This article by Greg Kot originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
In some ways, the Chicago Afrobeat Project’s decade-plus career had been building to the moment in 2013 when band members found themselves in the same recording studio with one of their heroes, Tony Allen, the drummer on many of the greatest recordings by Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti in the 1970s.
Afrobeat, a rhythmically demanding, politically charged interpretation of American soul and R&B that Fela popularized in his native Nigeria and then took around the world, was defined in many ways by Allen’s drumming. Since establishing itself in West Side jam sessions, the Chicago Afrobeat Project has been using Fela’s innovations as a jumping-off point for its own multigenre compositions and dance concerts.
So when Allen, now a resident of Paris, visited the Midwest a few years ago for a workshop and concert, Chicago Afrobeat Project persuaded the legendary drummer to set aside some time to record two songs with the band at Fullerton Recording Studios in Logan Square, which is run by the band’s keyboardist Kevin Ford.
“We were a little nervous,” says guitarist and band co-founder David Glines. “Kevin and I had been writing songs for the past year and had a lot of ideas — two in particular we wanted to work with him on with the full band in place. Within a minute or two of playing on the first track, he forcibly places his sticks on the snare drum, shrugs his shoulders back and says, ‘We’re not going to track two songs …’ Then there’s a pause, and there’s all this drama in the room because no one knows what he’s going to say. ‘… We’re not going to track two songs, we’re going to record 10.’ We were ecstatic.”
That Allen heard the band as a kindred spirit influenced the way Glines and his bandmates approached the sessions. “He can read the room, the dynamics, and accentuate people’s parts so intuitively,” the guitarist says. “He was just a great presence. He dragged everyone’s performance game up in our band. After one day, it felt a lot more like a collaborative effort rather than just a drummer-for-hire kind of thing.”
Allen returned to America the next year to finish up work on the album, and play more live dates with the band. The recently released album, “What Goes Up” (Chicago Afrobeat Project), is the octet’s most accomplished and diverse yet, with a variety of guest vocalists complementing songs that draw on hip-hop, blues, soul and funk for inspiration over Allen’s agile Afrobeat foundation. The guests include a Nigerian-Canadian singer, Oranmiyan, brought in by Allen, as well as Chicago indie-soul vocalist JC Brooks, Akenya (a collaborator with Noname and Chance the Rapper), and Rico Sisney and Maggie Vagle of Sidewalk Chalk, among others.
“We made a decision three, four years ago that we wouldn’t be an instrumental band anymore and have vocals on all our songs,” Glines says. “Someone from outside looking in may say we’re a killer backing band for all these vocalists. But Kevin is the producer, we write the songs and we like this collaborative thing with the vocalists. There is a continuity with the band across all these songs, but we wanted this energy, this creativity that can happen in spontaneous settings with the vocalists.”
Glines became enamored with Fela’s music while attending Northwestern University in the late ’90s. “The music grabbed me, but also the message, the political message,” he says. “I’m 22, 23, starry-eyed and wanting to change the world, and that message (in Fela’s songs) sat well with me. The fact that Fela was willing to take a stand on these issues was an attractive story to anyone who wants to play music but also have an impact on the world.”
The band’s communal, open-ended spirit was in place from the start, with a continually changing lineup and the infusion of new blood and fresh ideas across four studio recordings spanning 15 years. The ensemble’s sound evolved at clubs such as the HotHouse in the South Loop and the Note in Wicker Park, which helped bring together an audience attuned to both world music and late-night club music.
“We never approached this band as playing straight Afrobeat or re-creating everything Fela has done,” Glines says. “There was always an experimental nature to this band, rooted in Afrobeat, but with the idea that we would take it in our own directions. We’ve never been purists.”
That sense of adventure likely appealed to Allen, who has been one of the world’s most in-demand drummers for decades, working with everyone from Damon Albarn and Flea to Charlotte Gainsbourg and Zap Mama. “We all absorbed the way he approached his instrument, the control he brought to his playing,” Glines says. “But he also gave us a lot of confidence in what we’re doing. To hear genuinely warm compliments about our playing from someone who has played with everyone — what more validation can you ask for?”
Greg Kot co-hosts “Sound Opinions” at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 11 p.m. Saturday on WBEZ-FM 91.5.
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.
Chicago Afrobeat Project album release
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 16
Where: Reggies, 2015 S. State St.
Tickets: $13-$15; www.reggieslive.com