Monday, July 28, 2008
Aaron Johnson is the musical director of Fela!, an off-broadway musical about the life and times of Fela Anikulapo Kuti directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones. You may know Aaron from Antibalas, the afrobeat band in which he plays trombone and conducts, but he has performed and/or recorded with Baaba Maal, TV on the Radio, Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Femi Kuti, The Budos Band, Chin Chin, Burning Spear, Dub Is A Weapon, Wu Tang Clan, and Taj Mahal to name a few. I asked him some questions in anticipation of the show set to premier August 5th.
The Afrobeat Blog: First of all, how did you come to the project?
Aaron Johnson: Rikki Stein, who was Fela's manager and currently manages Fela's estate suggested to the producers that they contact Antibalas. I met Rikki in London with Antibalas in early 2001, and usually see him whenever we pass through London. In summer 2006 myself, Gabe Roth and Victor Axelrod met with Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and the producers so they could ask us some questions about the music and whether or not we could or would be able to help them work on this idea they had. Later that year, Antibalas had a one day work session with Bill and others and I guess he saw the potential to make a show.
TAB: As the music director, does that mean you choose the music or just arrange it according to the script?
AJ: Both, when I was brought into the project, there was no script, it was an eight page treatment, and they had a few songs they were sure they wanted to use, but much of the material I suggested for musical or lyrical reasons, and the script has grown out of that process.
TAB: Who are the other musicians from the local Afrobeat scene playing in the show?
AJ: From Antibalas Jordan McLean, Stuart Bogie, Nick Movshon and Marcos Garcia, from Akoya, my old friend Yoshi Takemasa, who I have known longer than anyone else, since we played together in a band called Tadanoshin in 1997. Then some other great musicians who I have met over the last 10 years working in New York.
TAB: In the spirit of Fela, does the show advocate political action and resistance?
TAB: What are some of the other projects in which you play besides Antibalas?
AJ: I play with Ticklah, I was an original member of the Fu Arkistra and Dub is a Weapon,, sometimes I play with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, The Budos, The El Michels Affair, TV on the Radio, Bronx River Parkway, The Menahan Street Band, countless other bands sporadically around the city.
TAB: Who are some of your favorite afrobeat bands on the scene locally and all over the world?
AJ: Ah, hands down Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80, and if you want to call the Budos afrobeat, but beyond them and Akoya, I have not heard a lot of real afrobeat bands out there that have done anything for me.
TAB: Who are some of the artists you've enjoyed collaborating with the most in your career?
AJ: I love collaborating with my friends bands, TV on the Radio, Chin Chin, The Dap-Kings, The Budos, those are some of my favorite people and musicians.
TAB: In Antibalas, there are many different sensibilities and personalities that all effect the group's sound in different ways. If you look at people's side projects, you can see each sensibility on its own, such as Amayo with Fu-Arkistra, Victor with Ticklah, and Marcos with Chico Mann; how would you describe your sensibility and how it effects the group dynamic?
AJ: I don't know what my sensibility is, but I think after I started conducting Antibalas in 2001, the band evolved from a grooving but very sloppy and nonchalant group of musicians to a much tighter band. I think more than anything that has to do with me being able to feel the energy on stage and in the crowd and know where to direct the music, in terms of setlists, song arrangements, and also keep it really loose.
TAB: As an afrobeat musician, how challenging is it to make a living in such a big band, and how much is it a testiment to your passion for the music that you play the genre you do?
AJ: I am a musician, not an afrobeat musician, and I work in so many different genres, my passion is GOOD MUSIC, in my opinion of course. An "afrobeat musician" would not be able to do what we are doing with Fela's music in this new musical.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
(Photos by Abraham Amkpa)
Aphrodesia proved why they're the hottest Afrobeat band on the West Coast Wednesday night when they threw down at the Shrine in Harlem. The eleven-piece ensemble out of San Francisco brought their funky afro-grooves to the Shrine stage on the front end of a nation-wide tour, playing eighteen shows in sixteen cities.
Aphrodesia has a unique sound that is accentuated by female lead vocalists Lara Maykovich and Maya Dorn whose beautiful voices glide over a ferocious rhythm section and heavy horns. In a genre dominated by bombastic, male frontmen, Maykovich and Dorn send a female empowerment message that resonates with the entire band's anti-establishment message.
Sounds from all over the African continent as well as the diaspora are abundantly present in Aphrodesia's music which comes as no surprise as they toured across West Africa performing in Ghana, Togo, Benin, and with Femi Kuti at the Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria. They celebrate the heterogeneous nature of Afrobeat composition incorporating elements of highlife, dub, Zimbabwean trance, soukous, and jazz. One of the most prevalent themes of their music is a dirty southern blues funk vibe furnished by guitarists David Sartore and Mike Abraham.
