Aug 17, 2009

Chicago Afrobeat Project - (A) Move To Silent Unrest

The Band

Afrobeat cannot stand still. As the genre’s tempting sounds continue a resurgence across the globe, Chicago Afrobeat Project (CAbP) remains true to its original vision of breathing the intensity of Chicago’s rich music scene into the infectious sounds of afrobeat. Rather than become caricatures of the genre, CAbP slips a reverent nod to the tradition while delivering an energized originality different from any other band on the afrobeat scene today. At each of its 100+ live performances a year, the group’s frenzied songs hit audiences with a big enough one-two punch to tirelessly knock them onto the dance floor time and time again.

Afrobeat’s range of influences — funk, rock, jazz, afro-cuban, high life and juju music – settle into a hypnotic, dance-compelling pulse at the core of CAbP. The group layers a fiery originality around this core through high-energy rock and experimental jazz. The trance-like grooves that hold the floor in the tradition are pushed to new borders in CAbP’s second and self-produced album, (A) Move to Silent Unrest. In it, the group keeps true to the mix of respect to the tradition and forward-thinking experimentation that shine through in their live performances.

The individual players, coming from diverse backgrounds, each hold their own as soloists that ultimately characterize the live shows. Melodic and hard-hitting horn lines create a lyrical flow to the music, delivered by a cutting, driven rhythm section dynamic. Complex call-and-response percussion songs are dispersed throughout the performances. At select shows, African dancers from Chicago’s Muntu Dance Theatre accompany the band. Added up, the music is packaged with original songwriting that explores the stylistic reaches of afrobeat and a few classic covers delivered true to form.

The group currently performs across the country from coast to coast with notable festival dates including Bele Chere Music Festvial (2005, 2006) Wakarusa Music Festival (2006), Chicago World Music Festival (2003, 2006), Vassar College Jazz Festival (2005, 2006), Summer Camp (2005, 2007), Chicago’s Summer Dance Series (2005, 2007), and High Sierra Music Festival (2007).

CAbP was nominated as Best African Artist in the Chicago Music Awards (CMA) in 2004 and 2005, and was nominated for the CMA’s “Award of Honor for Contribution to World Beat Music” in 2006. As a natural extension of the group’s ability to connect diverse musical styles through afrobeat, CAbP has featured many notable Chicago guest musicians such as Howard Levy of Bela Fleck fame, Fareed Haque of Garaj Mahal, seven-time Grammy-winner Paul Wertico, Bobby Broom, Jeff Parker of Tortoise, Kalyan Pathak, Diverse, Ugochi, Morikeba Kouyate and many other Chicago greats.



Which do you think is the harder path to take on your way to musical superstardom: diving into the oceanic genres such as pop or rock or rap and trying to distinguish yourself within seas of competitors and ambiguities or taking on a niche genre where there are not only a limited number of fans, but a singular name or personality who pretty much perfected the style at its creation? Well by just reading the name of the Chicago Afrobeat Project, there is no question to which road they decided to follow. And it’s a ballsy road at that; afrobeat is not only a niche genre that practically defines the term, a distinct style of music with clearly defined rules and structure, but is overshadowed by an epic, unmistakable personality, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Granted that over the forty years of the style’s existence, there have been a good number of quality imitators and descendents, it is and will always be completely and utterly impossible to out afrobeat the Nigerian superstar; his name is simply synonymous with it. The Chicago Afrobeat Project have quite the daunting task in front of them if they want to be recognized outside of just the typical confines of the niche genre, and with their sophomore outing, (A) Move to Silent Unrest, they are certainly making a case for attention.

