(photos by Sara Hufford Photography)
(Listen while you read!)
Greeted with laughs of love and compassionate jeering, members file into the giant yellow house on Indy’s northwest side. Wafts of cold air accompany each opening of the door, but all is warm inside the Spitting Llama.
Each sipping on a mysterious Ghanaian drink, the family of friends begins sorting through their dance-inducing, highlife-inspired magic. Moving and shaking around the room, the scene resembles a party rather than a practice, as the group unites in speaking a language of rhythmic joy. Hence, Sweet Poison Victim practice has commenced.
Even in their founding stages, the diverse group of multi-instrumentalists stuck to their fun-loving spirit. Remembers BC Nelson (trombone, keys) “At first, 20, maybe 25, people would show up. Everybody would jam. People would eat, drink. It was sort of like a meeting of the minds.”
These jubilant meetings gradually grew smaller, eventually stabilizing into a group that would become Sweet Poison Victim.
Born in Ghana, lead vocalist Kwesi Brown introduced the group to the potent Sweet Poison drink. Made up of 24 different kinds of roots, Brown explained how the mysterious African psychedelic root juice serves as a perfect symbol of the group’s unified approach to music.
“This is Sweet Poison. It is different kinds of [cultural] roots from South America, Africa, North America, Europe, together. They can’t play by themselves, but when they come together to play, it’s very strong,” he said. “We reflect the drink that we drink, so it has become a ritual. When we meet, at least a sip each, just to take us back to our roots—where we started and why we named ourself this.”
Kwesi, like the rest of his band mates, exudes genuine joy throughout his band’s practice, dancing around the Spitting Llama living room, making sure that every member is supplied with Sweet Poison to sip on. For the Ghanaian, these Monday and Thursday practices truly are therapeutic.
With a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from IU Bloomington, Brown has now shifted his focus as a teacher to public health due to all of the unsanitary practices he witnessed in his years of studying African culture. Nevertheless, he still needs a recess from his daily responsibilities.
“Mondays and Thursdays, I can’t wait to be here. I just want to see these friends,” Kwesi said. “This group, they are special to me. Seriously. Individually, they are nice, but when they come together as Sweet Poison, you can’t stay away from them.”
One of the band’s more recent additions, female vocalist Nana Yaa feels the reciprocation of Kwesi’s alleviating releases, in turn, being a part of a musical body that embraces its African influence.
“I’ve always wanted to be in a band, but I never ever thought I would get so lucky. The music they play is so heartfelt,” she said. “I spent some time in Ghana and this reminds me of just walking down the street and listening to music.”
As pointed out by Mario Martinez (congas/bass), the group’s mysterious name can be off-putting. Instead of simply telling new acquaintances his band’s name, Mario often adds, “but you should come and see us because you’re going to dance,” reinforcing the group’s irresistible grooves.
Dancing, moving, clapping crowds consistently ensue at Sweet Poison shows, regularly cheering for encores no matter the group’s marquee placement. A recent show at Muncie’s Village Green Records serves as a perfect example of that.
“When we went to Muncie to play, these guys came and were like, ‘Man this is great. We are relieved from what we’ve been hearing all the time. This is nice, to hear something different and beautiful,’” Kwesi remembered.
A SWEET, SWEET TREAT
Practicing in a residential area can be tough. Houses on all sides often get irritated with noise after dark, leading to qualms of all sorts—maybe even police complaints for the extremely misfortunate.
This is not the case with Sweet Poison Victim practices. Instead of complaining to the lively group of elated musicians, neighbors of the Spitting Llama urge them to continue.
Clarence Jones (drums/bass/keys/trombone/lead vocals) remembers a particular interaction with a nearby resident that he had at a neighborhood festival the band was a part of.
“She comes over and she’s like, ‘We look forward to every Monday and Thursday to listen to you guys’ music because it’s always uplifting and the beat is nice and it seems like you guys have a really, really good time. We will never call the cops on you because we just love the way the music is and how free-spirited you guys sound,’” Clarence remembered. “These people show a lot of love in the community for what we do.”
Often playing local events to graciously give back to the Latino Youth Collective, who the Spitting Llama belongs to, Sweet Poison Victim regularly interacts with passers-by, both young and old. Says Kwesi of the Collective, “Anytime they have programs, to show our appreciation, we play for them for free. We support their program, and they also allow us to practice here.”
Last summer, BC remembers having interactions with some of the neighborhood’s younger listeners.
“When we would practice or we'd just be hanging out, there would be kids who walked through the neighborhood, some little kids, some teenagers,” BC recalled. “Once every couple of weeks, you'd have some kid that would come up and just be like, 'Hey. I want to learn to play guitar. Can I sit here and listen to you?' Or, 'Hey I really like this music. What do you play?'”
He continued, “We're in this residential area and you're like, 'Oh loud music. The band is going to get on their nerves,' but the community has been really positive.”
As the group has persisted in playing shows throughout the state, fascination has continued to stir, entrancing crowds of all musical inclinations in a way that only Sweet Poison can.
INTOXICATING THE MASSES
From hot and sweaty house parties to cultural celebrations, Sweet Poison Victim’s potent charm regularly puts countless Indiana audiences under a spell of highlife ecstasy.
The group’s strong set of multi-instrumentalists regularly offers them versatile opportunities to devise their magic. For example, BC explained, “If Ted’s on guitar for a song, Ted comes up with these riffs, but if we switch to Gerardo playing guitar, he has a completely different concept of how he wants to build a song or direct things.”
Taking much influence from Kwesi’s Ghanaian roots, individuals in the group likewise embrace their diverse sets of musical upbringings, helping concoct truly unique interpretations of the traditional highlife sound.
“Kwesi’s songs are cool because some of them are full-on traditional 60s-70s highlife stuff, but then there are ones where we’ve taken a little more liberty to how we’ve approached learning a song,” said Ted Somerville (lead guitar/drums). “He’ll teach us stuff and maybe we’ll mix in a little of our own riffing or whatnot with that too.”
The group’s high-energy live presence has been sought after throughout Indiana. No matter the occasion, the group has never ceased to get bodies shaking. Karl Selm (Bass/Cowbell/Rhythm Guitar/MPC/Shekere) remembers his favorite Sweet Poison performing experience. Playing at a house in Bloomington over Little 500 weekend, Karl remarked, “That was one of the most intense shows that I’ve ever played,”
“When someone crowd-surfed at that, it might have been the first time anyone crowd-surfed to highlife music,” chimed in Ted while remembering the Little 500 experience.
During their practice, Kwesi and Nana weave through the living room, delightedly moving and shaking about with radiant smiles. Their freeing movements of rhythm-induced therapy are entirely reminiscent of the usual crowd at one of the band’s shows. Mario remembers a recent show where he was envious of the crowd, wishing he could simply leave the stage and join the dance party.
“I was like, ‘I want to stop playing and dance with these people too,’” he said.
Time and time again, the band’s genuine musical expression has been reciprocated with genuine movement.
“We’ve gotten a lot of love. I don’t want to say we’re the only people doing what we do, but the kind of music we bring out is not very common,” BC said. “People hear it and it’s something that catches their ears.”
In the coming year, the band hopes to continue intoxicating audiences within the state and beyond, quenching thirsty ears with their sweet, sweet poison.
“Our two biggest goals are recording and also touring outside of town, so those are our big objectives for the coming year,” Karl concluded.