Following in the tradition of Afrobeat creator Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Aphrodesia never hesitates to take a political stand. Many of their song lyrics have a strong anti-establishment message such as Bus Driver, a song that speaks out against America's foreign oil dependancy. They have also used their live shows as forums for political action and dialogue extensively including a nation-wide voter registration tour in 2004, multiple benefit concerts for causes such as AIDS Prevention, Tsunami Relief, and Anti-War demonstrations.
Aphrodesia has one of the most inventive, distinctly unique sounds of any Afrobeat band in the country. With a dangerously groovtastic rhythm section, a tight horn section, and beautiful female vocalists upon which to gaze, they've got the best stage presence of any band you'll ever see live. Their latest studio album, Lagos by Bus, came out in November of 2007 to widespread acclaim. Although they're based in San Francisco, they tour across the country regularly, so don't miss them next time they come to a city or town near you.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Baye Kouyate's performance at Joe's Pub Tuesday night was a celebration of West African music: musicians from several countries in West Africa, the United States and Europe put on a world-class show that got the entire crowd dancing by the night's end. Baye Kouyate is a talking-drum master from Mali. He descends from Griots, a family line of musicians, historians, and dispute mediators, and is one of the most up-and-coming African musicians on the NY scene.
Baye's Band, Les Tougarakes, is a collection of international all-star musicians with griot master Yacouba Sissoko of Mali on kora, German international recording artist Leni Stern on guitar, Senegalese master drummer Samba Guisse on djembe and sabar, Gbatokai Dakinah of Denmark on bass, griot balafon master Famoro Dioubate of Guinea, and Adam Clark, band leader of the Superpowers, an up-and-coming Afrobeat band out of Boston, on trap drums. Les Tougarakes represent both a wide range of musical styles within West Africa and the wide spread influence of West African music's diaspora.
Kouyate paid homage to the several-hundred year griot tradition from which he descends Tuesday night. Musical energy emanates from him with his beautiful smile, matching voice and talking drum which he makes sing. The virtuosic, rising and tumbling kora and balafon glided gracefully over the serene rhythms of the djembe, trap drums and bass. Leni Stern, who has collaborated with Salif Keita and Baaba Maal in addition to traveling extensively throughout Africa, added a special colorful touch to the ensemble, infusing a bluesy African jazz guitar feel.
Tuesday night was most definitely one to remember. Baye Kouyate is not only an amazing musician but an amazing person. Before the show was over, he paused to thank everyone who has ever helped him get to where he is today, especially the owners of Zebulon. It was in the Williamsburg venue that he made his first connections in the New York music scene and played his first shows.
Even though he descends from a long line of Malian griots, Baye does not see himself as simply an ambassador of African muisc, "I see myself not as a Malian Ambassador but as a Human Ambassador because my music is not just about Mali - it's about the world. My music is about the fusion of traditional and the modern, it's about love and peace in this world. It's about sharing life and no discrimination - it's about who we are as human beings, not just black and white, and together we all can save this world."
Baye Kouyate Myspace
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble brought their gargantuan afrobeat sound to Southpaw last Friday night and turned the packed house into a dancing frenzy. Featuring thirteen musicians from six different countries, Akoya is notorious for bringing insane amounts of energy to their live shows. Friday night, they lived up to their reputation.
Akoya has a diverse array of musical influences and voices that resonate in their live presentation. They accentuate the many different elements Fela incorporated into his original afrobeat sound: a tight, large horn section, beautiful female singers and dancers, multi-layered rhythm section, and a captivating front man singing call and response lyrics.
Lead singer Kaleta, who toured with Fela and Egypt 80, makes a very distinct imprint on the band. He made it into Egypt 80 he as a guitarist, but he's a percussionist and singer in Akoya. The biggest element he brings to the ensemble is his onstage energy. He's a master of engaging the crowd with call and response chants and his performance character. He performs the same role in another NY Afrobeat band, Zozo Afrobeat Ensemble.
Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble is one of the most underrated Afrobeat bands on the New York scene. With a monstrous horn section, tight percussions, and captivating vocalists, Akoya is a force to be reckoned with.
Monday, July 14, 2008
So many people came to Zebulon to see Nomo Saturday night, they literally had to turn people away. For those who managed to squeeze themselves into the cramped Williamsburg venue, they were not disappointed.
