Chicago Afrobeat Project continues in spirit of Fela Kuti

By benim
In Movie & Music
Oct 28th, 2010
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Chicago Afrobeat Project performs on Nov. 1 at the Urban Lounge.

Chicago Afrobeat Project’s performance at The Urban Lounge on Nov. 1 comes at a bright time for Afrobeat music in the United States.

The critically claimed Broadway musical “FELA!” (co-produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith) is in the midst of plans for a national tour, while impressive young bands such as Vampire Weekend and The Budos Band are spreading the joy of Afrobeat to the masses.

“I think it may be moving toward its peak,” said Kevin Ford, keyboardist, producer and founder of Chicago Afrobeat Project, which began in 2002.

“Afrobeat is getting more recognition,” agreed Angelo Garcia, tenor saxophone player of the ensemble. “It could be as popular as hip-hop.”

The proposition that Afrobeat — hard-driving African polyrhythms blended with Western concepts such as spiky guitar licks, muscular bass lines and jazz improvisation— could rival hip-hop for American prominence anytime soon is unlikely.

But there’s no mistaking that the danceable, energetic and combustible sound is ready to accept new converts in Utah.

The collective has toured the Beehive State before, but not since the group added its first permanent vocalist, Squair Blaq. Blaq joined the group about nine months ago, and is featured on Chicago Afrobeat Project’s upcoming album, “Nyash Up,” a collection of covers that further traces the connection between African and Western music.

Ford and Garcia said the addition of an emcee wasn’t necessarily a bow to become more commercial, but rather a way for the instrumental band to better inhabit the spirit of Fela Kuti. He’s the Nigerian singer and bandleader who pioneered Afrobeat in the 1970s before his death in 1997 at age 58.

“We’ve always wanted to do it,” said Davis of adding a singer on top of occasional chants that are part of the group’s sound. “We could never find the right person.”

“We’ve been selective,” Ford said. “We had a mish-mosh of auditions [over the years], and we hadn’t pursued it aggressively.”

But when group members approached Blaq and asked him to audition, they knew they had their musician.

“We had our identity, but we hadn’t had anyone to deliver it,” Ford said. “It was good to have someone who could connect.”

Besides having a frontman who could break down the wall of instrumental music, with Blaq the band was able to convey its political point of view. Kuti was known as a political maverick, and calls for change were just as important as percussion in his brand of Afrobeat.

The band’s liberal viewpoint had come across in songs such as “March of the Uninsured”( which proclaims a chant of “You can’t go to the doctor because you’re uninsured”), but with Blaq the band believes it’s continuing the mission of Kuti. “Our shows are better with [Blaq],” Ford said.

The elevated status of Kuti has shown up in Chicago, with the June 2009 opening of The Shrine, a nightclub in Chicago’s South Loop. The venue takes its name from the personal nightclub of Kuti, which was destroyed in raids from Nigerian soldiers in response to Kuti’s human-rights activism. “I’ve got this feeling that there will be an Afrobeat scene in Chicago,” Ford said.

A large, thriving Afrobeat scene in mostly white-bread Utah is unlikely, but Chicago Afrobeat Project hopes to ignite a desire for more multicultural music throughout its tour.

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