May 25, 2011
Australian Afrobeat: The Shaolin Afronauts - Flight of The Ancients + interviews
The mysterious afro-soul of The Shaolin Afronauts first echoed across the dance floors of Australia in late early 2008. Heavily inspired by the sounds of 1970's West Africa, Ethiopia and the pioneering avant-garde jazz artists of the same period the Shaolin Afronauts draw on the this highly innovative and sometimes volatile era in music, using it as inspiration to create music with the same fire and intensity. Their spirited performances have fast gained a reputation as some of the most exciting live shows around. Though there is something refreshing and original about the Afronauts, their music could be described as somewhere in between the heavy Afrobeat of Fela Kuti and the Ethio-Jazz of Mulatu Astatke. The key to the Shaolin Afronauts unique sound is the line-up, which comprises of a three piece horn section, 5 piece rhythm section and three percussionists, and this polyrhythmic approach layers the groups sound with a mesmerizing and hypnotic texture. Kicking off with Journey Through Time (also released as the A side of the limited edition 12 inch vinyl single: FSR091) the multiple layers of percussion and rhythms indeed unleash an unstoppable groove, which is nicely balanced against the albums slower, more introspective moments, such as Rise With The Blind which along with haunting, mellow Scarab prove that contemporary afrobeat rooted music doesn't always have to be an unrelenting, uptempo assault on the senses and can provide moments of sheer beauty and reflection. This added element of subtlety sets The Shaolin Afronauts music apart from much of the recent crop of other bands with similar influences, that said, these guys are still a collective capable of burning some stone cold classic and killer grooves, The Shaolin Afronauts are the band to watch out for in 2011!
Interview No. 1
In the lead-up to WOMADelaide, LUNA was given the opportunity to chat with Ross McHenry of the Shaolin Afronauts, a mystical and quirky local eleven-piece dabbling in the sounds of afrobeat, who will feature in the festival’s line-up.
Like other members of the band, McHenry also plays for The Transatlantics, an eight-piece with an affinity for soul and funk, which has already experienced success domestically.
However, the focus of the interview was on the Shaolin Afronauts, as LUNA received an insight into the band’s influences, style and philosophy, as well as a look into the music of afrobeat, which features heavily at WOMADelaide.
Can you give the readers some background information about the Shaolin Afronauts?
Absolutely. The Shaolin Afronauts were formed a couple of years ago, I guess with the intention of playing afrobeat music in the city of Adelaide. The core of the musicians joined from a band that a lot of us are a part of, called The Transatlantics, and I guess when I started writing for the group it was just natural to share the music with the people that I played with the most. Also, I think The Transatlantics have been big record collectors and fans of afrobeat and various other soul music from around the world; it was very easy to do it in that way. So in a couple of years it has grown to kind of an eleven-piece original instrumental afro band. We’ve just been signed to Freestyle Records, that are based in the UK, so hopefully you’ll see a lot more of us. We’re doing a lot of touring at the moment and we’re playing at the incredible WOMADelaide festival on the 12th of March.
How did the name come about?
How did the name come about? That is a question that every single interviewer asks me. It’s difficult to… it wasn’t… Let me rephrase that; I’ll try and say this succinctly. Although the name I guess is important, it wasn’t something that was the most considered part. The music is foremost important and the name, the Shaolin Afronauts, is really just drawn from the fact that we play on stage wearing hooded cloaks and try to keep our identity a little bit obscure. And the music we play is afrobeat, so certainly “afronauts” comes with the sort of spacey, mysterious vibe of the music, with its roots in 1970s afrobeat and some elements of free jazz that we really enjoy and that we like to draw parallels to the group with.
That pretty much flows well into the next question: can you name the band’s musical influences?
Musically, the main influence is afrobeat, particularly the music of Fela Kuti and the Africa ’70. Then, I guess the secondary influence is the avant-garde jazz movement of the 1970s, particularly artists like Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders; now, I don’t want people to get freaked out by that. That’s not in terms of the lesser enjoyed elements of that but the pretty spirited intensity of that music. I guess the other primary influence is always going to be, if you enjoy that music and you’re from my generation, you’re most likely to have started out listening to it through hip-hop. Certainly, jazz and afrobeat are very important to the music of hip-hop. I think it’s now in this generation that you’re starting to see hip-hop directly influencing the making of that music and not the other way around.
So, does any of your music employ hip-hop styles in it?
No. I don’t mean directly in terms of the heavy kind of grooves that are traditionally associated with hip-hop, but I think through sampling and through artists like Madlib and J Dilla, it’s one way that people of my generation were actually exposed to those sounds early on in our musical development. I think it’s also the thing that encouraged lots of people who would be soul music or hip-hop music collectors to explore the music of Africa. I think that the textures and the way in which people like Madlib and others compose and create music now draws on the influences of jazz and afrobeat. I think that all those musics are intrinsically linked, whether it’s directly or indirectly, so that’s more where I’m talking about the influences coming from, rather than the direct stylistic influences.
