Too cool for school

Some guys are simply cool cats, and 76-year-old Detroiter Kasuku Mafia is one man who's brimming with throwback hipness.

"Gimme some skin!" he exclaims, extending a hand as he answers the door of his Success Academy of Fine Arts, on Ridgewood near Livernois and Grand River avenues on Detroit's west side. He's slim as a reed, with a beard of mini dreadlocks and a smile as warm, smooth and easygoing as his vibe.

The academy is Mafia's music school, where he teaches almost every instrument and musical style there is. Founded in 1965, it's located in the upper level of a house he's lived in since the '50s. The name reflects Mafia's relentlessly positive outlook. "Every day is beautiful," he often says. A sign on the front door reads, "Please leave all negative thoughts outside — you are now entering the Success Complex." His outgoing answering machine message begins "Hello, beautiful person!"

But he's not just a music teacher with old-style soul; he was once a musician with Motown Records, playing sax with the Funk Brothers on a number of hit songs and occasionally performing on stage alongside Detroit legends like Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder.

It's his sax growling on "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," and "Get Ready" by the Temptations, "Going to a Go-Go," by the Miracles and "Don't Mess with Bill" by the Marvelettes, as well as on a number of smaller label recordings. He's one of dozens of musicians who played roles in the Motown scene but who are now scattered across the city, living quietly in relative anonymity.

Mafia, born Norris Patterson in 1931 in Detroit, started playing music at 5 years old, got married at 17, had a daughter and became a mailman. After 12 years of marriage, his wife contracted an illness and died. He reacted by immersing himself in music, quitting his postal job and sending his daughter to live with his mother-in-law in Ohio. He never remarried.

He began working seven nights a week playing saxophone at the legendary 20 Grand Lounge on 14th Street at Warren, a hub of the Detroit soul music scene. "It was a beautiful place," he says. "They had all the Motown acts, all different acts in there. It was on that high of a level. I was in the house band."

Soon, Berry Gordy had him playing sax for his fast-growing Motown Records label, and 20 Grand owner Ed Wingate hired him for his Golden World Records. Between the two labels, and performances around town, music became his life.

"There was lots of work there at that time," Mafia says. "There had never been anything here like Motown, so I'm on the ground floor of this, working three days a week, and all the other people in town who were recording stuff were in here trying to get the Motown musicians, so that made my thing even better. Suddenly I'm working day and night, recording at various places and stuff."

By the early '70s, Gordy moved Motown to California. "Then it all of a sudden it kind of dried up here," he says. 'Some people were trying to create another Motown, they had experienced it and they saw it, and now that Motown left, they were trying to build off the scraps that Motown left them. But nobody's been able to pull it off yet. It was quite a thing that Berry did with that music."

Once Motown left, Mafia poured his energy into his Success Academy and played shows with various bands around town.

He adopted an African name, swore off drinking and became a vegetarian. He's never fully shaken the musician's lifestyle, however; even as a septuagenarian he's up every night until 2 a.m. and doesn't rise before 10 a.m.

Mafia calls himself "the greatest one-man band in the land." His shows are self-described "flowing extravaganzas" illustrating the evolution of music from the drums of Africa to such Western amalgamations as spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz and, finally, hip hop. He's dubbed himself "The Ninth Wonder of the World," playing and teaching stand-up bass, electric bass, guitar, sax, flute, harmonica, clarinet, piccolo, violin, cello and piano, even giving vocal lessons. Splitting his time between performances and teaching, Mafia currently gives lessons to a handful of students — and is willing to take on more.

Sharon Estes, whose 15-year-old daughter Candyce takes weekly piano lessons from Mafia, praises his gentle manner. "He's patient and he takes his time, and I notice, whenever she asks a question, he helps her understand what's going on so she can take that task on and know what to do with the notes." Her husband also learned guitar at the academy.

In his signature style, Mafia weaves advice into his sessions. "When the students come in and they sit here, they get what I have to offer," Mafia says. "They get the best. I talk to them about diet, how to take care of themselves, all of that."

He still has a fondness for the Motown music he helped create, which endures as a symbol of the city from which it emerged. "The music is very potent and powerful, man," he says. "It's good music. I can listen to it day in and day out and still I hear good music. The writers wrote good songs about love, about the weakness or the strength of a man, they covered everything. It was something else."

The Success Academy of Fine Arts is located at 5114 Ridgeway. For more information, call 313-934-5404.

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]
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