Oct 4, 2011
Elikeh - Adje! Adje!
Watch out! Here they Come Again! A tiny West African Nation tnspires a politically provocative Afro-Rock Re-invention - Elikeh from Togo break the domination by neighbouring Nigeria, Benin and Ghana in the funk stakes. Read more about their new album Adje Adje on Azalea City Recordings....read more in the full article.
In the political maelstrom of Washington D.C., where Dr. King marched for civil rights, where soldiers vigorously protested Vietnam, and thousands continue to speak truth to power on the steps of the nation’s capitol, an adamant African voice exclaims, “Adje! Adje,” urging people to take action against social injustices. From atop a smoldering, Afro-rock soapbox, rooted in the traditions of his homeland, an African immigrant and activist belts out this rallying cry, warning against state corruption and capitalistic greed. “People are trapped between governments and corporations,” says the Togolese-born Massama Dogo – singer, guitarist, composer, and founder of the band Elikeh. “Africans,” in particular, he continues, “are being used and abused” by these institutions.
Exploiting a musical pulpit adorned with gritty guitar-heavy grooves, Dogo’s poignant diatribes achieve full resonance on Adje! Adje! (Azalea City Recordings, May 27, 2010), the new release from his D.C.-based ensemble. Emerging out of the increasingly vibrant African music scene in Washington, which includes such recently noted artists as Cheik Hamala Diabate and Chopteeth, Elikeh, who fittingly take their name from an African word meaning rooted-ness, have found a way to penetrate the saturated Afro-pop market by tapping the largely unexplored cultural roots of Togo.
Having been overshadowed by the Afro-pop powerhouses of its neighbors – Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria – Dogo and his group seek to put the tiny sliver nation of Togo on the musical map. Even within Togo itself, this nation’s music has been marginalized by its own state-sponsored media. Remarking on his childhood growing up in this West African country, Dogo recalls, “the radio never promoted anything from Togo. They only played music from other countries.” Although it is improving, even today, Elikeh faces a tough Togolese media that are primarily oriented towards Ghanaian hip-life, Congolese Soukous, and Ivorian Zouglou music.
But Dogo has never been one to back down from a political fight, as struggle and government participation run deep in his blood. A son of a long-time Togolese government minister, as a young man, Dogo risked his family’s reputation by speaking out in protest of the very institutions in which he and his relatives were entrenched. “People were surprised to see me talking about the government. I was going against those in power and the opposition party, by pointing out their corruption.”
As a child, Dogo similarly defied his father by playing the guitar instead of the one-stringed African lute called a tchimo. And, later, while directing the orchestra (guitar band) at the University of Lomé in Togo, he rebelled against his cohorts who only wanted to play cover songs. “At the time,” Dogo explains, “people only wanted to do covers of Western music like the Scorpions and the Rolling Stones. They also wanted to do popular African music from everywhere but Togo.” Dogo, going against the grain, wanted instead to play original material – his own compositions based on indigenous Togolese traditions, such as the upbeat skank of agbadja (often incorrectly confused with a reggae influence).
Finding little reception for his seemingly radical ideas in his own country, Dogo decided that it might be easier to pursue his artistic interests abroad, immigrating to Washington D.C. in 2000. When he arrived in the U.S. his struggles did not end, as he continued to confront many obstacles, not the least of which was the language barrier. Throughout his life, he had only spoken local African dialects and the language of Togo’s colonizer – French. “Everyone was speaking too fast, and no one could understand me when I tried to speak English,” he recalls. “I couldn’t even get water. I said ‘watah’ and no one knew what I was saying.”
Ironically, language, that was once a burden and barrier for him, has now become an asset, defining his sound and helping to distinguish his music from other artists. Dogo sings in a unique hybrid dialect only spoken in Togo’s capital. A mix of French and two indigenous African languages – Ewe and Mina, the intrinsic tonal qualities of these languages give his music a discernable melodic flavor. Although this language is not widely understood, inviting pressure from the music industry to sing in English, Dogo has remained true to his heritage, noting that, “this language influences the music and makes it what it is.”
