Full of sensual chords and jazzy rhythms virtually unheard on any contemporary record, Sweetback’s 1996 self-titled album took me on an aural adventure through time and space during my very early days of travel. Comprised of the UK-based backing musicians for Sade, without the cosmic songstress herself, Sweetback elevated multicultural, ambient sounds to 30,000 feet before lounge and ambient music became popular. Many of the songs had been written for Sade to perform on her studio albums, but a line-up that included conscious rapper Bahamadia, eclectic chanteuse Amel Larrieux, and bohemian crooner Maxwell guaranteed luscious vocals laid elegantly over lush instrumentals.
But it was indeed the instrumentals that would propel me sonically into another dimension. “Chord,” with its slinky opening saxophone and popping drum cadence, was the perfect traveling music for a daylight hop from Atlanta to Washington National. Sexy slow jam “Walk of Ju” kept it steamy for the nighttime La Guardia to Fort Lauderdale flights. “Come Dubbing”—with tinkly percussion recalling a Tiki Bar in space, while the piano sneaks in and takes the party to the penthouse—paired excellently with a westward flight at sunset. Ethereal, airy “Cloud People” worked on any route, at any time of day or night, as long as there was a window to look out of and a wish to whisper to yourself.
There may be years that pass between the last time I listen to Sweetback and the next, but each time is like hearing the music of the air—and flying through it—for the first time.
What’s your original traveling music?