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“Chicago Afrobeat brings Fela Kuti’s word to the people”
By Ytasha L. Womack
Special to the Tribune
Published February 6, 2004
Afrobeat, Nigeria’s electrifying contribution to world music, is thriving in the Chicago Afrobeat Project.
Viewing themselves as musical ambassadors for an art form few Americans are familiar with, the group hopes to enlighten as well as entertain. “We feel like we’re taking the torch and getting [the music] out to people,” says David Glines, the band’s guitar player.
Afrobeat, a hybrid of funk, jazz and traditional African percussion, could easily be pegged as Afro-jazz. The genre was the brainchild of Nigerian political activist and musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Kuti’s bands were huge, colorful armies of dancers, percussionists, saxophonists, trumpeters and guitarists, with most of his songs criticizing government regimes. He recorded 77 albums before his death in 1997.
“We all love James Brown,” says Gendelman, “and musically, afrobeat is an extension of that.”
The Chicago Afrobeat Project was sparked by a group of college buddies including Glines, and manager/percussionist Scott Gendelman, who played in a local rock band together. They stumbled across some afrobeat recordings shortly after Kuti’s death in 1999 and instantly “fell in love with it.” “We listened to one Fela song and it changed our whole direction,” says Glines, who adds that the improvisation and movement in afrobeat is a natural extension of their rock and jazz backgrounds.
The friends listened to countless afrobeat classics for over a year before they felt comfortable enough to try playing the music. But it was witnessing a 2001 performance by Femi Kuti, Fela’s son and award-winning bandleader, that solidified Glines’ decision to form the project with percussionist Marshall Greenhouse in 2002. “[Kuti's] band was incredibly hot,” says Gendelman. “It was an amazing experience.”
It took some six months of auditioning musicians from across the world before the Chicago Afrobeat Project was complete. A rotating crew of nine dynamic musicians, the project includes Kevin Ford, Angelo “Turbo” Garcia, Sly Obama, T.J. Okunola, Garrick Smith, Mark Thompson, Marshall, Glines and Gendelman. Obama, who plays bass, worked with the elder Kuti in his later years and Okunola, a master of the talking drum, played with Nigerian juju musician King Sunny Ade. They hope to release a CD within the next year.
“They’re up and coming,” says David Danku, owner of the African Hedonist Music Store. “They may be one of the only exponents of afrobeat in the Midwest.” With other afrobeat groups including New York City’s Antibalas and Kuti’s son rising to prominence in world music circles, Danku claims that the interest in the art form is growing. “I’ve sold a lot of afrobeat in the past few years,” says Danku. “It’s very infectious.”
The group plays mostly original music, including crowd favorites “Tibet on It” and “BMW,” describing its work as an “experiment” in which Afrobeat is often used as a springboard to play funk and jazz. They are also apolitical, but “every afrobeat group isn’t political,” adds Glines. However, they do include standards and obscure afrobeat recordings, including Fela Kuti covers and “Precious Mother” by Bukky Leo.
The band also hosts “First Beat,” a monthly set each first Saturday at the Note, from 2-5 a.m.
At the very least, the Chicago Afrobeat Project hopes to introduce the music to new audiences.
“It’s a blip on the radar and hopefully we can help it to get bigger,” says Glines.
For more information view their website www.chicagoafrobeatproject.com.
Chicago Afrobeat Project
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Where: HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo Drive
Price: $10; 312-362-9707