Afrobeat has a much-traveled history. With all the shuttling of ingredients across the pond between Africa and the United States, it could have earned enough frequent flyer miles to go many times around the world–first class. Which in many ways it really has.
It was of course Fela Ransome Anikulapo Kuti who was the instigator and predominant driving force of Afrobeat. In the ’60s he had a band, Koola Lobitos, coming out of Nigeria to play in England and the United States. Not a lot of Afrobeat in it in those days–mostly a blend of highlife, fuji and Yoruba–but in Los Angeles he found himself marooned and in trouble with the immigration authorities. During this stay he immersed himself in the sounds of jazz and funk and the politics of Black Power. It turned his head around and a music and culture that had its roots in Africa was harnessed and taken back to Africa. The rest is history.
The Chicago Afrobeat Project is the epitome of results of the subsequent journeys Afrobeat has made, long surviving its creator. This is due partly to the interaction with aficionados and new players all over the world, but most especially in America. Like so many progenitors, CAbP adds its own unique flavors but never lets go of the primal elements that keeps the style so popular.
With their album What Goes Up, CAbP has the mightiest bedrock of all–the original drummer for Fela and a key sound ingredient in Afrobeat: Tony Allen. Tony came on board for some live events and to record this album as part of his quest to share and pass on his knowledge to the next generation. More FF miles. His style is unmistakable, a meld of jazz, funk, Nigeria, New Orleans second line and military bedazzle. He improvises and propels at the same time like no other and provides a rock-steady anchor to the proceedings throughout.
So what do the other band members bring to the table? Well, it’s a 21st century blend of current and past r&b, jazz-funk and a reverence for many of the Nigerian traditions inherent in Afrobeat. And a prerequisite political and philosophical awareness that has never been far from its heart. The arrangements go well past the usual slavish reconstituting of Fela’s sound. There are real song structures a wide instrumental palette and, rather than a straight ahead juggernaut of horns and beats, there is color, light and shade and a realization that there is power in quiet as well as fury. Not to say the groove and the funk ever let off–they don’t–but there is really listenable and inventive music here, not just dance beats. Echoes of Bernie Worrell’s P Funk keyboards, Earth Wind and Fire pyrotechnics, hip-hop and the stretched-out motifs used by late-period Miles Davis are all in play. Which is as it should be, given Afrobeat was born of similar ingredients over 45 years ago.
Floating over top of all this are a stellar crew of vocalists, JC Brooks, Kiara Lanier, Legit (Chance the Rapper), Akenya (Noname, Chance the Rapper), Ugochi Nwaogwugwu, Oranmiyan , and Rico Sisney/Maggie Vagle (Sidewalk Chalk).
I’d like to single out two female singers in particular: first Ugochi Nwaogwugwu, born in Chicago of Nigerian parents (honorary FF miles) who has her own release, Afro Soul Effect. Her fluid vocals grace “I No Know,” a mid-tempo swinger. Kiara Lanier emits a feel similar to Ruth Tafebe on “No Bad News,” a subtly driving quest for “truth.” There are also a couple of rappers present and a hip-hop feel percolates through in “Marker 48” and the opener, “Beehive,” with its jazzy phrasing expanding the Afrobeat rhythm into interesting territories.
What Goes Up ends up as a very interesting and effective expression of Afrobeat but thought from outside the box. Yes, there’s Tony Allen–still in top form–and the insistent heavyweight horns and the politics that are Afrobeat prerequisites. There is also a great fluidity and musicality that is theirs and theirs alone, and the result is a supremely listenable, honorable statement that brings Fela’s political protest home to Chicago in an extremely pertinent way for the world we live in.