It has been eight years since the release of Akoya Afrobeat’s last album PDP (President Dey Pass), a classic of the Afrobeat revival. After a lengthy hiatus, the group has returned with a new album, Under the Tree, out worldwide on vinyl and digital formats Fri., May 27, and a record release show on May 31 at Baby’s All Right, with No Small Money Brass Band and DJ Center, an Akoya collaborator. Stay tuned for a ticket giveaway next week!
The timing couldn’t be better for a hard-hitting roots Afrobeat album. Why? Press play on this new Akoya Afrobeat track “Taking It Back” and let’s talk.
Among the many excellent Afrobeat groups based in New York, Akoya is a special group for a number of core reasons. I experienced their power from the first time I saw the group perform in 2008, at the now defunct Southpaw in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Later I saw them many times at the now defunct venue/recording studio/cultural center BPM in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was—still am—a dedicated fan of Fela Kuti’s original style of funk, jazz, and the Nigerian traditional and popular music known as Afrobeat; I was immediately drawn in by Akoya’s collective energy, the power of their rhythmic hypnosis, their commitment to Fela’s compositional mode of communication: large group, long form, intricate dance music. Each member of the 14-to-15-piece group of men and women of Japanese, Indian, West and Southern African, Caribbean and European descent adds a distinct voice and musical role to create a powerful, hypnotic whole. The lead singer and percussionist Kaleta (a veteran of Fela’s Egypt 80 band) has an unassuming stage presence until he steps to the microphone, where he commands the crowd with his powerful vocal delivery, a strained, urgent cry rising above the solid band. Kaleta is supported by two powerful female singers, Mayteana Morales (Pimps of Joytime) and Lollise Mbi (Underground System), who also take the lead on a number of songs. The rhythm section is solid and focused on the nuance of groove, the horn section is powerful and creative.
“We do feel that there’s a difference between what we’re doing and what other Afrobeat bands are doing,” says Nikhil P. Yerawadekar, guitarist and musical director for Akoya as well as leader of his own group, Low Mentality. “I feel like we’re caretakers of this thing, or keepers of the flame. That’s the attitude we have.”
Since around 2008, there has been a surge in the popularity of Afrobeat in the U.S., arguably concentrated in New York City around Fela! On Broadway, the acclaimed musical about the life and music of the pioneer of Afrobeat, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. While members of Akoya participated in that surge via the Fela! pit band—which became Chop and Quench after the show closed—and other groups including Antibalas, Underground System and Kaleta’s Zozo Afrobeat, Akoya itself was mostly on hiatus during this period. And, unfortunately, like many trends, the popularity of Afrobeat seems to have peaked and declined with the closing of Fela! On Broadway.
“I feel like many of the groups that started during that time have moved on from trying to really do Afrobeat,” says Nikhil. Antibalas is still going strong, in fact Nikhil also plays bass with them, but many bands that were playing Afrobeat three years ago are now moving in other musical and cultural directions, using less syncopated drums, shortening songs from 15 minutes to five minutes.
Not so with Akoya Afrobeat: their new album, Under the Tree is a long-form Afrobeat album, with just two songs. The rhythms are relentless and each track features extended instrumental solos, powerful horn lines and slowly developing lyrical themes. This format allows the music time to become hypnotic through the power of repetition. “We want to be able to create a groove that can last an entire record, and you got to flip the piece of vinyl over to hear the second half of the song, you know?” Nikhil muses, “This is half a joke, and half serious, but our conga player Yoshi Takemasa was kind of disappointed that ‘Jena Tree,’ wasn’t actually 20 minutes long, it’s like 19 and a half minutes,” he laughs.
