Daily Illini: “Interview with Chicago Afrobeat Project”

May 24, 2008

This article originally appeared on the DailyIllini.com.

After their stellar Friday performance, I was able to talk to a few members of the Chicago Afrobeat Project, and find out a little more about how the band came about. I spoke with guitarist David Glines, keyboardist Kevin Ford and baritone saxophone player Garrick Smith.

Eric: How did the band arrive at an Afrobeat sound coming from Chicago?

David: I would say we all came to Chicago first, and everybody in the band fell in love with Afrobeat independently. The first time I heard Fela (Kuti) changed my whole perception of music, and I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to play. I had come from a rock background, and for me it was a lot of the elements of rock and funk and jazz all mixed together. The drummer and I had played in a group together prior to this one, and when that group ended, we said we would do our own version of Afrobeat, which is why we have “project” in it, to show it’s not just straight Afrobeat. We do have our own twist in the music.

When we did that, we found Kevin, the keyboard player, and the original bass player at the time was one of Fela’s old bass players. We had the four of us and then we brought in a horn player and that guy brought in a couple people. The next thing you know, we had 7 solid members and we have had a lot of people coming in and out. I think some of the players in the band were turned on to Afrobeat as a result of this band, so they heard us and joined the band and listened to all of Fela records and the late 60s/early 70’s Nigerian Lagos scene.

Garrick: Chicago’s got a diverse amount of people. If you get up north, there is a very big African community; there are a lot of Ethiopians, a lot of diversity there that you may not realize. It’s an amalgamation of a bunch of the stuff there, the stuff we were starting to check out. I was into a lot of Brazilian stuff, and a couple friends of mine turned me on to African music, and Afrobeat was the natural thing, so we started mixing it with Chicago house music and stuff like that. There’s a lot going down there, but it’s a good city, with a lot of people to play for and a large amount of African people there.

I had been into more Brazilian and salsa and Latino stuff, and a cat was telling me to check this stuff out, and I listened to Fela. I wish I could say I have been into it since I was a kid, but I got into it a little bit before I joined the band.

Eric: How hard is it to go from Latin or salsa to Afrobeat?

Garrick: There’s a lot of stuff that goes between them. A lot of those rhythms made around, but they changed slightly. So it’s different, but African music that has a swing but not the way we think jazz has it. It reverses it a bit, and takes a little while to wrap around it, because it’s not your native music, so to speak. It’s all about feel.

Eric: How hard is it to get noticed in Chicago with your style?

David: I would say that not being known for Afrobeat in Chicago has given us a greater chance of getting known. People would see the name and want to check out the group. Even though there’s not a big Afrobeat scene in Chicago to begin, we’re kind of hoping we started something and bring attention to the genre.

Garrick: It’s kind of here or there. If you can make people dance in Chicago, you’re all good. That’s the big thing, people like to dance in Chicago, it was the birthplace of house music, and people like to get out and make it happen. The most skepticism we have gotten is admittedly white journalists that get on our case about playing African music. They ask why we are doing it. We’ve had people insinuate that we are not allowed to. We have a pretty big African fan base in Chicago and as we travel we meet other Africans that dig what the band does. If somebody that came from there digs what we do, that’s more important than if five hipsters dig it or not.

Eric: Do you guys enjoy playing festivals?

Kevin: People tend to be fully submerged in the music scene when they are at a festival. They’re not just out at a bar, or working the next day. It’s a little more intense than your typical shows

Mike: Playing outside is a blast anywhere, and with the fact that everyone is here to see music and hang out is nice. You’re not competing with the TVs in the bar. It’s also a great chance to see other bands we hear about. We can talk to people, and see friends of ours we don’t normally see because we are on the road.

Garrick: Hanging with all the different musicians, and getting to talk with everybody. We’re all on the road, so we like these things where we get to relax and hang for a couple days.

Eric: Do you guys play with loose song structures or very orchestrated?

David: It’s orchestrated. The room for improvisation is in the soloists, and the energy of one song from night to night can have different energy to it, and based upon tempo, but the arrangements are not something we stray from.

Garrick: It’s oddly enough a bit of both. Because the group is so big, there has to be some moments where it’s very set. Then there are other times where we leave it very open-ended and loose. We try to add new tunes and change our set up to keep it interesting. With a big group it has to be slightly orchestrated, but we know each other well enough that onstage there is a level of openness.

Eric: What have you been listening to lately?

David: Vieux Farka Toure is my favorite African artist right now. He’s from Mali and the son of Ali Farka Toure.

Kevin: There are bands that have an Afrobeat influence to them like Budos Band, who we played a show with in New York not too long ago. There’s a band called Poets of Rhythm out of Germany that kind of has an Afrobeat influence to them. Some of the other soul-jazz stuff like Sugarman 3 too. Others like that too, stuff that runs the gamut. A lot of it has that 70’s vibe to it.

Mike: I think all of us like that vibe, with the late 60’s/early 70’s music. That’s my favorite Fela period, that and his really late stuff.

Garrick: I still get into a lot of Brazilian stuff. Seyu, Suba, Zuko 103. Also, anything by Fela. I’ve been listening to a lot of 80’s Fela. He had a bigger band and more money at that point, but well after Tony Allen had left the band. Budos Band out of Brooklyn, they are one of my favorite groups right now. Also, anything on that Daptones label. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Sugarman 3, all that kind of stuff.

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