Illustrating the distinct sonic beauty of this creolized African dialect, Dogo relates the hardships of his adjustment to American life on the song “Madjo.” Creating an entrancing mixture of linguistic buoyancy, over the intimate rhythmic strumming of a loan crystalline acoustic guitar, Dogo trades versus with guest Malian rap artist Yeli Fezzo, who sings in Parisian French.
On Adje! Adje!, Dogo is able to realize his artistic vision, creating original music that fuses indigenous Togolese traditional elements with contemporary sensibilities. “Novi Nye” (My Brother), begins with the interlocking bell and drum pattern of a music known as Kamou. This driving triplet-based rhythm continues as a muted guitar plays off this polyrhythmic motif, accompanying a sanguine flute characteristic of the Kamou, which floats throughout the song, giving the track a refreshing lightness. As a trio of guitars produces a stir of timbres and textures, each subtly using different electronic effects, the celebratory vocals call for unity among the various ethnic and political groups within Togo. “I wrote this song just before the recent presidential elections in Togo,” says Dogo. “I was thinking that although my country is divided along political lines, with the ruling faction living in the north and the opposition in the south, we are all brothers and sisters.”
Departing form the trends, Elikeh carves out their own musical space. “Everybody is going for straight up Fela Kuti Afro-beat style right now,” Dogo claims. “We have some of that influence; we have some highlife in there, but the way we incorporate rock is not there in other bands. As a joke we call it Afro-high; but we cannot call it that because everyone would think we are high all the time.” Reminiscent of the raw and rough Afro-rock sound coming out of West Africa in the 1970s, the songs “Oleblemi,” and “Get Ready” feature hard-hitting funk-rock grooves with mildly distorted guitar solos from veteran John Lee, who has played with a number of noted African musicians, including Baye Kouyate.
The band’s sound is also distinguished by the trifecta of gravely guitars that weave throughout the album, creating dense multi-layered polyrhythmic patterns. These textures shimmer on “Let’s March,” a slow-burning re-invention of a composition by Nigerian songwriter Orlando Julius Ekemode. “The original uses keyboards,” Dogo explains, “but I think that a lot of African bands overuse keyboards.” Providing a direct connection to the roots of this song, the rhythmical guitar of Frank Martins—who also appeared on Ekemode’s original recording of this song—reverberates on this African anthem. Martins is also featured on “Aiko,” which uses a slowed-down version of a style from the Southern part of Togo called tumewe, combined with the call and response of the agbekor style.
Building on the precedent of musical political activism set by artists such as Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo, a majority of the ensemble’s songs have profound political themes. Opening the record with a haunting a capella chant, the album’s namesake, “Adje! Adje!” offers a warning. “We are saying: watch out! Here they come again – the multinationals and the corrupt governments,” says Dogo. “But this time we won’t let them take over our place!” This poignantpolitical message is punctuated with tight horn stabs, interlacing guitar lines, and dense polyrhythmical drumming provided by Tosin Aribisala, who is no stranger to socially conscious music. Arisbisala has toured with Femi Kuti, in addition to recording a tribute to Fela Kuti (Red Hot & Riot), which included such notables as Macy Gray, Erykah Badu, Sade, Baaba Maal, and Taj Mahal.
With their distinct brand of Togolese-infused “Afro-high,” which merges a re-invention of the rugged Afro-rock of the 1970s with Afro-beat, highlife, and roots music of West Africa, Elikeh prove that the marginalized music of a tiny overshadowed nation can inspire engaging new sonic landscapes, and stand shoulder to shoulder with its more notorious neighbors.
gondwanasound.co.uk, written by Jill Turner
The West African nation of Togo doesn't have the same reputation for churning out Afropop as countries such as Ghana, Mali and Nigeria. But D.C.-based Elikeh, fronted by Togolese singer-guitarist Massama Dogo, is seeking to change that with its mix of Afrofunk, highlife and roots - a style it calls "Afro-high."
