Jul 20, 2010
Chopteeth - Interview from 2007
hopteeth is a two-year old, 14 piece Afrofunk"spectacle" big band with expansive sound, featuring five horns and powerful vocals. Chopteeth aims to recapture the sound of the 1970s Afrobeat dance bands but add more variety. Recently nominated for a Washington Area Music Association WAMMIE award in the Best World Music group category, Chopteeth also played for a crowd of 15,000 at the January 2007 inauguration of Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.
How did Chopteeth get started?
It was Robert [Fox]'s vision. He told me on a camping trip that he was switching from guitar to bass to do Afrobeat. I agreed it was a good idea, thinking, "Right. No way." And Robert's Robert, so it happened. He's become accomplished on bass.
At first we didn't know whether we were just hanging around and playing or going out to get gigs. The band's growth was an organic process. Chopteeth grew fast. It's been a joy and a surprise.
Where did the name Chopteeth come from?
The name Chopteeth comes from a song by Fela [Kuti]. It refers to someone who eats his own teeth, a crazy person. Mark Corrales came up with that name for the band because he said we're insane to think we can do this.
Who is Chopteeth's primary audience?
I wouldn't say we had a primary audience; I'd call it a niche. We appeal to an older crowd. We play stuff people can remember, music Africans danced to back in the 70s. We played at the 9:30 Club, opening up for Jam Boys. We played for the Nigerian Youth Festival. Africans who come to hear us enjoy seeing Chopteeth perform African songs well. I love to see the grandparents dancing with their grandkids.
I guess you'd say our audience is world music fans. [Our music] is about getting people to move. We're a big spectacle with lots of horns.
What distinguishes Chopteeth from other bands playing West African music?
We're different from the Afrobeat bands because we play Afrobeat but we don't focus on it. And most white groups doing Afrobeat don't sing much. Singing Fela is like touching fire in Nigeria. It's pretty bold. With the happy guitar dance styles like sukous... no one else has a fourteen piece band that lays it down like that. Our enormity is what sets us apart.
What is the most rewarding part for the musicians about playing the music Chopteeth plays?
For me, when we're playing and rockin' it, it sounds good, there's a good crowd, everybody's dancing, nothing else matters. We're creating a party.
How important is dance to the music Chopteeth plays?
We have played shows where room is tight. That's no good. There's gotta be a dance floor.
What has been the most challenging aspect of building this band?
A lot of the band members are in other bands. They have families. It's difficult to get everybody together and get tight. The sheer number makes it harder than with four to five piece bands. Once we get there, it's righteous.
Has Chopteeth produced any CDs?
Not yet. We will definitely have a CD by mid to late summer.
How is the recording process going?
The biggest challenges to recording a CD are money and scheduling. If you record at a studio, like we started to do, you get one shot and if you want to redo a solo, you have to pay to go in and do it again. The scheduling to get all fourteen band members and the studio people there at once is a nightmare.
I have my own studio being built in my house and we're going to finish the recording there. This music needs to be done in a guerrilla style, with the right atmosphere. It should not be too polished.
Does it matter whether Chopteeth has a CD in terms of building its reputation and getting gigs?
It makes a difference as to the band's progress. Intraband, lots of good faith gets built up. Recording a CD helps us stay organized and keep people around. People are waiting to get busy on our CD. Right now, Chopteeth will travel to Annapolis, Baltimore and Philadelphia but nowhere else until we have a CD. We need CD sales to make money with a band this size. People who hire us usually assume we have a CD... And we are getting good gigs. The reason for that being we're so unique, a fourteen piece Afrofunk band. So, I don't think a CD will help us locally with booking.
Does an up and coming band like Chopteeth need a promoter?
We have a manager, Tom Carrico, not a promoter or booker. But Tom does a little of both of those things. When we have a high profile gig coming up, he gets the word out to the magazines and newspapers.
How do you get booking agents to pay attention to Chopteeth, among all the competition?
There is no competition. We're unique because of the kind of music we play. The challenge is that no one wants a fourteen piece opening band because of the logistics. We're sensitive to that. We try to get on and off the stage quickly. Once people hear Chopteeth, they're asking when they can have us back. We played the Black Cat with Konono [No.1].. The 9:30 Club wants us back. Slowly people are getting onto us.
Does Chopteeth play any original tunes?
We'll have about 4 by our next shows.
Who writes the original tunes?
I sketch out the parts and bring them to the group. Sometimes I do the lyrics, sometimes someone else adds them. The group plays the parts I've sketched out and tweaks them a bit to fit their own style.
The two original tunes Chopteeth has been playing for more than a year have been very well received. They're fresh. We have another original coming up. It's called Weigh Your Blessings.
Do you play any of the local outdoor festivals?
We get to start just before the headliner Chuck Brown at the National Barbecue Festival. We'll be playing at the Alexandria Jazz Festival, the Takoma Park Street Festival, and Adams Morgan Day. On the 4th of July, we'll be on the back of a flatbed truck in the Takoma Park 4th of July parade.
Do people comment on the fact that so many Chopteeth band members playing this West African music are Caucasian? How do you respond?
