South Bend Tribune: “Chicago Afrobeat Project mashes up styles”

May 3, 2012

This article originally appeared in the South Bend Tribune.

The band’s name establishes that Chicago Afrobeat Project is from Chicago and that it plays afrobeat music. But, that’s only part of the story.

According to Chicago Afrobeat Project singer Antar Jackson — his stage name is Squairblaq — Chicago, as a musical influence, figures significantly in the framework of the group.

“Chicago is the birthplace of modern gospel music, the birthplace of house music,” Jackson says. “It is the childhood home of the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and soul. Actually, it is the birthplace of soul music, if you consider Sam Cooke the father, which we do. All of those influences have made their way into our music because it is what we love and what we grew up listening to.”

Chicago Afrobeat Project derives its distinctive sound by blending avant-garde jazz and rock elements with the signature style of afrobeat.

Afrobeat, which combines such recognized American music forms as rock, jazz and funk with the chanted vocals and complicated, interacting rhythms of traditional Yoruba music and such other African musical styles as highlife and juju, was created in the 1960s by Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Fela Kuti.

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Kuti not only revolutionized world music with afrobeat, but politically as well, because he used his lyrics as social criticism to effect social change in his native Nigeria.

This explains why the members of Chicago Afrobeat Project are so passionate about the music, and why Chicago is the perfect home for the band.
“This city really, really loves afrobeat music,” Jackson says. “The city has a great dance music culture and a great love for political message. That makes it a great place for the type of music that afrobeat is.”

The city of Chicago has shown its love for the group by bestowing the award for Best African Artist at the Chicago Music Awards for the last five years.

Chicago Afrobeat Project performed at the official after-party for the opening night of the Tony Award-winning musical “FELA!” which had an extended run at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago last month.

The group also opened for Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 last month at the House of Blues in Chicago. Seun is the youngest son of Fela and Egypt 80 was one of Fela’s former bands.

Chicago Afrobeat Project was formed in 2002 by guitarist Dave Glines and keyboardist Kevin Ford, gathering Chicago musicians of diverse backgrounds to form this music collective devoted to afrobeat.

“All of the guys just had a love for the music and a love for the culture,” Jackson says. “There was a great void in Chicago at that time for the people that love that music. It was just an organic thing.”

In the band’s nearly decade-long existence, it has earned the respect and admiration of many Chicago musicians, such as Howard Levy of Bela Fleck’s Flecktones, guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque, jazz drummer Paul Wertico and Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, who have performed live with Chicago Afrobeat Project.

The band has self-released three albums — a self-titled debut (2005), “(A) Move to Silent Unrest” (2007) and “Off the Grid” (2008) — and is preparing to drop its new studio album, “Nyash UP!” in the next couple of months.

“Nyash UP!” — nyash is slang for female buttocks — features Chicago Afrobeat Project’s reinterpretations, or mash-ups, of songs from such artists as Radiohead, Marvin Gaye, System of a Down, Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads and, of course, Fela Kuti.

“It is an album that takes a lot of original songs from different artists and mashes them together,” Jackson says. “For example, we have a tune called ‘I Might Be Wrong Just Like That,’ which combines the Radiohead tune ‘I Might Be Wrong’ with ‘Just Like That’ from Fela Kuti.”

Previous Chicago Afrobeat Project records were mainly instrumental, but with the addition of Jackson three years ago, “Nyash UP!” features vocals on nearly half of the album.

“This new album that is going to be coming out has more vocals than usual,” he says. “It is a really big shift for the band and a direction that we are really happy to be heading into.”

Along with the lyrics from the original versions covered, Jackson says he wrote the lyrics for the new album, and that like much of classic afrobeat, the songs are political in nature.

“The lyrics apply directly to a lot of the struggles that are happening today,” he says.

Chicago Afrobeat Project has anywhere from eight to 15 members, with the larger music collective playing exclusively in Chicago. Dancers from the Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago also will occasionally accompany the band at Chicago shows.

“It is something specifically that we do in Chicago, because it is hard to be sustainable economically when you travel with 15 people,” Jackson says. “We want to make sure that ticket prices are affordable for all of the people that want to come out and see us.”

With only the slimmed-down eight permanent members, Jackson promises that Friday night’s concert at the Golden Gnome will still be an unforgettable experience.

“At our concerts, you really have to come expecting energy,” he says. “There is so much energy from the first song to the last song. Rhythms that just don’t stop and a great human element that can’t be emulated through a DJ or a smaller band.”

In concert

Chicago Afrobeat Project performs with The B.E.A.T. and Infinite Buffalo at 9:30 p.m. Friday at The Golden Gnome, 1902 South Bend Ave., South Bend. Admission is $8. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Must be 21 or older. For more information, call 574-250-0454 or e-mail finncade@sbcglobal.net.

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