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(independent release) As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/1/2008)
There are a lot of rock bands who, just for the fun of it, give themselves a name that is very much at odds with what the band is. A famous example was the 1980s group the Thompson Twins. There were three of them and they were, of course, unrelated. Or the Barenaked Ladies, consisting of fully-clothed gentlemen. But this week, we have a band whose name says exactly what they are and what they do. I don't know if that's refreshing candor, truth in advertising, or a lack of the facetiousness that seems necessary in the business, but you'll know exactly what they do and where they are from when you hear their name: The Chicago Afrobeat Project. They are actually from Chicago, and they play African-influenced music, believe it or not. And they do it very well and with a lot of spirit.
Their new self-released CD is called (A) Move to Silent Unrest. Of course, Afrobeat these days is a rather wide-ranging concept, with that continent full of diverse styles. The Chicago Afrobeat Project draws primarily on the style made famous by the late Nigerian superstar and activist Fela Kuti, who actually called his particular style "Afrobeat," though the term these days is quite wide-ranging. Fela Kuti, who came from a politically active family in Nigeria studied music in England and created a fusion of African rhythms with prominent jazzy horn sections, and often an undercurrent of American funk. Kuti's instantly recognizable music was a unique combination of high-energy performances that also had a trance-like quality from the constant, rippling rhythms that drove the music. While other artists and bands have drawn on Kuti's influence as well such as Antibalas out of New York, the Chicago Afrobeat Project is one of the best, and the most devoted to the sound.
Like Fela Kuti's groups, the Chicago Afrobeat Project is a large ensemble -- eleven members on the CD -- with four horns and lots of percussion. There are also a couple of guests who put in cameo appearances such as jazz guitar great Bobby Broom. Though CD booklet credits the whole band for the composing, keyboard man Kevin Ford plays a prominent role in the music and in the studio as producer. The whole CD has a sound reminiscent of the period Kuti's prominence, in the 1970s, with the recording done on analog tape and Ford's keyboards definitely being vintage units, like an old Wurlitzer electric piano and Hammond organ. And Like Kuti's music, the tracks on this CD are lengthy. One area where the CAbP and Fela Kuti's music diverge is in the prominence of instrumentals on the Chicago Afrobeat Project's recording. There's only one vocal track on this CD, and it's by a guest singer. Kuti's music featured a lot of vocals, and usually with a message.
The Chicago Afrobeat Project's music allows for instrumental solos, jazz style, but the overall groove is the focus. Like Kuti's music the CAbP's compositions are mostly in a minor key, and tempos are not as fast or the beats are strong as is common for other African. or for that matter, funk music, but the effect of the constant rhythmic groove is to make it irresistibly danceable.
The CD opens with a piece cryptically called bscg2, which sets up the rhythmic drive for the recording, and the prominent use of the horns, with the emphasis on lower pitched instruments like trombone and baritone sax. <<>>
Superstar Pt. 7 is also quite reminiscent of Kuti's style, with a more driving beat and again room for solos by the horn players. <<>>
For me, one of the most musically interesting pieces is Cloister, which features the guest appearance by jazz guitarist Bobby Broom. His solo is a definite highlight of the album, while the band provides the requisite rhythmic backing. <<>>
The one vocal track is called Media Man with a singer named Ugochi Nwaogwugwu, who brings a soul-styled approach to the words, which seem to be about the disapproval of corporate media types for cross-cultural music. <<>>
One of the best tracks for the horns to show off is Fix and Release, in which the rhythmic intensity is notched up some. Baritone saxophonist Garrick Smith puts in a great solo. <<>>
The band does expand their musical scope some on the track called Chupacabra which takes a definite turn toward Cuban salsa with the Latin percussion, mixed with the African textures. <<>>
Despite the very danceable rhythms, the tempos tend to be more gentle than one might expect. But the band does go out with a bang on the track called Carcass. It's as close as this album comes to being frenetic. <<>>
(A) Move to Silent Unrest, the new second CD by the nicely self-described Chicago Afrobeat Project is one of those great recording to put on, and lose yourself in the beat, without it becoming tedious. There is an unstoppable rhythmic drive to the music, but the beat is not often heavy. It shares that appealing quality of good African pop music that keeps the rhythms thoroughly danceable but also interesting and distinctly human. The large ensemble with the horns and the prominence of the keyboards show the strong influence of Fela Kuti's music on this band, which has been attracting a fair amount of attention at world music festivals.
Our grade for sound quality is about a B-plus. All the instruments are audible, but the recording lacks "sparkle" in the horns, and overall it has a rather flat two-dimensional quality, without much feeling of depth to the recording. The dynamic range, the difference between loud and soft passages, also comes up a bit short.
African-influenced music remains some of the most interesting and rhythmically appealing on the planet. The Chicago Afrobeat Project captures the essence of the style that the late Fela Kuti called "Afrobeat" and adds their own touch. It's great music for dancing, though if you listen in the car, you may have to be careful you don't miss your exit, it's so easy to get grooving on the beat.
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