In these times, this traditionalism is refreshing, because it respects the long compositional format that is part of the power of this genre. According to Nikhil, Akoya is committed to continuing to make music using Fela’s modes of communication: “There are so many different things going on in Afrobeat that make it what it is, and I hear a lot of groups internationally only focusing on certain aspects of it, and they’re often the more superficial aspects of it. Yoshi put it really well: What Akoya is doing is continuing with Fela’s vision. A lot of Afrobeat groups are trying to recreate what Fela was doing specifically with his earlier material, the Africa 70 stuff, which is more funky, in a way more exciting than what Fela wound up doing later on in his career, with his larger bands, the Egypt 80 bands. It is more militaristic sounding music, and people who get into playing Afrobeat tend to kind of acknowledge it, but they don’t really explore it in the way they’re doing music. We’ve all looked at that music really closely and we’re trying to see where Fela would take it next, not necessarily what would he do, but where was it going? We’re not trying to be Fela-esque, but we’re trying to see the natural progression of where this music was going. We pay attention to a lot of the little things, like the fact that the congas and the drums are in this constant conversation, and there are all these different conversations going on simultaneously. We really work a lot at those details.”
And it shows. This is a powerful record, compositionally dense and rhythm driven. Side A, “Jena Tree” (hear a sample here) is a multi-section opus featuring Kaleta’s lead vocals. Singing generally about racial injustice, he cites a specific incident that took place in Jena, Louisiana in 2006, a conflict involving nooses hung to remind African-American students of the recent history of lynching in the South. “We recorded this album in 2012, and at that point it had already been several years since that incident took place,” Nikhil told me. “Between then and now, how many instances of America’s history of slavery and oppression of black people have shown up on the national news? Unfortunately it happens all the time. When we were working on the lyrics, my concern was to make it something that you could feel the energy of even if you didn’t understand what was being said lyrically or weren’t familiar with the situation. Because the sad thing is, we can’t talk about this as a turning point, this was not Rosa Parks exiting the bus, it’s just another everyday occurrence of the psychological torture of black people in America.”
The cover art of the album, created by Ghariowku Lemi, the artist who designed Fela’s classic record covers, includes an image of Trayvon Martin and his killer George Zimmerman. Does that make this a political record? Does this music need political/revolutionary lyrics in order to be considered Afrobeat? According to Nikhil, not necessarily:
“If you show an understanding of the mode of communication Fela was using, you don’t need to talk about politics. But to pass up the opportunity to make dance music that has the ability to transfer the type of conversations that people find unpleasant…You don’t want to have this type of conversation at dinner with your family, but you could actually be on the dance floor and have these topics be in the air. That’s an amazing thing, why would you pass that up? That’s one of the gifts of this kind of music.”
Side B of the record, “Taking It Back” (which you can hear above) is built on a comfortable, laid-back bass groove with straight backbeat drums. It features the two female singers of the band, Mayteana Morales and Lollise Mbi, in a lead vocal duet. “That tune is kind of in that made up genre somewhere between Afrobeat and soul music, kind of like some Curtis Mayfield type of shit,” says Nikhil. The lyrics are an indictment of the patriarchy, “Do they get to choose what I should see/Where I walk/Who I can love/Who’s in my bed/How I should live?” sings Lollise. The vocal performances are compelling and the track peaks in excitement during the second verse as the singers trade lines, reaching into higher octaves while the horns build and the drums push forward. Then, in unison, the women sing, “Taking back our freedom/Taking back our voice/Taking back our future/Taking back our choice.” The triumphant horn line returns over ecstatic drums, and the track fades out on calm tranquil harmonies and percussion.
“I was really happy about how ‘Taking It Back’ came out,” Nikhil shared. “It was the first time I was in a producer/writer session with two other singers/writers, where I was not the singer but helping shape the direction of the vocals. So we had a couple of sessions, just with the laptop, tossing ideas back and forth. We would just build little vocal arrangement ideas. In retrospect, the only place I see vocal duos doing those kind of arrangements is in Jamaican music, like Michigan and Smiley and Althea and Donna, or in hip-hop like Tribe Called Quest, where the main person is rapping but the other person doubles the last word in the line.” After a moment, Nikhil reflected, “Maybe this speaks to the diversity of the band, the different sources of ideas that we have access to in this band. It’s not one of these things where everyone grew up with the Grateful Dead so they all gravitate towards the same thing. In Akoya, it’s very different what people grew up listening to. Afrobeat is what is happening superficially, but deep down inside, everybody’s musical roots are really from something else.”