Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Asiko at Zebulon-February 2008

What do you think of when someone says the word Afrobeat? Do you think of energy? Dancing? Do you think of Africa, maybe Nigeria where Fela Anikulapo Kuti invented the genre? Or maybe you think of Brooklyn? Do you think of bands like Antibalas or Akoya that have contributed to the explosion of Afrobeat in the area?
Well, when someone says the word Afrobeat to me, I think of one place: Zebulon. I think of the cramped bar in Williamsburg, packed with all kinds of people dancing their asses off to the hard driving rhythms of Asiko, the band I saw shake Zebulon to its core with its deep grooves and intricate arrangements last Saturday night.
Asiko Afrobeat Ensemble is a New York based Afrobeat band formed in 2003 by Foly Kolade, the band's leader, vocalist and percussionist. Asiko has a very inventive sound. Some Afrobeat bands are unwilling to change the form or arrangement of their songs from traditional Afrobeat progressions. Asiko is the opposite: in the course of one song, they will shift from a straight-ahead Afrobeat sound to funk to dub back to Afrobeat. At one point they played an entire song that was straight highlife. Their whole repertoire had an edge of latin flavor supplied by the congas. Shades of jazz and rock were very audible as well.
Their instrumentation provided an avalanche of sounds and texture: two singers, two tenor saxophones, trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass, keyboard, drum set, congas, and a Yoruba talking drum (traditional Nigerian drum played with a stick held underneath the armpit to change the pitch). All their horn players were very tight especially the two tenor sax players. They had a controlled aggression to their sound that let them attack their solos with a lot of attitude while simultaneously maintaining a tight, smooth sound. The trumpet and trombone players killed their solos too.
Foly Kolade hails from Ogidi, Nigeria. He is of the same indigenous ethnic group as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Yoruba. Asiko is a Yoruba word for time, not so much time of day, but an appointed moment, connoting fate such as "Your time is now" or "The time has come." Kolade has trained and performed with Roy Ayers, Mariam Makeba, and George Benson throughout his career. Amayo, the lead singer of Antibalas, was in attendance Saturday night. He joined the ensemble for a song as a guest vocalist.
Amayo is no stranger to Zebulon much like any other Afrobeat fan or performer. His side band, Fu-Arkist-Ra performs there on a monthly basis. Several other local Afrobeat bands have cut their teeth on Zebulon's stage: Akoya, The Superpowers, Nomo, Zozo, Stuart Bogie's side project (the tenor player from Antibalas) Super Human Happiness, as well as the aforementioned Fu-Arkist-Ra to name a few. Other local world music stars have monthly residences at Zebulon such as Baye Kouyate and the Tougarakes not to mention the dub and jazz that frequents the venue as well.
Very few clubs in the city can compete with Zebulon's lineup of live music. They put on rockin' shows seven nights a week, never charging a cover. Their drink menu includes six dollar Sierra Nevadas and Brooklyn Lagers as well as seven dollar Hoegarten and Boddington's. A full bar of moderately priced cocktails are always available as well. You don't go to Zebulon for the drinks though; you go for the world class music, the electric atmosphere, and the diverse clientele. Where else can you go for a slammin' show any night of the week for free and moderately priced drinks? That's why Zebulon is in my top five favorite bars in Brooklyn.

