This article originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune.
The Chicago Afrobeat Project, which released its self-titled debut in late 2005, has constructed its lineup with the same measured pace it brings to its polyrhythmic tunes.
The group’s songs are musical snowballs, opening as minimalist skeletons–a buoyant bass line or a lone, repeated guitar chord–before picking up keyboards, horns and various percussive elements. Gathering momentum. the songs thunder to a hip-shaking climax.
The ballooning roster–local shows can feature as many as 14 band members–has grown in the same steady fashion since a handful of musicians first got together at a third-story loft on Lake Street in the fall of 2002. Guitarist David Glines suggests this was always the plan for the band; even its chosen name hints at a group that is constantly growing and evolving.
“We really wanted the freedom to bring in a lot of different people and attempt a lot of different styles of music,” says Glines. “I think we’re still growing, too. I’d like to add another guitarist at some point.”
Afrobeat, which was popularized by Nigerian-born Fela Anikulapo Kuti after originating in the African nation in the ’60s, is marked by its high-energy percussion, an improvised feel and penchant for blurring genre lines. Kuti, who died in 1997, set the template for the genre, fusing jazz, funk and traditional African music with highly-politicized lyrics.
The Chicago Afrobeat Project keeps its political musings to a minimum, Glines acknowledging that the group’s largely middle-class background doesn’t inspire the same revolutionary zeal as Kuti’s experiences growing up in the troubled African nation. Instead the band draws on its disparate musical influences, incorporating rock, house and hip-hop into extended jams that are intended to get the audience up and dancing.
“West Ganji” is typical of this approach, opening with Gline’s jangly guitar before hand-slapped percussion rolls in like the approaching footsteps of a carnival parade. The festive atmosphere is heightened by brassy horn blasts that evoke a strutting, “Shaft” cool. Over the course of 10-plus minutes the group plays with the song’s dynamics, heightening the level of tension until the listener is almost reverberating before the band pulls back for a breezy, Santana-esque guitar solo.
“[The songs] just build up and build up and build up until eventually something has to give,” says Glines. “If you’re in fifth gear the entire time you’ll wear the audience out. Those dynamics are key.”
Glines says the live interplay is the best part of being in the group. With up to 12 musicians playing off one another and two dancers flailing away, the Afrobeat Project’s concerts become almost visceral experiences. “It’s almost this idea of being entranced by the music,” says Glines. “Maybe it’s not a religious experience for us to play the music, but there’s a similar sense of soothing it can provide.”
“The Chicago Afrobeat Project is a solid name. You’re going to have to live up to it,” says Kennedy Octane, a Chicago deejay who spins afrobeat and has performed at various events with the band over the past four years. “I was impressed. They experiment with funk and rock, but that afrobeat texture is always there.”