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By Kevin Wierzbicki

Afrobeat music, a genre with its roots in Nigeria that was virtually invented by the late great Fela Kuti, is known primarily for two things: It is constructed of stretched-out grooves that put listeners in a mood to dance all night, and, because of Fela’s outspoken nature and his constant battles with authority, Afrobeat songs are also known for their no-holds-barred lyrical take on societal ills. Both of those qualities sizzle like the hot West African sun on What Goes Up, the upcoming release from the Chicago Afrobeat Project (CAbP).

In advance of the Sept. 15 release date of What Goes Up we interviewed band keyboards player Kevin Ford by email, and he told us about the making of the album, including working with drummer extraordinaire Tony Allen, who was a longtime member of Fela Kuti’s band. Ford’s insights below are given exclusively to

AXS: What Goes Up features numerous guest vocalists, a new approach for CAbP. What was your process like to arrive at finished songs?

Kevin Ford: Most of the songs on What Goes Up started as instrumental demos of new material that Dave (Glines, guitar) and I hashed out in-studio and sent to Tony prior to his first tour with us. When we had our first studio collaboration with Tony and the rest of the band we rounded out a few edges instrumentally and other members of the group like Garrick (Smith, baritone sax), Angelo (Garcia, tenor sax), Xavier (Galdon, trombone) and Danjuma (Gaskin, percussion) added some ideas and parts. For a few recording days we had (guest vocalists) Ugochi and Oranmiyan with us tracking with Tony and the band. With the other vocalists we sent them rough instrumentals from the studio sessions and they singled out the tracks they wanted to work with. Then we had a series of recording days with the guest artists over the course of 18 months or so. We gave a fair share of direction to the vocalists when we were working with them but most of the lyric and vocal ideas were theirs.

AXS: With all the vocals on What Goes Up the songs are able to bring myriad social ills and injustices to the presentation. Which of the album’s songs are you most proud of in that respect?

KF: We talked several times when we were producing the album about getting a good balance of the social activism and the dance-play-party aspect of the music. At times they overlap for sure. I would say the most compelling “social responsibility” themes on the album came from thoughts about top-down economic injustice, or the 1% idea, and also the recent spate of police/black citizen clashes and killings that have come to light. I think “Race Hustle” is the most edgy, no BS song on What Goes Up that calls out the cops vs citizens problem, and I like it for that reason. I’m proud that I’m involved in a band that’s coming out with songs that confront this problem unrestrained. Hip hop artists have been doing it forever but it still feels good.

AXS: What was it like to create What Goes Up with Tony Allen? Is he much of a storyteller? Did he regale you with tales from his days with Fela Kuti?

KF: Tony had a lot of stories when we hung out and toured with him. Some of them from the Fela days, but a lot of what he/we talked about had to do with the creative process, the attitude, and the spirit of Afrobeat music. Tony has made it his life’s mission to teach and spread these ideas to future generations of players. We did a series of workshops with him when we were touring. It was interesting to hear stories about the Fela days and their relationship, etc., but the biggest take away for me was that they were basically best friends playing music together. And that the musical experience was at the center of what they were doing beyond the fame, wild parties, and so on.

AXS: Fela has been a primary influence on CAbP. Has CAbP ever journeyed to Lagos for a performance or to soak in the ambiance of the home of Afrobeat?

KF: We were invited to Lagos to play a series of shows at the Shrine for a Fela birthday commemoration last year but didn’t have enough time to put it together. We’re hoping to pull this off in 2018 though.

AXS: It looks like the band doesn’t have a show planned on Sept. 15, the day What Goes Up drops. Does CAbP have any kind of release day tradition, or do you have any special plans that day?

KF: We may all Skype and do shots together. I actually just thought of that! Or we might get together somewhere and host a CD listening party at either a club or someone’s house.

Follow the Chicago Afrobeat Project here.