Album Review: The Superpowers-Revival Time

The Superpowers' 2007 release Revival Time is a groovtasticly aggressive Afrobeat album that will leave you dancing from start to finish. Presented by the Boston Afrobeat Society, this nine-piece Afrobeat ensemble is a burgeoning group on the cusp of an even hotter Afrobeat scene. Their nine track release is a tightly arranged pulsing Afrobeat monster fit to be named "super."
The Superpowers are all graduates of New England Conservatory where they came together under the leadership of Adam Clark, the band's drummer and founder. They started playing Fela Kuti tunes and found the Afrobeat medium to be an amazing new medium through which to express themselves as jazz musicians.
While the Superpowers are definitely an Afrobeat band with an aggressive Afrobeat sound, they incorporate elements of several musical styles including jazz, funk, soul, reggae, and rock. Their horn section delivers lines one would expect to hear from Earth Wind and Fire or the JB's over pulsating Afrobeat grooves laid down by their proficient rhythm section. Their guitars and keyboards incorporate the perfect amount of distortion effects to add a psychedelic rock/dub feel.
What's really great about Revival Time is the range the album encompasses. There are slower smooth tracks like "Cosmic Spiral" and "Moonlit Heart" to chill you out, more upbeat lively tracks like "Abbey Rockers #1" and "Abami Eda" to make you dance, and more unconventional, unique sounding tracks like "Revival Time" to give you something you haven't heard before.
What's best about Revival Time is the extent to which it exposes and accentuates the influences and components that led Fela Anikulapo Kuti to create the genre, particularly the American elements of funk and jazz. The rhythm guitar lines are extremely funky as well as the horn lines, but at the same time, the keyboard and horn solos are extremely jazzy. A lot of Afrobeat bands will prioritize staying true to the Afrobeat tradition. The Superpowers aren't afraid to deviate from the accepted Afrobeat sound, and that allows them the freedom to develop a much more unique and interesting sound.
Half the Superpowers live in Boston and half live in Brooklyn, so they play a lot of shows in both cities. They tour most of the northeast hitting cities like Providence, RI, Burlington, VT, Northhampton, MA, and stops in between. Their sound is growing, and so is their fanbase as they are at the forefront of a booming Afrobeat scene. Bands like Antibalas and Akoya are spreading Fela's message, and The Superpowers can hang with any Afrobeat band on the scene. Their horns are tight, their rhythm section rocks, and their attitude and sensibility set them apart from the rest.

Antibalas-December 7, 2007

Antibalas, one of the latest Brooklyn grown bands to reach international fame, hit the BAM Opera House stage as the headliner of their Takeover all-night party the first Saturday night of November. There was a line out the door and around the corner down St. Felix St. to get into the multi-faceted all-night party. Five bands, four films, three djs, art video installations throughout the building, and berlesque in between musical acts on the main stage kept the party going into the early hours of the morning.
Antibalas has played all over the world, from Japan to Portugal making stops throughout Asia and Europe along the way. They've performed all over the city as well from Central Park Summer Stage to Rikers Island Prison Facility, but they are and have been a Brooklyn band from the start. Bringing their pulsing afro-beat grooves to the BAM center stage was a new honor all its own.
"That opera house bestows honor on whoever's fortunate enough to play there," said Stuart Bogie, the band's tenor saxophone player and influential band member since 2001. He's seen the band grow extensively both musically and in fame since their founding by Martin Perna in 1998. Many critics have dubbed them as the torch-bearers of afro-beat, the genre pioneered by Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his band Afrika 70, however, none of the band members see themselves as catering to that role
"A lot of the critics have said our music has become more and more our own and less and less imitations of Fela's music. Which I think is totally wrong. I don't think the opposite is true, but I think that's the most invented trash I've ever heard. Antibalas didn't understand Fela's music when they started. They loved it and were inspired by it, but they weren't equipped to imitate it. They didn't have the technique. We have that now to a much greater extent."
Antibalas has released four albums to date. Their latest, Security, came out earlier this year and received widespread critical acclaim. Security represents the progression of Antibalas' sound in different ways. When I spoke with Stuart Bogie, he elaborated further on Antibalas' progression, "We're better at breathing with in the afrobeat style. Technically the dynamic element has grown a lot in our music. The swell, the push, the subtle ways of playing the ostenatos and patterns, so that they still dance with each other. Afrika 70 was very adept in that way."
Like most members of Antibalas, Bogie takes part in a number of musical projects, some with other members of Antibalas. One such project is Sway Machinery, an amalgamation of middle-eastern and African sounds and influences, of which Antibalas trumpeter Jordan McLean is also a member. Bogie has collaborated with an extensive list of musicians including Celebration, TV on the Radio, Madeski, Martin and Wood, Burning Spear, Sinehead O'Conner, The Wu-Tang Clan, Rana, Dub is a Weapon, Congo Ashanti Roy, and Tony Allen just to name a few.
Antibalas is almost entirely composed of Brooklyn residents. Bogie lives in Williamsburg, Amayo, the lead singer/percussion player lives in Greenpoint, and Martin Perna, the baritone saxophone player and band's founder lives in Bushwick. Their keyboard player, Victor Axelrod, lives in Park Slope. Gracing the stage at BAM's opera house adds some hometown love to the extraordinary list of venues all over Europe and the United States including a castle in Portugal, manor houses along the French Riviera, Bonnarue, and the Filmore at Irving Plaza.
Antibalas shared the stage with Be Your Own Pet, The Exit, Heartless Bastards, and Dirty On Purpose. The ladies from Ubiquita NYC, DJ Reborn, DJ Moni, and DJ Selly, kicked out the jams for a rockin dance party in the upstairs ballroom accompanied by Vikter Duplaix. Films curated by the critically-acclaimed BAMcinématek were showing all night as well including a tongue-in-cheek Lindsay Lohan Mid-Career Retrospective and the violent, edgy cult favorite Pusher Trilogy by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn.
As always, Antibalas made sure to impart some inspirational anti-establishment words between songs. Jordan McLean implored the audience to stay in touch with the news as a new Attorney General is appointed. He also posed a question to the audience asking why it was so important for the United States to define its position on torture. Following in the tradition started by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Antibalas uses its music as a medium for anti-establishment protest.
Antibalas has enjoyed a steady rise in fame and critical acclaim since their formation in 1998. Almost ten years in, it will be interesting to see where the band goes from here. They've already traveled the world spreading and keeping alive the afrobeat tradition representing Brooklyn the whole way. It will be interesting to see if they can keep their momentum strong as they continue to evolve together and grow as musicians.

