Chicago Afrobeat Project invades Peach’s Grill
When most people hear the term “afro” attached to anything, visions of blaxploitation stereotypes immediately jump to mind. While it may be true that Afrobeat music came into existence during the late 1960s/early 1970s rebirth of African American culture, the style has morphed into a genre of its own. Modern day practitioners incorporate a wide array of styles to the base of Afro-Cuban rhythms that give the music its distinct flavor.
The Chicago Afrobeat Project takes the work of pioneers – such as the Nigerian master of the form Fela Kuti – and injects elements of the contemporary. Artists like Kuti developed music that still sounds modern, but he certainly owes a debt of gratitude to his peers of the day.
“It’s kind of like James Brown-meets-West-African-percussion,” said tenor saxophonist Angelo Garcia. “(Kuti) came to America and saw James Brown, Miles Davis, Coltrane and he brought back to Nigeria what he saw. That’s where Afrobeat kind of got going.”
The most striking aspect of the genre comes from the rhythm. Non-movement nearly becomes impossible for the listener and the form lends itself well to dancers. In fact, Chicago Afrobeat Project often employs dancers from the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago.
Chicago Afrobeat Project began jamming and forming its concept in 2002. Keyboardist Kevin Ford, guitarist David Glines and trombonist Mark Thompson started in earnest and slowly began adding pieces. The current touring group consists of eight regulars, but they swell to 13-16 members when performing in Chicago.
Whereas other styles of music may find it difficult to integrate artists in this way, Garcia said the core of the group is tight enough that when others come into the fold, they merely add to what’s going on, rather than cluttering it. However, taking a 16-member group on the road is not a feasible task with how much the band travels.
Touring represents the lifeblood of the group, with excursions to the West Coast, Colorado and the Midwest keeping them on the road almost as often as the band would like it to.
“It’s something we all look forward to,” Garcia said. “When tours end, we always wish we could just keep going and not go home.”
Their travels take them to a myriad of places to play for divergent audiences. Garcia said the infectious rhythms cause even the most unlikely of people to jump to the dance floor. They once played what he described as a “heavy metal biker bar,” but soon had the leather-clad hardcore on their feet and doing their best to keep up.
It’s not only the rhythm that breeds participation. The music depends on a technique known as call and response, where one singer or instrumentalist throws out a phrase and is answered back by other musicians or the crowd. It may be a lyric, it may be a musical line, but the effect seems to make the songs bounce even more.
“The call and response is very important,” Garcia said. “We all kind of naturally respond to that. It’s kind of a primitive thing.”
During our interview, one word came up time and time again – dance. Garcia comes from a jazz background, and while he loves how those audiences listen and watch so intensely, it doesn’t compare to seeing and feeling such a visceral response from an audience in motion.
He was initially not one to get up and shake it, but something about the music almost demands it.
“It’s a raw thing,” Garcia said. “When you hear the rhythm, it makes you just dance. You can’t really deny the feelings – just to kind of relax, let loose and move.”
The group recently finished up recording their fourth album Nyashup. It was a long process beginning in 2008, but much of that time and effort stemmed from the nature of the album’s concept. Conceived as a take on a covers album, there are mash-ups of Radiohead and Fela Kuti, a cover of the Talking Heads classic “Slippery People” and nods to bands like Fugazi, Led Zeppelin and Marvin Gaye.
The band members wrote their own parts for much of the record, but procuring the rights took some patience. Garcia said it was satisfying to hear back from these artists and know someone like David Byrne from the Talking Heads liked what they were doing.
The Miami Valley has been a particularly accepting area for the group. Their first show here was in January 2005 and the band was back in town that April. Peach’s Bar and Grill in Yellow Springs has pretty much been a semi-annual stop for the group ever since.
While Afrobeat fans will surely feel at home, Garcia said there’s something there for everyone – be it rock, jazz and even some bluesy passages. Still, the overarching glue holding everything together comes from the beats.
“I think the rhythm of it, when people hear it, they definitely connect with it,” Garcia said. “It just brings something out in you naturally. It’s an undeniable kind of rhythm. You can’t ignore it.”
Chicago Afrobeat Project will play at Peach’s Bar and Grill in Yellow Springs on Saturday, April 6. The show begins at 10 p.m. and is free to those 18 and over. For more information visit chichagoafrobeatproject.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@daytoncitypaper.com