Jul 22, 2010

Yaaba Funk - Interview from May 2010

“I say YAABA, you say-” “FUNK!” The resounding response reverberated off the walls, shouted by a charged crowd who hadreduced Brixton’s spacious The Rest is Noise wine bar to a standing-room-only venue. The spirited call out started with Richmond Kessie, percussionist and lead vocalist for the celebrated high life/afrobeat/funk band, Yaaba Funk.

The band, renowned for tearing up dance floors with their energised and percussion-heavy live performances, was launching their debut album, Afrobeast. Earlier in the day I met up with Kessie and Paul Brett (bass and percussion) to find out how the band came together and how they managed to wrestle their incredible live sound on to a record.

The interview

How did the band get its name?

I first came into this country when I was about 16 in 1981 and for about eight or nine years I didn’t listen to any African music whatsoever, it was all about pop and rock music. One day I just happened to be out walking and passed Sterns (world music shop), and popped in there. The first record I saw was an album called Ancestral Music from Africa. I didn’t like African music at the time but bought it purely for its appearance. The second album I bought in there was an album by someone called Captain Yaaba and the album was called Yaaba Funk. So in a way Sterns are responsible for the beginning of Yaaba Funk.

How has the band evolved over the years?

Most of us met in the African drumming / African dance scene in London. Richmond used to play with Agido, a pan African dance ensemble. Members also used to play samba not just African drums. It first started at parties where we used to say ‘Let’s have a bit of a jam,’ we’d set up all these drums and percussion instruments. The DJ would get the crowd going then we’d come on and play. Then I was like, ‘I’ve got a wicked keyboard and it’s got a really fat baseline’ so we started using that, then Richmond started singing, soon we thought, ‘we might as well have some guitar.’ Gradually we added a couple of horns, then Helen came on as another vocalist.

Yaaba Funk is a bit like a hoover, we go around picking up new musicians. Initially it was just 15 drummers and Paul on the bass, there wasn’t any singing.

Proper drum and bass.

It’s grown organically; it wasn’t a conscious decision to start a band.

How did you decide on highlife?

I like to think highlife was chosen because I’m from Ghana, but it was always going to be something African because we’re all drummers. The first song we played as a band was ‘Hwe Hwe,’ we’d play it at parties and people would love it. Then Paul suggested we start writing our own songs.

I’ve always been much more interested in creating original music although there are so many great tunes from the 1970s and 1980s. There’s always a temptation to say ‘Oh this is a great tune, let’s do a version of that!’ But we’ve got a lot of ideas and there have been a lot of influences since then that we bring into our music like dub, reggae, broken-beat, house, a bit of rock and funk.

How important was it to have a recorded version of what is essentially a live musical genre?

We’ve been around for about four years and in that time there’s been continuous talk of this album coming out. We made a promotional EP and it sounded a little too produced, fans who’d seen us on stage said, ‘This doesn’t sound like you.’ We decided next time we’d try to recreate what we do on stage. We spent two days rehearsing the songs on the album, then we went into the studio, set it all up and just recorded it as if it were live. We had dividers in there to try and separate the sound a little bit and the vocals and horns were added later but we tried to capture as much of the live feel as we could. Once you start mixing you lose certain aspects of it but overall I think we’ve done really well.

Highlife has some very political roots. Were there any political points you wanted to make?

Richmond: Kalabule Man criticizes politicians. It talks about the bad things they do and how they cheat people even referencing Fela Kuti’s songs. The lyrics – ‘They call him Mister Preacher man, they call him Mister Reverend Man, but we call him the Kalabule Man’ – talks about how religion can sometimes take over people’s lives, and steal their money. I got the line from a church that my aunt took me to. She couldn’t give birth so she went to this priest and the priest basically said if you sleep with me then you’ll be blessed.

The idea for Nyash! E Go Bite You!! came to me when I heard Tony Blair talking about weapons of mass destruction. While he was speaking his face had a little grin. When I was young my grandfather had a saying:’If you meet an animal and it doesn’t mean to do you any harm it will not show you its teeth’. Seeing Tony Blair on there talking about WMDs I just made the link.

The album’s not all about politics though. Oman Foa celebrates Ghana’s fiftieth anniversary, which is a month away and Hwe Hwe Mu Na Yi is a love song.

How did you select the traditional Ghanaian songs you covered?

Bukom Mashie is a former-day dance floor killer. What we did with it isn’t far from the original—it’s a bit of a mash up between the original and a traditional Ga song—it’s old meets new. Hwe Hwe is a classic which we completely changed.

Why did you dedicate the first track to BBC Broadcaster Charlie Gillett?

We’d already finished the album when he died in March and we were sad because we’d listened to his show and he was someone who used to play all the world music. I can remember going out the next day to buy records I’d heard on his show. We were disappointed he’d never got to hear the album and decided to dedicate something to him. Richmond said the first track (Me Nye Dofo) was the most appropriate because it says ‘Appreciate what you have because it might not always be there. ‘

I never met him but because of his radio show I felt like I knew him. I used to record his shows on cassette and go back and listen to them.

There have been so many variations on highlife from afrobeat to hiplife. Do you feel like you’re creating your own hybrid offshoot of highlife?

We like to call it Grimelife. I’m not playing a bass guitar which means I can get a lot of sounds on the bass synthesizer that give our music that grime feel. In the UK we make bass music, whether that be drum and bass, garage, dub step—I was like, let’s put this bass underneath the high life and add a different sound. We’ve grown up in London so we’re not going to be mellow because London’s not a very mellow place it’s quite edgy. I think we bring a bit of that edge to it.

I think music has to evolve and if Fela hadn’t taken highlife and done what he did with it it would have remained static. I think we’d be doing him a disservice if we just took the sound and emulated and didn’t do anything to it. We’re just trying to bring it into the twenty-first century and wake people up to the fact that at one point in the 1960s or 1970s it was the music of Africa. Why should it be relegated to a museum?

High life isn’t considered hip in its homeland. Do you hope to reignite interest in African music with African youths?

Absolutely! Back home, whatever is flavour of the month in the West is what they’ll latch on to. You go to Ghana and you see really fantastic musicians, drummers especially, but once they become successful they start using drum machines. For me the idea is to create a buzz around highlife over here so that it’ll be picked up by people back home. It’s alright doing hiplife but where does the ‘life’ in there come from? They just seem to have forgotten it.

It’s a shame because I guess it’s cheaper to get a drum machine and a synthesizer rather than getting a 12-piece band, but it’s just not the same.

We’re never going to be able to program hip hop beats like the Americans because it’s not us. Similarly with reggae, Jamaicans are better at it. Some of the old artists do interesting things with it but the majority of African reggae is just so bland compared to where it’s come from.

What’s next for Yaaba Funk?

I think next year we’re going to tackle Europe. France has got a very strong African music scene; I think they’re more open to African and African-Caribbean music than the UK which is more cutting edge. We’ve also got a next album of material pretty much ready.

We’ve more or less captured London. It’ll be good to take the sound out of London and possibly into Africa. I’d love to take Yaaba Funk to Ghana and Nigeria. We’ve got ideas about recording the next album in Ghana and maybe involving some of the old highlife giants if we can. Do some kind of a Buena Vista Social Club type thing.


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