Fu-Arkist-Ra Returns to Zebulon-August 22, 2007

I thought I was ready. I thought I had prepared myself for what I was about to see last Saturday night at Zebulon when Fu-Arkist-Ra, an afrobeat-experimental-jazz band, shook the foundations of Zebulon to its core. I fully expected to see an amazing energy-packed show that would keep the crowd engaged and dancing the entire time. I expected the music to be unique and artistic. I thought I had an idea of what to expect, but I had no idea. I could have never expected or foreseen what took place that night.
I could have never expected to see a show that left the entire crowd dancing and singing for ten minutes after the band stopped playing. I had no idea the bar would be so packed, people were hanging from the ceilings, standing on chairs, and basically standing on the stage. I knew people would be dancing, but I did not expect people to not stop grooving and dancing to the music from the first note that was played until after the show was over. I knew I was going to see a great show, but I had no idea I would see the best live musical performance I have ever seen.
Fu-Arkist-Ra is a side project of Duke Amayo, the lead singer of Antibalas, a brooklyn-based afrobeat band whose fame is growing to international stature. He describes his music as "an explosive blend of African spiritual rhythms, traditional Chinese lion rhythms, highlife, funk, and jazz, infused with passionate activism." Amayo is originally from Lagos, Nigeria, the largest city in Africa, from which Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the creator of afrobeat and arguably the most famous African musician of the 20th century, also comes. He came to the United States at the age of sixteen looking for an athletic scholarship to an American University. He was successful in his pursuit when he was awarded a football scholarship to Howard University where he graduated with honors with a degree in Architecture and Commercial Arts.
Amayo is also a Sifu, or master of Kung-Fu, he brings a lot of the same approach from martial arts to his music. Anyone who has seen Amayo perform either with Antibalas or Fu-Arkist-Ra knows his energy and delivery style is unmatched in its aggressiveness and passion. I was curious where he gets his inspiration and passion from. He told me he uses the same methods of preparation for his kung-fu as he does his music, "the rituals I do before I go on stage are like martial arts for me. I do breathing exercises, push-ups, meditation."
The variation and spontaneity of his performances is also something that inspires him. He never seeks to play a song the same way twice, "It's like doing a martial arts form. There's a million different ways I can approach it. That's my approach to composition, that's the jazz element of it, that no two performances are the same. One song can become a million different songs."
The members of the band and instruments represented fluctuate from performance to performance, and one of the most dynamic aspects of the band is its instrumentation. Saturday night, the instruments employed were drums, bass, electric piano, saxophone, flute, cello, djembe and chakara or shaker. Not all of the musicians could fit on the stage, so the crowd-musician interaction was extreme.
The name "Fu-Arkist-Ra" is a highly symbolic philosophical name. It has a layered meaning: FU (foo). 1. Philosophically rooted in Kung Fu. 2 The art of excellence. 3. Building from within thyself. Arkist (ark ist).1. Musical bridge builders. 2. Spiritual connectivity to the temple of the mind. 3. A keeper of the Underground Spiritual Movement of Afrobeat. 4. An aspirant of the highest order of compositions. RA (ra) 1. [Egyptian] Sun God Ra. 2. [Yoruba] Derived from the word Irawo meaning: a star that appears when the RA (the sun) has set.
Fu-Arkist-Ra is coming back to Zebulon on the 31st of August. If you are a live music lover, afrobeat fan, jazz fan, or simply need something to do next friday night, do yourself a favor and check these guys out at Zebulon. They will rock you hard and long leaving you dancing long after the show is over. I guarantee it will be a concert you will not soon forget.

