a group of like-minded musicians called the R&B Cadets. For six years, he and his mates got audiences in and around the Milwaukee area up on their feet and enjoying themselves by playing a combination of high energy originals and old B-side covers designed for dance halls.
But sometimes dance hall days come to an end, and in 1986, after the Cadets called it quits, Cebar started his own band, Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans, which brought together the irresistible, foot-tapping sound of New Orleans jazz and blues with the Caribbean, African and Calypso strains that had begun to inspire Cebar and transform his ideas about original music.
The Milwaukeeans put out several albums, including the aforementioned Unhinged Thing, as well as Upstroke for Downfolk, I Can't Dance for You, The Get Go and Suchamuch. They also toured widely, performing all over the U.S. and Canada. Despite their growing acclaim and their focus on world beats, they were, deep down, a Wisconsin act.
Cebar explains the unique musical milieu of Milwaukee this way: "It's an underdog town, probably not unlike Fort Wayne is an underdog town. It's not expected to be a hot bed of anything, but at the same time, it's always been a soulful town with a lot of access to music, and there are a few homegrown hit makers that hail from here. I think the main thing is you're out of the glare of the coasts and Nashville and the other music centers. It's the music that matters, not the fame."
The name can also matter. In the mid-aughts, Cebar rechristened Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans "Paul Cebar and the Tomorrow Sound." Several of the band members remained the same. What Cebar hoped to change was the band's image, which the media in their coverage of the group often mislabeled as "old timey" and backward looking.
"I kept seeing stories saying we were 'interpreters of old music,' and things like that," Cebar said. "I thought to myself, 'I've been making original music for 25 years!' It was time to shift the focus forward. We hoped, of course, that the fans who really loved the old name wouldn't be too angry to come out and see us."They weren't. They aren't. The crowds still flock, and Cebar, who hosts his own radio show on Milwaukee's WMSE and can often be found touring with fellow Wisconsin singer-songwriters Peter Mulvey and Willy Porter, is busier than ever. Not only are he and the Tomorrow Sound working on recording a new album, but, in celebration of the Cadet's 30th anniversary, he's been reuniting sporadically with his former bandmates from that era, playing dance music and taking a nice stroll down memory lane. At this point in his life, three decades into his calling as a musician, he has the enviable chance to revisit key artistic periods he went through as a younger man - that of folk singer-songwriter, dance hall musician, and frontman and bandleader.
"This sort of stuff, revisiting your past, is actually a good way to keep yourself fresh," he said. "There's a mystery to what your music ends up sounding like after a long career. Hopefully you end up with some kind of version of something that has a vital, big heart in it. I think I've been doing that."
Cebar is loving all of it. It's like he said: it's the music that matters, not the fame. And certainly not the labels.
"Sometimes the best thing you'll ever hear is being played in a tiny corner of a tiny bar in a place most people have never heard of. Have you noticed that? I certainly have."