People do react to us being Caucasian. It would bother me if they didn't come hear us because of that. People start the night with their arms folded over their chest at the back of the room but they're on the dance floor by the end of the first set. We do it right, that's the focus. People who don't get it, I'm not sure why they think it. I've sat through countless African bands playing reggae and pop tunes and singing in English when I was living in Africa and never once questioned it. To people wondering about white middle aged guys playing Afrofunk, I'd say give it a shot, try us out, come and dance.
What are the major frustrations Chopteeth has faced?
Getting a CD done has been the major frustration.
When Chopteeth is asked to play with another band, what criteria do you use to decide if the two bands are a good complement to one another? Or do they need to be?
Bands don't want an opening band just like them because it fatigues the audience. We've created Afrofunk Forum hoping to draw out more African musicians in the area. Afrofunk Forum began as an online blog. After awhile it was getting a lot of hits and we decided to get a club date in DC at DC 9.We've done it in November, January and we're doing it again on April 12.
You used to have a great lead singer, Eme Awa, who moved on to other projects. How does his loss affect Chopteeth? Did you redefine yourselves after he left?
The loss was rather abrupt. We had a few shows we couldn't nail down. It was mutual, but it left us in the lurch. We had some high profile shows coming up, and our repertoire was based around him. Eme was a great showman and a visual focal point. When he left we had to either go for our C list or have someone step up and sing. I started singing, and we added a female singer, Kim Lannear. After Eme left, it became more of a collective. I do vocals leads now, and Kim and Anna [Mwalagho] are out front. Anna's always been in but not all in. She is a poet first, then a dancer, and she sings a few songs. She infuses everything with a huge amount of energy. Justine [Miller] also sings and Trevor [Specht]. Our new material is based around this.
How does the diversity of the band members' musical experiences- from gospel to rock and jazz- affect the band?
As long as they come to the table with groove sensibility, and all throw in their own flavor, it's okay. But you don't want people to stray from the groove. You need to be organized.
Chopteeth recently played at the inauguration of DC Mayor Adrian Fenty. What was that experience like? Is a high profile gig like that helpful in promoting the band? Do people who see you there remember you and come to see you again?
The Fenty gig had to be rescheduled because President Ford died. They were scrambling, so it wasn't a great sound situation, but cool. The crowd was with us. It was the biggest room I've ever been in in my life. They say the crowd was 15,000. But it's no different playing in front of them than a DC 9 show. Make eye contact and get the party started. People remember us from gigs like this. And it looks good when we're trying to get other gigs.
Which are your favorite local venues to play and what makes them attractive to you?
Afrofunk Forum at DC 9 is small, funky, we mostly fit on stage.... The Black Cat treats you like champions. The 9:30 Club is an awesome place to play. And the Kennedy Center has been nice to us.
Are there places you haven't played that you would like to play?
The Rock 'n Roll Hotel on H St. and the Birchmere.
Did Chopteeth ever experience the gig from hell?
Once, early on, we tried to have a Halloween show. We were all there in costumes and people brought kids in costume. And the sound man didn't show up. I had to jerry rig it. And I had never jerry rigged sound for a band that size before. Other than that, we've been exceptionally lucky.
What are the best raves you have received spontaneously from people walking up to you after a gig?
People have come up to me speaking in a language I sing in but don't speak. ...
After one gig, a mic was open on the floor. A woman didn't realize it and she was talking to her boyfriend, saying "Thank you. Thank you. I needed that. That was awesome. Do you feel happy?"
About those folks I've seen around town wearing those intriguing Chopteeth tee shirts- are those gazelles on the tee shirts? Why gazelles? How can Associated Content readers get their hands on one of those Chopteeth tee shirts?
Chopteeth found a designer, Michael Collins in New York, online. He did some poster design for us and he likes the anthropomorphic theme. He sent us a few ideas. The gazelles have big horns like our big horns section, so that's why we chose it. It's a subtle play on words.
Chopteeth was recently nominated for a WAMMIE. Can you tell Associated Content what a WAMMIE is?
The WAMMIES are the awards from the Washington Area Music Association, WAMA. We've been nominated four times for WAMMIES and never won.
How does a band like Chopteeth go from being locally known to nationally prominent?
We won't be a big pop band. Any national profile will be carving our niche all over. One way to do that is to network with other Afrobeat bands, maybe have an Afrobeat festival, get on world music websites and magazines.
Is there anything that makes the DC area better or worse than other metropolitan areas for up and coming bands?
I can only compare it to New Orleans. It's not like New Orleans where there's always something happening, open, easy to find.
In D.C., there are little pockets, hard to find niches, but if you dig, you find pretty good stuff. The African musicians all come here, not New York. D.C. is the place. Almost everywhere in the world has an ex-patriate community here. You just have to find it.
Saxophonist Mark Gilbert: I have to search my feeble memory 30 years back to the previous metropolitan area I live in- the Bay area- for a comparison. All I remember is that there were many more places to play jazz and Latin and Brasilian and funk and rock and folk and go dancing and everything, just in San Francsico, compared to DC then and the whole DC area; still is that way.
What advice would you give to new bands as far as pitfalls to avoid in DC?
Not just in the DC area, it's particularly true in Africa- You jump in. Pick a project you can sink your teeth into, and don't worry about the money. If it's good, the money will come later. It's a problem if people fall off because the money's not coming fast enough.