How did you guys stumble upon afro-beat? Have you always liked it or did you one day find it and become enthralled by it?
Ever since I first heard afrobeat, I loved it. I guess, for me it was through exploring a lot of jazz, because when I read about it, it was directly influenced by afrobeat, and then exploring Fela Kuti and artists sort of similar to that, as well as being exposed to samples of stuff by J Dilla, amongst others. I think that in Adelaide we’re lucky enough to have festivals like WOMADelaide. Afrobeat has become an important part of that festival; there seems to always be someone who’s doing it on the line-up. So, I think from a young age, if you attended that festival – which I think pretty much every member of the band did – that had a big impact on us young people. I think 15- or 20- piece bands, with dancers and singers and stuff like that, when you come from a culture which doesn’t have many bands that are that big that perform with that kind of intensity, that colour and excitement, it’s bound to make a pretty strong impression on you. I think for me it was in the ‘90s growing up and seeing that and then when I became a musician myself and got into jazz and soul and collected that in my early teens, I rediscovered it. I was inspired by it in the past, I was just too young to understand it. I think that was pretty similar for the other people involved in the Shaolin Afronauts.
You alluded before to the mystical, obscure aura that you guys have. Is this to complement the mystical element of the Afro-beat you play?
I think so. We’re trying to, at the end of the day, express ourselves through music and the music we are most inspired by is borne out of quite serious social comment or a motivation for political change. And although we’re not trying to necessarily directly advocate any of those things ourselves, we’re trying to invoke the spirit of that. In order to do that, we don’t necessarily want it to be the jazz thing, with the individual person soloing and the focus being on them. We like to keep it a little bit anonymous and have some sort of mystique about it, in order to be able to absolutely go for it on stage. It’s kind of hard when you’re just from Adelaide; you love this music more than you could possibly say but it’s not part of your cultural identity, directly. So in order to do that, we want to create something on stage a bit mysterious, or a bit special, in order for us, ourselves, to be able to break out of the cultural boundaries (that we may have created for ourselves); to be able to perform with the intensity that respects the music, in the way that we want it to be respected.
Do you guys have a particular philosophy about your music then?
Well, the music itself is inspired by great artists of the past. I’m not trying to write music that is retro – that cops that music. It is afrobeat, but I like to describe it as futurist afrobeat, because we’re not from Nigeria or Ghana and we’re 20-year-olds who are just trying to express ourselves through music. I guess that our philosophy is to be able to pay tribute to the people that we most admire but move on with music and allow the influences of hip-hop and jazz and other music that we love to come through it, in order to create music that doesn’t necessarily confine itself to certain cultural boundaries but expresses us in the way that we feel is important as musicians.
You guys are playing at WOMADelaide, as we’ve already discussed. What are you expecting from it?
We’re excited to be playing at “WOMAD”. Like I said, it’s been a big influence on all of us. Seeing the incredible talent that gets brought to Adelaide now on a yearly basis, it’s very fortunate. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest festivals in Australia and across the world. And we’re excited to play to a large group of people who specifically come to a music event to hear music that they may not have known or heard of before. That’s a special environment, right? Most people go to festivals because they love the headliners, most people go to WOMADelaide because they haven’t heard of half the bands playing and that excites them. So, that’s a massive opportunity, and it’s a massive opportunity to expose your music to people who are really receptive. That’s what we’re looking forward to, as well as just attending the festival and seeing all the other artists.
Are there any artists or bands you’re looking forward to playing alongside of or meeting?
I’m looking forward to being out and meeting every band playing. What other festival are you going to like 70 other countries represented? There are so many great artists, I don’t want to single anyone particularly out. I’m looking forward to the hang and just playing and being part of such an event.
For the readers interested in going to “WOMAD”, how would you describe your set?
Hopefully, our set is going to embody everything that I just said. Every time we step on stage, we try to approach it with creative music that’s new and exciting and special. All the guys in the band are phenomenal musicians, who I’m fortunate enough to play with all the time, so I’m very lucky. There’s the element of virtuosity, but there’s also this combined group effort to create a sound that really connects the people. There’s a kind of rhythmic intensity to it, which I think is infectious and encourages people to dance as well.
Will you be wearing your robes?
I hope so.
So I’ll just tell the readers to go look for the band wearing robes…
Correct, yes. I mean there’s going to be a few robes at “WOMAD”, but ours are either black or red and velvet. So, I’m not going to say anymore. I probably don’t need to say anymore having said that.
You were talking about your album which is about to get released. I read that you recorded that in one day after one rehearsal. Is that right?
