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The Beat Goes On

New groups keeps Fela's legacy alive.

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The Kokolo Afrobeat Orchestra honors Fela Kuti May 26 at the Beachland.
  • The Kokolo Afrobeat Orchestra honors Fela Kuti May 26 at the Beachland.

It's probably best described as a spirited cross between junk-in-the-trunk funk and a gospel revival. Dictated more by percolating rhythms and throbbing groove than melody or guitar riffs, "afrobeat" is a world-music gumbo created by the late cultural rebel Fela Kuti.

Like Bob Marley, Fela's music is rich with ideas of revolution and social justice, and for most of his life he waged a campaign against oppression and the military juntas that ruled his Nigerian homeland. Inspired by the writings of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X, as well as the music of James Brown, Fela recorded more than 50 politically tinged albums, combining jazz and soul with traditional Nigerian music and rhythms.

With blasting horn lines, sax and trumpet punctuation to the call-and-response of backup singers, and an irresistible percussive pulse, afrobeat features a loose, energetic vitality that's popular among stoned hippies and improv-minded musicians. After Fela's death in '97, a number of American bands took up the sound, creating a brief afrobeat boomlet led by New York's Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.

Not since the Toasters brought 2-Tone to New York has a single band had such an influence on the American scene. Antibalas formed when its ambitious founder, Martin Perna, hooked up with musicians from the Daktaris, ska band King Changó, and the Soul Providers, who had been recording latter-day classic-soul albums with Lee Fields and Sharon Jones. Antibalas' example energized others, such as the Kokolo Afrobeat Orchestra, which formed in New York a few years later.

Hearing the call in Northeast Ohio was singer-guitarist Charleston Okafor (Riddim Fish, Yankee Dreads), who is himself a native of Nigeria. After releasing an album titled Assante Groove as a solo artist, Okafor took it as a name for his performing ensemble. Like many afrobeat acts, Okafor isn't interested in strictly recreating Fela's sound. Instead, he blends it with undercurrents of jazz, reggae, and pop.

"Some bands lean more toward the funk, others are more pop. Kokolo is more to the pop side of things, which I think is good. But everyone is making their own afrobeat sound," Okafor says. "Kokolo approached me about playing a show in Cleveland. 'No one knows you,' I told them. Other than Antibalas or Fela in '92, no afrobeat bands had played here."

But then Okafor encountered Mifuné and recognized a kindred spirit. "Their leader, Jacob Fader, is a very talented musician," he says. "I like how they bring pop and electronic elements to afrobeat."

Mifuné emerged a year ago from the ashes of Moon the Giants, "a harder-edged jam band, a little more towards Zappa," according to Fader. Beginning with a "soundtrack/spaghetti-western" style, the band progressed into a mix of afrobeat and Stereolab.

"The similarity between Stereolab and afrobeat is in all the parts making up the whole," says bassist Corey Hind. "And individually, the players in our band are good players; everybody's more than accomplished in their instrument." They're also good at working toward a common goal, Fader says. "It's not ego-driven, 'Let's feature this, let's feature that,' but 'What can we all do as nine musicians to make this machine turn?'"

In execution, the sound is limber but light. While undoubtedly groove-driven, Mifuné's tuneful melodies are buoyant enough to stay afloat within the churning rhythms. Fader's wife, Christine, offers a sultry vocal undercurrent, with a breathy alto reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull reigning over the bubbly Brazilian bounce of "Girl From Ipanema." The combination of effortless, bottom-heavy swing, afrobeat funk, and electro-pop exotica is infectious.

The addition of a full-time horn section in the last few months has resulted in a lot of new material, which the band has just finished recording. Release of its 10-song debut is anticipated for sometime next month.

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