Elikeh's new album, "Adje! Adje!," is a serious call to action that maintains a vibe of jubilant perseverance throughout. Dogo's lyrics, sung primarily in a blend of French and the African languages Ewe and Mina, are layered over rhythms from percussionist Joseph "Papa Jo" Ngwa and drummer Tosin Aribisala and copious amounts of guitar from Michael Shereikis, John Lee and Dogo himself.
The title track is political cautionary tale, while "Oleblemi" is all joyful, skittering horns and '70s Afrorock influences. On "Madjo," Dogo's beautiful voice is served with nothing more than soft guitar accompaniment, while the near-five-minute "Get Ready," an instrumental punctuated by a few exuberant shouts, puts on full display the rhythms of Afrofunk.
Dogo has said that getting play in Togo, with its focus on the sounds of other countries rather than its own, is difficult, but hopefully tracks like "Let's March," which has Elikeh modifying a piece from Nigeria's Orlando Julius Ekemode in its own style, will soon be heard, as the songs says, from Lomé to D.C.
washingtonpost.com, written by Sarah Godfrey
Serge “Massama” Dogo grew up in Lomé, Togo, and is the first to admit that as a young man he was completely absorbed by the rock sound. When his father invited him to play the tchimo, (a traditional Togolese lute), he asked, “Why am I going to learn a guitar with one string? What's the point?” His sole focus then was on Western music, and it was guitar he wanted to learn. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Massama never expected to be a professional musician. “I was thinking about being a soccer player or something,” he laughs, “I was not really thinking about music until I got to college.” It was at the University of Togo from 1998 to 2000 that he became President of the Orchestra. He freely concedes that this was not as glamorous as it sounds. Massama was coordinating a small guitar band and it was in this role that he began to develop his craft as a musician, learning how to organize musicians and to resolve their differences. In directing this group he learned to write music in his own unique way.
These days, Massama has a deep concern that young Africans’ absorption in Western media and music has led them to neglect and under-appreciate their own cultures. “Kids are sucked into music from the West,” he says. “If young kids in Africa are going to learn how to be involved in their own culture, governments in Africa or people who have radio stations have got to change, and use the culture of their own country to educate the kids, because this is really a big problem. I am going to give you an example: 80% of young Africans who are musicians in the US do traditional music; 80% of young musicians based in Africa want to do Western music. So, that tells you a lot. It looks like when people come here [to the US], they discover more about their own continent than when they are back home, because the media system is messing up everything.” Indeed, when Massama first came to America in 2000 and was surrounded by friends who loved African music, he realized just what he had been missing in Africa—the significance and beauty of African sounds, and of his own Togolese music.
When we in the West think about African music, we often focus on Mali. Formidable musicians and musical traditions have their roots in this country. The masterful singers Salif Keita and Oumou Sangaré are familiar even to some with little knowledge of African music. Unfortunately, this focus on Mali has left many other countries with strong musical traditions in the shadows. Massama says, “You know there are a lot of great musicians in Togo, but there is no-one known to the world. Don't get me wrong, the music in Mali is really great, but I just think its time to open the window to music from other countries in Africa and see what is going on there. Africa is huge!” Massama's aim with his current band, Elikeh, is to open a window on Togolese music.
Based in Washington DC, Elikeh has a core group of musicians. Massama covers lead vocals and guitar, and his accompanists play guitar, bass, drums, two saxes, trumpet and percussion. On first impression, you might be tempted to label the sound afrobeat – the genre formulated by Fela Anikulapo Kuti in 1970's Nigeria. That would be a mistake. The uniqueness of this music defies genres. You realize that Elikeh is not easily categorizable, and perhaps it is not meant to be. Yes, there are shades of afrobeat, highlife, and rock in the mix, but it cannot be defined or labelled as any of those genres. Massama says that each musician in the band must sound “bluesy, pentatonic and melodic; it can be jazzy, but not too jazzy; rock, but not too rock. There's a distinct feel I look for when somebody comes to the band and plays.”