That is correct, yes. It sounds ridiculous but, whatever music you’re playing you need to pick the musicians that are best going to represent that. Like I said before, we’re very lucky to play with a group of incredible musicians. I think it does translate on the record. It’s got an element to it like everyone’s a little bit on-edge. It’s not over-rehearsed. There are mistakes on the recording if you listen closely but it’s got a kind of intensity to it that can only be present in music that’s, I don’t know, a bit live, a bit raw – which is one of the things I enjoy most out of it.
And, finally, what’s on the horizon for you, with both the Shaolin Afronauts and The Transatlantics?
Hopefully we’ll be able to do another album with the Shaolin Afronauts this year. There’s going to be another Transatlantics album this year. A lot of touring! Both bands are signed to Freestyle Records in the U.K. So hopefully we’ll be able to go over there and do some touring this year. We’re just working in the studio of a very important person to The Transatlantics and the Afronauts, Tom Barnes, that we’ve built together, which has enabled us to increase our output of music quite significantly. I think we’re just trying to document as much music as we possibly can over the next year or so and to play and tour as much as we can, so we can evolve and move forward as musicians, for both groups. I see exciting times ahead and I hope that everyone who has listened to or enjoyed our music is as excited as we are about what the future holds.
Interview No. 2
What's your name… and the name of your band…
"My name is Ross McHenry and my band is called The Shaolin Afronauts."
And what do you do in the band?
"I am the bass player."
Who else have you and your band closely worked with?
"We are a reasonable new band so we haven't worked with anyone as such."
When did you form the band or did it just stumble upon you?
"The Shaolin Afronauts were formed a couple of years ago, I guess, with the intention of playing Afrobeat music in the city of Adelaide. The core of the musicians joined from a band that a lot of us are a part of, called The Transatlantics, and I guess when I started writing for the group it was just natural to share the music with the people that I played with the most. Also, I think The Transatlantics have been big record collectors and fans of Afrobeat and various other soul music from around the world; it was very easy to do it in that way. So in a couple of years it has grown to kind of an eleven-piece original instrumental afro band. We've just been signed to Freestyle Records, who are based in the UK, so hopefully you'll see a lot more of us."
What was the driving force behind the idea?
"The driving force was my desire to play Afrobeat music in Australia! Musically, the main influence is Afrobeat, particularly the music of Fela Kuti and The Africa '70. Then, I guess the secondary influence is the avant-garde jazz movement of the 1970s, particularly artists like Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders; now, I don't want people to get freaked out by that. That's not in terms of the lesser enjoyed elements of that, but the pretty spirited intensity of that music. I guess the other primary influence is always going to be, if you enjoy that music and you're from my generation, you're most likely to have started out listening to it through hip hop. Certainly, jazz and Afrobeat are very important to the music of hip hop. I think it's now in this generation that you're starting to see hip hop directly influencing the making of that music and not the other way around."
Where has the name come from?
"Although the name is important, I guess, it wasn't something that was the most considered part. The music is foremost important and the name, The Shaolin Afronauts, is really just drawn from the fact that we play on stage wearing hooded cloaks and try to keep our identity a little bit obscure. And the music we play is Afrobeat, so certainly 'Afronauts' comes with the sort of spacey, mysterious vibe of the music, with its roots in 1970s Afrobeat and some elements of free jazz that we really enjoy and that we like to draw parallels to the group with."
Do you think that you have achieved what you set out to do?
"Yes I think what I love about this music translate in our live shows."
If you weren't playing music you would be?
"Skiing in North America!"
What makes you happiest about what you're doing?
"Playing Afrobeat music is a pretty intense and exiting experience. Such a large band playing music with such fire, when you come from a culture which doesn't have many bands that are that big and perform with that kind of intensity, that colour and excitement, it's bound to make a pretty strong impression on you. It's just being involved with something so powerful that makes me really happy."
How do you all find time to work with so many musicians?
"It is that hardest part of what I do. I'm not sure how it happens but it does. I guess everyone just tries their hardest to be accommodating because they love music."
When are you doing your thing next?
"We're playing Bar Open this Friday February 11, and then at the incredible WOMADelaide festival on March 12 and are pretty exited about that. I think that in Adelaide we're lucky enough to have festivals like WOMADelaide. Afrobeat has become an important part of that festival; there seems to always be someone who's doing it on the line-up. So, I think from a young age, if you attended that festival - which I think pretty much every member of the band did - that had a big impact on us young people."
01. Journey Through Time 6:25
02. Rise With The Blind 4:52
03. Flight Of The Ancients 5:36
04. Shaolin Theme 6:08
05. Kilimanjaro 6:35
06. Shira 7:55
07. The Quiet Lion 6:21
08. The Scarab 5:16