This article originally appeared online at Audiversity.com on 10/8/07.
Which do you think is the harder path to take on your way to musical superstardom: diving into the oceanic genres such as pop or rock or rap and trying to distinguish yourself within seas of competitors and ambiguities or taking on a niche genre where there are not only a limited number of fans, but a singular name or personality who pretty much perfected the style at its creation? Well by just reading the name of the Chicago Afrobeat Project, there is no question to which road they decided to follow. And it’s a ballsy road at that; afrobeat is not only a niche genre that practically defines the term, a distinct style of music with clearly defined rules and structure, but is overshadowed by an epic, unmistakable personality, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Granted that over the forty years of the style’s existence, there have been a good number of quality imitators and descendents, it is and will always be completely and utterly impossible to out afrobeat the Nigerian superstar; his name is simply synonymous with it. The Chicago Afrobeat Project have quite the daunting task in front of them if they want to be recognized outside of just the typical confines of the niche genre, and with their sophomore outing, (A) Move to Silent Unrest, they are certainly making a case for attention.
As of late, and with the American indie scene in mind, two bands in particular immediately jump to mind having pieced together substantial careers thus far as purveyors and cultivators of the afrobeat genre: NYC’s Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra and Ann Arbor, MI’s NOMO. Their paths to success and their stylistic choices of bending the confines of the very specific elements of the genre show exactly how other aspiring bands with the same frame of mind should proceed. It is not just about aping the structure carved out by Kuti, his drummer Tony Allen and his large ensembles of talented musicians; one that Kuti evolved out of the drum heavy Yoruba music, the bright dance music of West Africa’s highlife, James Brown’s burgeoning funk and the instrumental virtuosity inspired by jazz music. Allen defined the grounding, repetitive polyrhythm that would get the crowd swaying, which Kuti then masterfully layered with triumphant horn arrangements, often improvised and lengthy solos on sax, keyboard or vibes, and vocal rants that were almost exclusively politically rebellious. It is about seeing the tools at hand and strategically manipulating them to both pay homage and evolve the sound in worthwhile new directions. Antibalas has achieved this separation by teaming with artists outside the genre and infusing their styles within the afrobeat context. For example they hooked up with producer John McEntire of Tortoise fame for 2007’s Security, whose background in post-rock and other experimental genres opened up the band to whole new worlds of recording techniques. And where Antibalas leans more towards the funk side of the genre’s spectrum, NOMO nods towards the jazz style as arranger Elliot Bergman and producer Warn Defever infuse elements of spiritual, soul and free-jazz for more of a freewheeling sound.
Listening to (A) Move to Silent Unrest, it is easy to hear how the Chicago Afrobeat Project have been paying attention to these evolutions and attempting to establish their own sound. I want to say that they appear to be balancing both of the stylistic developments purveyed by Antibalas and Nomo, but that sounds circular and would bring you right back to Kuti’s original afrobeat. But the fact of the matter is that they very much are as Silent Unrest encompasses more funk undertones and more jazzy soloing than their eponymous 2005 debut. Of their own idiosyncrasies, the band sounds as if they are also trying to incorporate more hometown traditions into their music. Where Kuti would pay homage to his native country of Africa and his hometown of Lagos by singing in Nigerian pidgin or the Yoruba language, CAbP subtly nods towards some of the Windy City’s most revered styles like free jazz, post-rock and even house (the rhythms are occasionally much more rigid than that of Tony Allen’s, harking back to the raw, all night dance grooves of early Chicago house). All three bands seem to also take interest in at least setting aside one track for explorations in the similar Afro-Cuban style of music.
The Chicago Afrobeat Project opt to open their disc in more of a mellow groove with “bscg2.” Matching a drum kit with Latin hand percussion and the unique water jug sound of the udu creates an almost deep-space funk vibe where eventually Angelo Garcia rips through a squawking tenor sax solo that pays great homage to Kuti. “Superstar pt. 7” heads in a different direction letting the bass and organ define the groove with a four-on-the-floor rhythm and lyrical horn arrangements. Again, the organ solo two-thirds of the way through is absolutely Kuti-inspired as it patiently builds up urgency until erupting in an inevitable display of unleashed energy.
In my opinion, the middle of the album sags a little though guest vocalist Ugochi Nwaogwugwu and soul-jazz guitarist Bobby Broom contribute heartily to “Media Man” and “Cloister” respectively. It picks back up for the final two tracks. “Chupacabra” not only builds off a melody that wouldn’t be uncomfortable in a Tortoise song, but pulls a great deal of influence from Havana with it’s hefty arrangement of timbales and congas rhythms. And finally, album closer “Carcass” infuses a squealing baritone sax solo with post-rock like production gimmicks; every few bars, the echoing instrumental resonance evaporates in a reverb like manner.
And just in case you didn’t quite get the fusion of the Nigerian and Chicagoan musical styles by just listening, the band superimposed a mural by the amazing illustrator and longtime Kuti associate Ghariokwu Lemi on a wall of the Greater Fulton Market here in Chicago. There are many different colliding cultures within the digital binary of this CD, but they groove along harmoniously trading ideas and inventing new unions in the process. (A) Move to Silent Unrest is everything you want an afrobeat album to be: energetic, colorful and resilient; but it also does a great job of not just settling with a paint-by-numbers approach. It is an exploration within the confines of a niche genre, paying its dues to the original innovators, then doing everything it can to not be completely pigeonholed. I think with this album, it may just be time to start grouping the Chicago Afrobeat Project with the other revered afrobeat evolutionists.