|From Afrobeat to Brooklyn's Freaks
|how african grooves became our indie music
Mike Levine - November 11, 2012
It's a weird sort of anachronism, when something so distant fits right in... like it was there all along. I felt this way when I listened to Animal Collective for the first time. There was so much going on at once, but somehow it all came together. And I remember thinking: 'How is this working?' Listen to 'Brother Sport' or 'Lion in a Coma,' and you'll hear the Brian Wilson harmonies and dense synthesizers working together like they've always existed in the same universe - only it hadn't really been done like that before - interesting stuff. But for me, the real magic is what happens in the beat. Usually a dense polyrhythm with a steady pulse, it's what keeps the band's madness dance floor-ready. Animal Collective didn't invent the endless groove - they just helped give it a new home.
But before these beats found themselves accessories to beach bum harmonies and mini-Korg embellishments, the tribal, ritualistic sound had a long and messy history, stretching back to the Afrobeat music of 1970s Nigeria. Here it existed as a genre in relative isolation for the next twenty years. This piece picks up when it took its first flight over to America in the 1990s.
More than almost any other genre I can think of, nothing seems less likely than what happened to Afrobeat music when it finally made its way over to NYC. No matter what you say about Brooklyn, the town has an inexhaustible thirst for its end-less grooves, and the pioneers that had brought it over here have influenced countless groups being talked about today, from The Rainbow Children and Ms. Lady, to Nomo and The Rex Complex.
WHAT'S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Ironically, a lot of Afrobeat's sound was inspired by New York, even before it hit Africa. Political dissident Fela Kuti was looking for something like this when he came over to Harlem from Nigeria in the late 1960s to find out what James Brown was up to. Turned out, Fela was a big fan of funk music.
Fela Kuti was the outlaw of outlaws. Eventually setting up a musician's commune in Nigeria with his 26 wives and scores of musicians, his colorful lifestyle was responsible for inventing the hybrid of high life and funk grooves which he labeled 'Afrobeat.'
He built this sound as a monument to challenge political discourse in his home country. And from its start, it was never a sound to stand still. Fela and his group Africa '70 revolutionized ideas of musical structure at the same time it altered the politics of his native land Nigeria.
The music brought together an anti-imperial mesh of cultures that bound together the country's underclass as nothing before. In rejecting fascist government, the new sound grew to become the soundtrack of Africa. This was a big event ' even attracting Ginger Baker from Cream to record with legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, a man who practically invented the 'endless groove' drumming of the genre single-handedly. According to Fela, 'without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.'
From its nascent roots, Afrobeat held as its mission, the goal of building a sandbox where western funk, psychedelia and African high life grooves could play in together. A lofty goal, but that's how novel approaches to music get started. And while it's sacrilegious to talk about Afrobeat without giving due justice to Fela Kuti, it's near impossible to discuss how Brooklyn inherited all the action without paying ode to Antibalas, one of the first groups to pick this sound up from Nigeria and give it a home here in New York.
Antibalas basically picked up right where Fela left off. Vocalist Amayo grew up around the corner from the Shrine nightclub where Fela first curated his sound, and group founder Martin Perna directed the music for Fela, the Broadway musical tribute to the man. They've even played and recorded with Tony Allen. This is a group that takes their shit seriously. Says Perna: 'I wouldn't call it a mission, but playing the music correctly is something we take very, very seriously, and within the group we are our own biggest critics.'
Back in the '90s, and before Brooklyn became the center of everything, Antibalas held an exclusive mandate on this sound. For much of their audience, the band's heartfelt and dutiful obligation to preserving Fela's vision for New York was all most people thought of when they thought of Afrobeat.
And then Animal Collective moved to town...and the doors flew open.
BIG, WILD BANDS
In the early aughts, AnCo came around and brought their friends over to Brooklyn with them. These were freakier bands like Yeasayer, and groups from Wesleyan University that freaked out at Todd P's loft parties. It's hard to say why Afrobeat took off the way it did here. Maybe something in the water drugs? Only the bands know the story. I don't even think Animal Collective had any idea how much influence their insistence on tribal dance groove would be to the next generation of Brooklyn's tinkerers.
But today, Tanlines pick up right where 'Lion in a Coma' left off, synthesizing percussion with sequenced vocals and chopped up guitars ' creating a messy bunch of loops that work together in a sun-soaked haze of endless grooves. From their dense sound alone, you'd never know that there were only two people in this group. (No, they're not anti-social. Members Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm also head Restless People, a dance/pop quartet nodding vigorously toward West Africa.) But who knows? If Fela was given a Juno to mess around with, maybe he would have come up with something even dirtier to get down to.
If larger groups are more your thing, Rubblebucket feature at least eight members when they perform. Traditionalists who got freakish after they signed with James Murphy's DFA dance label, Rubblebucket are big fans of Antibalas themselves. Singer Kalmia Traver 'loves big, wild bands like Antibalas,' from an interview with Glide Magazine. But Rubblebucket have made Afrobeat their own by re-purposing the genre's exotic percussion with n'gonis and doumbeks and synthesizers like Junos and Minimoogs in songs like 'Came Out of a Lady' and my favorite, 'Silly Fathers.'
Many of the bands carrying Afrobeat's torch these days care less about preservation, and more about bringing the party. It's one thing to curate a sound, but quite another to integrate it with psychedelic music far removed from the Ivory Coast, and that's exactly what happened when the freaks started moving to Brooklyn in the early aughts ' giving rise to an unlikely merger between Afrobeat and freak folk that I've been known to carelessly shorthand as 'afrofreak.'
THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS A BAD DAY
Today, the sound is everywhere. And its spirit of funk fusion, freak posture, and endless groove indoctrinates a newer generation of bands as far-flung from the Chinatown hip-hop grooves in The Notorious MSG to the party down soul of Deathrow Tull and EMEFE. With Deathrow Tull, the politics live in the percussion. Tracks like 'Hella Keller' challenge the listener to close our eyes and find a different sense to make sense of our world.
Fave group Dinosaur Feathers strikes a great balance between high life roots and funk future, pressing West African polyrhythm right up against the boundaries of Brooklyn's beach music. For their track 'I Ni Sogoma,' they respect the song's African origins while making it their own. The title is taken from Dioula, a regional dialect spoken in the West African province of Côte d'Ivoire. 'I Ni Sogoma' means 'you and morning,' which is a way of greeting one's beloved. While things don't turn out well for the lover/protagonist in the song, the tone is surprisingly optimistic:
'...you're taking off And I had my say One thing I have learned There's no such thing as a bad day.' Are these bands this music's next generation? Are they removing Afrobeat ever further from its origins...or extending the genre's mandate by building a home large enough for all these sounds to live together? Martin Perna of Antibalas claims the interest that folks have in Afrobeat today stems from the lack of rhythmic diversity found in much of Western music:
'...the US is not a very rhythmically sophisticated country compared to Cuba, Brazil or other countries in the African diaspora.'
Harsh words, but he's probably right. There's a desire in a lot of these bands to catch up with a lot of what Africa has known about for years already. Whatever it becomes, Afrobeat is not going away anytime soon, and probably won't be used the same way next year as it's used today. Fela put it best: 'I did not want to waste my time splitting hairs over definitions. What I was trying to do was evolve a unique and authentic style.' So maybe doing things our own way is the best way to honor the tradition after all.