Imagine Kansas City's Hearts of Darkness taking the stage: a 16-piece ensemble composed mostly of white dudes who probably haven't played such challenging music since their high-school marching bands tackled "Flight of the Bumblebee."
"These songs are frighteningly complex," trumpeter Bob Asher says. "Since we have 16 people, our money is shit. We're putting all of it in a big bank account, and when there's enough of it, we're going over to play in Africa. Hopefully by that time, we'll be decent enough to hold our own."
The HOD crew can already throw down. On a Friday night at the Record Bar, the band is the engine driving an unhinged dance party. Old and young, black and white, hipsters and hip-hop heads — everyone in this diverse crowd is boogieing to hypnotic grooves originated by the late Fela Kuti and kept alive by modern Afrobeat purveyors such as Femi Kuti and Antibalas. The songs often run well past 10 minutes, but the interweaving rhythms and startling blasts from the seven-piece horn section keep the dance floor poppin' off.
"Most people just play one little part over and over again for 15 minutes," keyboardist Josh Mobley says, deadpan. "The hippies seem to like it."
But don't mistake HOD for a festivarian jam band. Afrobeat's late-'60s origins overlap with the hard funk of James Brown and the Meters, and Kuti's coupling of sociopolitical lyrics and smoldering grooves forge a distinct new genre.
Kuti's songs provide the jumping-off point for HOD, which began coalescing about a year ago and picked up steam as members of the Dirty Force Brass Knuckle Street Band and Soul Revue got onboard.
Singer Laura Frank — who once quit her barista job by marching into work with the Dirty Force — says she has been impressed with the group's dedication.
"The Dirty Force is the exact opposite," Frank says. "You just show up with a spoon or a pan or whatever."
Dirty Force forged a reputation for impromptu performances at bars and laundromats. HOD maintains a strict rehearsal schedule and books proper shows.
"The nice thing about having a band with that many people is that if we each bring two friends, it's a packed house," Asher says.
Whereas many of the group's members are still getting hip to Afrobeat's nuances, drummer Sean Branagan has been immersing himself in foreign rhythms since he stumbled across some West African drummers in Central Park many years ago.
"One guy started playing a beat that sounded kind of off," Branagan recalls. "Then the next guy started a beat that sounded like a car breaking down. Then the third guy came in, and it started to sound like something. Then a fourth guy came in with this low drum, and it was the fattest, funkiest groove I'd ever heard."
In his quest to unearth the mechanics behind such pelvis-shaking grooves, Branagan has traveled to Senegal and Mali to experience village drum circles at the source. Often the events take shape in marketplaces, with a thin or nonexistent line between performers and spectators.
Branagan says he aims to replicate that kind of dynamic interaction when HOD takes the stage.
"The African drums have that fat bottom end, which is what makes ladies' hips move. It's a much more melodic and polyrhythmic sense of how things fit together."
New HOD member Les Izmore says he only recently got hip to Afrobeat music, thanks in part to hooking up with the group.
"I'm mad I missed out on this type of music," says Izmore, an MC who runs with KC's Soul Providers crew. "I'm trying to get more hip-hop kids to come out."
Izmore's solo performances showcase his lyrical punditry and outgoing personality, but his gigs with HOD put him in a supporting role as a leader of chants and a crowd inciter.
"I'm just another soloist in a 15-piece band," he says. "It's gonna get smoother the more and more we do."
The group recently began composing its own material in an Afrobeat style, but Mobley says he doesn't think HOD will remain a strict proponent of the genre. Whatever direction the ensemble takes, it will undoubtedly be something funky and fresh — and entirely too cool for network television.
pitch.com, written by Richard Gintowt