Antibalas Rocks Out at Governor's Island-August 8, 2007

Antibalas, a band out of Buchwick, Brooklyn, proved why they are one of the most up-and-coming acts on the planet last Saturday at Governor's Island when they played to a lively crowd of several hundred people under the sweltering sun. The band released their forth album, Security, earlier this year to rave reviews and set out on a nation-wide tour thereafter. As if that was not enough, they went to Europe and played in Amsterdam, London, and Paris to name a few.
Antibalas is a twelve piece Afrobeat band styled in the tradition of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Afrika 70. Fela is arguably the most legendary figure of African Music of the 20th century. He was a radical political icon in Lagos, Nigeria from the time he became famous in the 1970's until his death in 1997. His music was, and still is, immensely popular throughout West Africa and has become extremely popular throughout Europe and the United States. His music was so unique and original, he had to give it its own name, Afrobeat.
Much like Fela, Antibalas' music is known for its funky rhythmic backdrop facilitated by the guitars and bass, its hard driving horn lines played by the powerfully large horn section, its latin influenced percussions, and politically charged, anti-establishment message delivered through their song lyrics. The band members consist of Martin Perna–Baritone Saxophone and founder of the band, Amayo–Vocals, Congas, Victor Axelrod–Organ, Electric Pianos, Clavinet, Electric Celeste, Synthesizers, Eric Biondo–Trumpet, Stuart Bogie–Tenor Saxophone, Marcus Farrar–Shekere, Vocals, Marcos J. Garcia–Guitar, Vocals, Aaron Johnson–Trombone, Nick Movshon–Bass, Luke O'Malley–Guitar, Jordan McLean–Trumpet, Flugelhorn, and Chris Vatalaro–Drums.
Almost all of the band-members live in Brooklyn. Even Amayo, the band's lead singer, lives on Manhattan Ave. in Greenpoint although he is originally from Lagos, Nigeria. Amayo serves as the band's strongest link to Fela and his music. If the rest of the band members ever need any information about Fela they could not simply get from his music, they could ask Amayo as he grew up in the same neighborhood as Fela in Lagos and went to Fela's nightclub, The Shrine, on several occasions.
I had the privilege of sitting down with two of the band members for an interview before the show on Saturday, Martin Perna and Stuart Bogie. My first question was how their music has been received throughout their recent tours. Martin responded, "When we go to France and we do an interview, they bring a lot, like we dont have to explain anything. Here in the United States we have to explain our whole genre and our influences where it comes from, but if someone's playing hiphop or blues or rock, they just jump into it and ask. 10 years after we started playing this music, we just wonder when people are going to figure it out. Although on the other side of it, there is so much different music in the U.S."
I was curious as to who Martin and Stuart would call the band's biggest influences besides Fela. Stuart's response was not entirely surprising, "I think everybody likes different stuff in the group and it's real difficult to pinpoint any one thing. Our biggest influences are each other." I was also curious to see if they viewed themselves as the contemporary embassadors to Afrobeat, as many critics are giving them that label. Stuart responded, "Music's that's circulated all over the world, and re-issued, and inspires musicians all over the world doesn't need an ambassador. Fela made it, he called it Afrobeat." Martin also added, "I think maybe in a defacto way we have just because we have been playing the music for ten years, but it's nothing that we would ever request. It's something that someone else has to give you, and even then it's like a fruitcake or something. Like what do we do with this thing, nobody's going to eat it?"
Fela Kuti was not just a political figure through his music; he was an organizer, a national hero, and he actually ran for president at the height of his popularity under his own political party. I was curious if the band had any political aspirations of their own. "A lot of us are politically active outside the group in how we donate our money and projects we start," Stuart said. Martin added, "I'm doing that right now, I'm hoping to start the first bio-diesal factory in Brooklyn. We start construction in December, and we'll be in production by March. I used to teach at a high school in Williamsburg, and we did a lot of research on environmental racism and how there are higher incidences of asthma in the Greenpoint-Williamsburg area and a lot that has to do with truck traffic because a lot of trucks are burning diesel fuels. We just want to get other people involved because you can only do so much for the community."