Rhythm is the key component. One Togolese rhythm central to Elikeh's sound is agbadja. It is close to a reggae rhythm, but more uptempo. Massama explains, “Agbadja is the type of music used mainly with drums. The rhythm was used when the tribes were going to war, and for ceremonies. But right now, it is used mainly for funerals. We use it in some of our songs.” The song “Adje, Adje” is one, and it’s the title track of Elikeh’s new CD. “Adje, Adje, never again!” Massama chants, and even if you don't understand his language, you know to listen up. Masama sings in Mina and Ewe, languages of Southern Togo. He’s pointing people in the direction of his country, and urging listeners to hear and understand its music. As with afrobeat, the brass arranging is reminiscent of James Brown’s funk in its heyday and those strong brass lines add emphasis to the lyrics. Many of the lyrics are chanted, bringing added power and forcefulness to the message. Massama explains, “‘Adje, Adje’ is just saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ All the good guys in Africa, the thinkers, Lumumba, you know, they were killed. When I say in the song, 'They are coming again', people will think I am talking about multinationals, but I am also talking about the African leaders themselves.”
“Oleblemi” the second track on the CD is highly danceable. Massama leads the vocal, singing, “Cheke, cheke,” prompting a chorus to echo him, “Cheke, cheke.” Unexpectedly, a rock guitar opens up and takes the song in an entirely different direction. Massama is singing about how politicians, whether in office or opposition, are liars. But, it is the slower, more spaced out, contemplative tracks that work the best on this CD. Of note is the track “Let's March,” where a bluesy guitar announces itself and takes flight. The melody is simple and vivid, and it sticks with you.
afropop.org, written by Dorothy Johnson-Laird
Washington, DC-based Afrobeat band Elikeh’s album Adje! Adje! landed on a lot of best-of-2010 lists at the end of last year for a good reason: it’s a phenomenal party album. This isn’t fratboy music, and it’s about as far from Vampire Weekend as you can possibly get: it’s the real thing, a mix of Fela-inspired, 1970s style Afro-funk with Ethiopian tinges, traditional Togolese sounds, a defiantly smart lyrical sensibility and a groove that’s every bit as infectious as it should be. There isn’t a single song on here that’s not catchy. The lead guitar, in particular, is excellent, whether burning through bluesmetal on the resolutely anti-imperialist title track that opens the album, delivering swaying funk or judiciously incisive blues lines. Add spicy horns and hypnotic, organic dancefloor rhythms to the darkly incisive, minor-key melodies, and you have a recipe for a tidal wave of moving bodies.
“Here they come again, this time I won’t let them take over my place,” Massama, the band’s Togo-born frontman insists on the title cut. “Congo is burning, they burn down our barriers…they killed Sankara, they killed Lumumba,” a warning that the imperialists are still as mindful of African resistance as they were during the colonial age. The single best track here might be the last one, a tersely thoughtful rap number, delivered in French over simple, funky acoustic guitar: “Everybody follows the American way,” Massama warns, but even if you’re African and you’re born in Paris, or the US, you’re still African. The solution? It’s up to the people; the oppressors won’t make things any better.
The rest of the album is just as diverse. About two thirds of the way through, there’s what’s essentially a suite of three hypnotic one-chord jams that speed up and raise the ante higher and higher, the sort of thing that seems designed to bring a concert to peak intensity. The album’s second track adds hints of reggae and balmy flute; the third, a flamenco-flavored number, features deliciously twangy reverb guitar and a dramatic Spanish guitar solo. The rest of the album veers from slinky funk to funk-pop and a suspenseful, intense vamp to wrap it up right before the closing rap. Shame on us for blinking and not including this on our Best of 2010 list.
1. Adje! Adje!
4. Novi Nye
5. Get Ready
6. Let's March