Nomo brought an uncontrollably infectious energy to the Zebulon stage, their favorite club in the city. Throughout their first set, the crowd seemed not to know what to make of them. People simply sat in awe trying to comprehend the complex sounds emanating from the seven-piece ensemble. That all changed during the second set when the crowd thinned out a bit, and the remaining concert-goers got up and danced like they knew they should.
Hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Nomo is a seven-piece band whose sound is too unique to put in a genre. They fuse dubbed out 80's hip-hop synths with Tony Allen afro-funk drums and hard bop jazz horn lines. Even their arrangement is unique featuring two drum sets, electric bass, guitar, tenor and baritone saxophones, two trumpets, congas, timbales, bells, mbira (Zimbabwean thumb piano), and a combination of electric distortion effects.
Ghost Rock, Nomo's third full-length album came out last month on Ubiquity Records, and they're touring across the country promoting it playing thirty-four shows in fifty-five days in thirty-two cities. They are without a doubt, one of the most inventive, talented bands I've ever had the privilege of seeing live. Their ingenuity of arrangement and wide span of influences put them in a class by themselves. After listening to their records for the first time in the last six months, I had extremely high expectations for their show Saturday night, and they totally blew them away.
Friday, July 11, 2008
(Photos by Abraham Amkpa)
Central Park Summer Stage took its Afrocentric programming credibility to a new level last Sunday when Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, and U-Roy with Love Trio put on an energy-packed show that kept the crowd dancing from start to finish. All three acts are icons of their respective genres, and all three lived up to their prestigious reputations.
U-Roy and Love Trio opened things up. U-Roy is a legend of Jamaican music and founder of the reggae sub-genre dub. In the early 60's he pioneered toasting, or rapping over popular songs in dancehalls to liven up the party. He used his same signature style on Sunday, acting as lead vocalist with Love Trio, bridging the generational gap between a founder of dub and those continuing the tradition.
Next on stage was Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, one of hip-hop's founding fathers. They kept the crowd jumping and gyrating while interjecting Afrocentric and political charged messages into their rhymes. Some were more overt than others; Afrika Bambaataa spoke only once at the end of the set, "Peace, Love and Unity, One Nation Under a Groove, and Fuck George Bush."
Closing out the show was Egypt 80 and Seun Anikulapo Kuti, son of Afrobeat pioneer and international protest figure Fela Kuti. Seun took the climbing energy from Afrika Bambaataa and U-Roy and vaulted it even higher. Egypt 80 took the stage first warming up the crowd and setting the Afrobeat groove. Seun made a dynamic entrance and automatically demanded the attention of the crowd. Everything from his appearance to his sound was highly reminiscent of Fela. His dance moves reminded me of his father the most, but when he introduced himself as "the best singer in the world," I knew the apple couldn't have fallen far from the tree.
Seun Kuti Myspace
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
My first question is as an African musician, do you find it difficult to reach a mainstream audience? Do you ever get frustrated by being categorized into an "exotic other" category such as "world music"?
I GUESS I HAVE BEEN PRETTY LUCKY BECAUSE THE KIND OF MUSIC I AM DOING SEEMS TO BE REACHING A PRETTY WIDE AUDIENCE – AT LEAST FROM WHAT I CAN SEE FROM THE STAGE ! LAST WEEKEND I PLAYED ON THE ROCK STAGE AT THE
Growing up and now, who are some of your greatest musical influences outside of
MY FAVORITE MUSICIAN GROWING UP WAS PHIL COLLINS. I ALSO REALLY LOVE
You've traveled all over the world playing music, how has what you've seen and experienced in your travels shaped and stretched your perspective on your music and life as a whole?
IT’S TOTALLY CHANGED ME. YOU CAN’T TRAVEL THE WORLD, SEE OTHER CULTURES. EAT OTHER FOODS, MEET OTHER PEOPLE ALL THE TIME AND NOT HAVE THAT AFFECT YOUR WAY OF SEEING THE WORLD, AND OF COURSE THAT FILTERS INTO THE MUSIC. BUT OF COURSE IT ALSO MAKES ME VALUE EVEN MORE MY HOME, MY COUNTRY . WHEN I GET BACK TO
Since your father was such a legendarily famous Malian musician, do you ever feel burdened by having to always be compared to him? Do you ever feel like people don't give you enough respect on your own merits as a musician because of your name?
