The Chicago AfroBeat Project’s baritone sax man Garrick Smith is looking forward to coming back to the Utah Arts Festival with his band this weekend.
“Last time we were there, we had a blast,” said Smith, calling from his home base in Chicago. “It was a really good time with a fantastic crowd. They danced their butts off.”
But then, Smith enjoys playing art festivals, as much for the opportunity that they give him and his cohorts to soak in a little culture of their own, as well as the opportunity to play for an open-minded crowd.
“These things are not only good for the people who come to witness it, but we also get to see things we never see. Sometimes, on the road, you don’t necessarily see much outside of the van. It’s very nice to just spend a little time, take in a little culture, and take in some of the acts. Plus, you never know who you’ll run into at these things.”
One time, Smith remembers, they met a Latin band out of Columbia, Mo.
“And I hate to say this, but we were like, ‘Eh, they’ll be passable.’ But no — they were killer. They brought it for real! Those kinds of surprises are wonderful.”
The Chicago AfroBeat Project plays on Sunday, the final day of the festival.
Fela and company
The Chicago AfroBeat Project came to be about 10 years ago. At that time, AfroBeat, which is loosely defined as a combination of Yoruba music, jazz, highlife, call-and-response and chants, was not well-known in this country.
Nor was its founding father, Nigerian Fela Kuti, who coined the term after a tour in the United States in 1970.
“It really was a project, like the name said, at the beginning,” said Smith. “People were kind of coming in and out of the group, depending who was around. As we started to play and write some more tunes, the lineup kind of coalesced. We also have some outlying members, and some percussion players who we can add in. But then, that is the beauty of being in a music city like Chicago. You have multiple, quality players to choose from, capable of playing at the level we need them to — and often at short notice.”
Smith was turned on to Kuti and AfroBeat by the band’s trombonist, Mark Thompson.
“I wish I could say that I was listening to this before everyone, but I wasn’t,” said Smith. “I was listening to Brazilian stuff, and some reggae and ska, but I hadn’t really touched on the African diaspora. … I wasn’t hip to Fela yet. When Mark turned me onto him. I was amazed, and I could not believe I was not familiar with this stuff.”
Times have changed since. From a handful of American AfroBeat bands scattered across the country have arisen many, in most urban areas, said Smith. And in 2009, a Broadway musical called “Fela!” celebrating the musician’s life, was a roaring success.
“You know what I think is great about these days?” said Smith. “You can actually show people the YouTube videos instead of just going, ‘Dude, this is so awesome.’ No — now you can go, ‘Watch, and be amazed.’ ”
The band went in a bit different direction for its new album, “Nyash UP!,” which they will be bringing with them to Salt Lake City.
“What we have here is a bunch of songs of other genres done in the AfroBeat style,” said Smith. “And yes, some of them are actual mash-ups.”
For instance, the band musically joined Kuti’s “Just Like That” with Radiohead’s “I Might Be Wrong.”
“We also did ‘What’s Goin’ On,’ the Marvin Gaye song. We did a Talking Heads tune, and we got some free jazz on there.”
Smith said there have been some changes in the music since they were last in Salt Lake City.
“We’ve added a little bit of hip-hop. We’ve added an MC, Square Black, out in front, and there might be a little more indie rock mixed in there, too.
“AfroBeat, for us, is really more of a springboard. One in a while, we throw in a Fela cover, but more often than not, we are really trying to come up with something original with the style.”
WHO: Chicago AfroBeat Project
- WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Sunday, June 24
- WHERE: Utah Arts Festival, Amphitheater Stage, Library Square at 400 East and 400 South.
- TICKETS: Included with admission to the festival, which is $10, $5/weekday lunchtime admission, $5/seniors, free/age 12 and younger, $30/four-day pass