iTunes Review: “Chicago Afrobeat Project” (self-titled)

This review originally appeared on iTunes and

As a general rule, it’s always a good idea to avoid bands that include the word “Project” in their name. (That goes double if the other words in the name are “Alan Parsons.”) Calling your band a “project” implies a certain clinical bloodlessness, a form of studious inquiry that’s antithetical to good old-fashioned rocking. (Again, see also: Alan Parsons Project.) But the first rule of rule-making is that there are always exceptions, and the Chicago Afrobeat Project is one glorious exception. A multi-racial collective that expands and contracts between half a dozen members and three times that many, the Chicago Afrobeat Project takes the 1970’s sound of Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, and Thomas Mapfumo as their philosophical starting point. Rather than aiming for an academic re-creation of vintage Afrobeat (or worse, mainstream dance pop that’s “influenced” by Afrobeat), however, the group incorporates modern jazz, Tortoise-style post-rock, big band Latin funk, and other influences into the core Afrobeat style. As a famously polyglot style to begin with — Fela and King Sunny Ade themselves claimed influences ranging from James Brown to Hank Williams — Afrobeat can expand to hold all these and more, but the rippling highlife guitar and call-and-response vocals of a song like “Jekajo” remain incontrovertibly the real thing. These seven gloriously danceable tracks, powered by honking sax sections, funky electric piano solos, and hypnotic percussion grooves, may not be as swaggeringly powerful as Fela Kuti, as beneficient as King Sunny Ade, or as righteously defiant as Thomas Mapfumo at their respective peaks, but they’re highly recommended both for fans and newcomers to the style alike.

Chicago Tribune: “Chicago Afrobeat has jangly, jaunty groove”

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.”

Chicago Innerview Magazine: “Chicago Afrobeat Project”

This article originally appeared in Chicago Innerview Magazine.

Four years ago in a third-story loft on Lake Street in downtown Chicago, some musicians experimenting with afrobeat and Chicago’s own diverse music formed Chicago Afrobeat Project. The afrobeat genre, created by Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, lends very well to cross-genre experimentation as it mixes American funk and jazz with West African juju and highlife music. Ranging from 7 to 11 band members (and still possibly growing), CAbP is known for their long, jammy songs featuring solos from their horn section, keyboardist, percussionists, bassist, and guitarist. Maintaining an afrobeat vibe throughout, but drawing influence from many different types of music (including hip-hop, rock, and Chicago house), CAbP’s main intention is to make their listeners move. In concert, they are sometimes joined by African dancers from Chicago’s Muntu Dance Theatre. Although they are not as overtly political as Kuti was, they show their support for social action by donating a percentage of the sales of their new record (scheduled for release in 2007) to an organization that helps fight AIDS in Africa. (Appearing at Kinetic Playground on Jan. 6) –text: Ariel Sundel