IT’S A GOOD THING AND A HARD THING TO HAVE A FATHER LIKE ALI. HE’ S A LEGEND WORLDWIDE AND I CAN’T COMPETE WITH THAT...ALL I CAN DO IS MY BEST AND HOPE THAT PEOPLE WILL SOMEDAY RECOGNIZE MY TALENT AS SOMETHING ELSE, SOMETHING DIFFERENT. B-U-T I ALSO KNOW THAT A LOT OF PEOPLE LISTENED TO MY FIRST ALBUM, PAID ATTENTION TO IT BECAUSE I AM ALI’S SON AND THAT’S A GOOD THING. THERE ARE HUNDREDS, MAYBE EVEN 000’S OF TALENTED ARTISTS OUT THERE, MAYBE WHO HAVE MORE TALENT THAN ME. BUT I HAVE BEEN LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE A FAMOUS FATHER AND SO MY FIRST RECORD WAS OF INTEREST TO PEOPLE. NOW I HAVE THE CHALLENGE OF MAKING THE SECOND ONE EVEN BETTER !
You've released two albums with Modiba records so far, do you have plans to go back into the studio anytime in the near future to record a third?
YES, I HAVE BEEN RECORDING FOR THE PAST COUPLE OF MONTHS IN
Your second album was a collaboration with various dj's that fused your traditional African sound with a more modern electric sound, who are some musicians you're interested in collaborating with on future projects both from West Africa and the rest of the world?
OH WOW, THAT’S A HARD QUESTION. WE’VE BEEN TALKING WITH DIRTY PROJECTORS ABOUT DOING SOME SHOWS TOGETHER. I JUST DISCOVERED WILCO ON OUR
My last question, your record label, Modiba productions, has repeatedly in the past donated parts of its sales profits to different charitable causes in Africa such as the ASAP album and buying malaria nets. Do you feel that enough African musicians use their financial success to instigate positive change in their home countries?
I THNK THERE ARE LOTS OF GOOD THINGS BEING DONE BY MANY AFRICAN MUSICIANS BUT I ALSO BELIEVE WE CAN – AND SHOULD – ALWAYS DO MORE. WE ARE LUCKY – WE OFTEN HAVE INFLUENCE, AND WE CAN HELP DIRECTLY. I AM SENDING MOSQUITO NETS DIRECTLY TO MY VILLAGE – AS MY FATHER USED TO SAY, WHEN THE WIOND BLOWS EVERYONE GRABS HIS OWN HAT.SO WHATEVER I CAN DO TO HELP MY OWN VILLAGE, I MUST DO.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
After a violence-ridden, sham 'election' last Friday, Robert Mugabe has declared himself President of Zimbabwe. Ominous reports of a massive crackdown on all his opponents are circulating. The fate of the country now hangs on negotiations between Mugabe and the legitimate winner of the first round election -- Morgan Tsvangirai.
If governments around the world refuse to recognize Mugabe, and strongly push other governments to do the same, his position will be weakened, and he could be pressured into agreeing to a deal with Tsvangirai that reflects the will of the Zimbabwean people. There's still hope to save Zimbabwe, but every day of silence strengthens Mugabe's position.
So far only a few governments have refused to recognize Mugabe as President -- we urgently need to turn this trickle into a flood, this week. Click below to send a personalized message directly to your head of state or foreign minister, and forward this email to others who could help:
The people of Zimbabwe are desperate for change. The country has been decimated by Mugabe, with 80% unemployment, 160,000% inflation, and rampant fear -- over 30% of the population has fled the country.
The people of Zimbabwe clearly voted for Tsvangirai over Mugabe in the first round of the election, which was more free of violence. Then Mugabe's party waged a campaign of terror and intimidation and Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw after almost 100 of his party activists were murdered. The UN Secretary General and election observers from the African Union and Southern Africa Development Community have condemned the run off election as illegitimate, and the African Union has called for negotiations.
There is now only one path away from the violence -- a negotiated agreement. If leaders from Brazil to Botswana and Indonesia to India reject the regime, there is a chance of an agreement that reflects the will of the people. We have to act fast, it's now or never for Zimbabwe. Send your message now and spread the word:
Regional leaders criticizing Mugabe:
Tanzania's Kikwete - http://allafrica.com/stories
Rwanda's Kagame - http://allafrica.com/stories
Kenya's Odinga - http://allafrica.com/stories
Uganda's Museveni - http://allafrica.com/stories
Botswana's Merafhe - http://africa.reuters.com/wire
Zambia's Mwanawasa - http://news.xinhuanet.com
Impact of Zimbabwe crisis on the region: http://www.news24.com/News24
UN Secretary General critique of run off elections: http://afp.google.com/article
Election observers on the run off elections: http://allafrica.com/stories
AU summit resolution on Zimbabwe: http://allafrica.com/stories