Funk can sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places. Take for example: Hollywood. Hollywood, and America’s West Coast one could argue, has always been a haven for all sorts of groove maestros…but Tallinn, Estonia? Estonia, that’s where the creators of Zuke hail from. From an ex-Soviet country that barely has a record industry one would be hard-pressed to think of a single artist that comes from that fair land. However, straight from Tallinn, Estonia comes the unlikely funk mother and son duo: Marju Kuut (now Maryn E. Coote) and Uku Kuut. Distinctly lo-fi and lovingly laced with laid back west-coast vibes, together Marju on keys and Uku on mixing board and all sorts of other instruments, crafted this album of vaporous funk.
The Soviet Union was initially where Marju got her first taste of fame. This sometime actress known more for her singing in countless jazz records and Eastern European pop songs, would truck along her son Uku beside her, while she tried to make a living as a professional musician. Uku, spent most of his young life sitting under mixing boards trying to pass along the time. In due time Marju emigrated to Sweden seeking to provide a better/freer life for young Uku, and in doing so, put her early career underwater in full scope and prohibition of Soviet censors. Unable to record back in the Soviet Union, Sweden was where she attempted to start her recording career anew.
As Marju took to doing more session work, Uku took a front row seat to this side of the music world, developing an uncanny ability to pick up what was going on and figure out how to actually do it himself. Whether on a 4-track Portastudio built into the kitchen of their home in Sweden or sneaking in after hours in whatever session Marju had to turn up to, with time Uku was able to amass his own collection and vocabulary of R&B music. Then, in turn, his mom would push him to build his musical sketches into songs, filling his works with vocals or melodies that could complement those ideas.
As Marju dove headfirst into creating Soul/R&B-influenced music for the Swedish market (one rarely heard there) she struggled to find musicians that could create the music she wanted to make. Often a very young Uku was tasked to perform, flesh out, and record her own initial compositions. Unable to make it in Sweden Marju and family moved to America hoping to make it there.
In 1988, they eventually settled down in Santa Monica, California. That city, by the Pacific coast, was where Uku felt most inspired by his stay in America, often taking long walks by the beach just to clear his mind and feel the rhythm of his new home. Marju herself would find work in radio stations or session gigs backing up more established musician. As Marju’s connections grew, so was Uku able to parlay all his technical knowledge with computer sequencers and the latest musical technology to pitch himself as a record producer using this knowledge to find work at the recording studios of Herbie Hancock and Atlantic Starr. Even as busy as they became, Marju and Uku never stopped recording together.
1992’s Zuke was their first official album release together, a wild release trying to look beyond stereotypes they didn’t know existed: that white folks couldn’t be funky. Things you’d hear on a long-lost Zapp or Shalamar album: FM synths, lo-fi samplers, Minimoog, Korg M1’s to name a few, joined the off-kilter, sunny funk Uku arranged (and sometimes sang on) and that Marju generously applied some seriously smooth keys and vocals over. Wonderfully homespun, even the videos created by Marju and Uku then speak of a carefree feeling permeating throughout their music. Although they attempted to release this album in the US, no takers were found thus relegating them to try to find suitors in Estonia that could release it.
With time an Estonian label called Forte offered to press the album, only leading them to discover later that its pressing plant (based in Moscow) had taken liberties to release it as a bootleg leaving them with nothing to show. Five years after setting foot in America, Uku left for Estonia, homesick and dissapointed. So, what you’ll hear today is that original album that laid in the vaults somewhere in Moscow.
Only recently has the Peoples Potential Unlimited record label (based in the U.S.) gotten around to releasing choice selections from Uku’s criminally unheard back catalogue. Although not a track you’ll find in Zuke, one track found in PPU’s comps (“Visions of Estonia”) hints at the slightly melancholic hazy funk music Uku was a master at creating. With each release whether on PPU, or on Uku’s own song share accounts, we’re chancing into new views from the unique talents of Marju and Uku who haven’t stopped creating music at a ridiculous clip (in spite of Uku’s recent battles with ALS).