As of late, and with the American indie scene in mind, two bands in particular immediately jump to mind having pieced together substantial careers thus far as purveyors and cultivators of the afrobeat genre: NYC’s Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra and Ann Arbor, MI’s NOMO. Their paths to success and their stylistic choices of bending the confines of the very specific elements of the genre show exactly how other aspiring bands with the same frame of mind should proceed. It is not just about aping the structure carved out by Kuti, his drummer Tony Allen and his large ensembles of talented musicians; one that Kuti evolved out of the drum heavy Yoruba music, the bright dance music of West Africa’s highlife, James Brown’s burgeoning funk and the instrumental virtuosity inspired by jazz music. Allen defined the grounding, repetitive polyrhythm that would get the crowd swaying, which Kuti then masterfully layered with triumphant horn arrangements, often improvised and lengthy solos on sax, keyboard or vibes, and vocal rants that were almost exclusively politically rebellious. It is about seeing the tools at hand and strategically manipulating them to both pay homage and evolve the sound in worthwhile new directions. Antibalas has achieved this separation by teaming with artists outside the genre and infusing their styles within the afrobeat context. For example they hooked up with producer John McEntire of Tortoise fame for 2007’s Security, whose background in post-rock and other experimental genres opened up the band to whole new worlds of recording techniques. And where Antibalas leans more towards the funk side of the genre’s spectrum, NOMO nods towards the jazz style as arranger Elliot Bergman and producer Warn Defever infuse elements of spiritual, soul and free-jazz for more of a freewheeling sound.

Listening to (A) Move to Silent Unrest, it is easy to hear how the Chicago Afrobeat Project have been paying attention to these evolutions and attempting to establish their own sound. I want to say that they appear to be balancing both of the stylistic developments purveyed by Antibalas and Nomo, but that sounds circular and would bring you right back to Kuti’s original afrobeat. But the fact of the matter is that they very much are as Silent Unrest encompasses more funk undertones and more jazzy soloing than their eponymous 2005 debut. Of their own idiosyncrasies, the band sounds as if they are also trying to incorporate more hometown traditions into their music. Where Kuti would pay homage to his native country of Africa and his hometown of Lagos by singing in Nigerian pidgin or the Yoruba language, CAbP subtly nods towards some of the Windy City’s most revered styles like free jazz, post-rock and even house (the rhythms are occasionally much more rigid than that of Tony Allen’s, harking back to the raw, all night dance grooves of early Chicago house). All three bands seem to also take interest in at least setting aside one track for explorations in the similar Afro-Cuban style of music.

The Chicago Afrobeat Project opt to open their disc in more of a mellow groove with “bscg2.” Matching a drum kit with Latin hand percussion and the unique water jug sound of the udu creates an almost deep-space funk vibe where eventually Angelo Garcia rips through a squawking tenor sax solo that pays great homage to Kuti. “Superstar pt. 7” heads in a different direction letting the bass and organ define the groove with a four-on-the-floor rhythm and lyrical horn arrangements. Again, the organ solo two-thirds of the way through is absolutely Kuti-inspired as it patiently builds up urgency until erupting in an inevitable display of unleashed energy.

In my opinion, the middle of the album sags a little though guest vocalist Ugochi Nwaogwugwu and soul-jazz guitarist Bobby Broom contribute heartily to “Media Man” and “Cloister” respectively. It picks back up for the final two tracks. “Chupacabra” not only builds off a melody that wouldn't be uncomfortable in a Tortoise song, but pulls a great deal of influence from Havana with it’s hefty arrangement of timbales and congas rhythms. And finally, album closer “Carcass” infuses a squealing baritone sax solo with post-rock like production gimmicks; every few bars, the echoing instrumental resonance evaporates in a reverb like manner.

And just in case you didn’t quite get the fusion of the Nigerian and Chicagoan musical styles by just listening, the band superimposed a mural by the amazing illustrator and longtime Kuti associate Ghariokwu Lemi on a wall of the Greater Fulton Market here in Chicago. There are many different colliding cultures within the digital binary of this CD, but they groove along harmoniously trading ideas and inventing new unions in the process. (A) Move to Silent Unrest is everything you want an afrobeat album to be: energetic, colorful and resilient; but it also does a great job of not just settling with a paint-by-numbers approach. It is an exploration within the confines of a niche genre, paying its dues to the original innovators, then doing everything it can to not be completely pigeonholed. I think with this album, it may just be time to start grouping the Chicago Afrobeat Project with the other revered afrobeat evolutionists.


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.

by George D. Graham



01. BSCG2
02. Superstar '06
03. Media Man
04. Cloister
05. Fixin' Release
06. Chupacabra
07. Carcass

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