Carrying on the legacy of Fela Kuti, Chicago Afrobeat Project has brought a unique blend of afrobeat, hip-hop, funk, and jazz to the masses as one of the first nationally touring Afrobeat bands. 2013 marks the release of Nyash Up!, Chicago Afrobeat’s best produced and fourth official album. Chicago Afrobeat Project has shared the stage with a diverse group of performers, from Bill Kreutzman of the Grateful Dead to Seun Kuti, son of Fela. With a series of upcoming shows, we sat down with them to ask them a few questions. Fans of Antibalas and Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive Orchestra should definitely take notice.
Q: What can the fans expect from the new album?
A: It’s a very different album from our previous releases. The music has a bigger, more orchestrated sound to it and there is a stronger vocal element with Squair on it. It’s also a ‘covers’ concept album whereas our previous releases were mostly ground-up original material. We mashed up rock, soul, jazz, and electronic covers with Fela Kuti songs and our own interpretation of original Afrobeat.
Q: Which places or people inspired the songs on your new album?
A: I guess this album is first inspired by the artists that wrote the material we decided to rehash. But I think overall we’re inspired by the feeling we get from a room full of people getting down with us on a good night—the energy we’re fed by the crowd and the party they create with us in the clubs we perform in.
Q: What is the most fun you’ve ever had writing a song? Either actually writing it or the situation that inspired it?
A: I think back to the early days of the band when we rehearsed and wrote tunes in the Lake street loft spaces—657 and then 660 W. Lake. It was a really charged up party scene basically all the time. We did a song called ‘Talking Bush’, the title of which refers to a now semi-dated political conversation. The song just cranked itself out with a music writing contribution from nearly everyone in the group. It’s an amazing thing when something like that works out and you have a coherent piece of music when you’re finished.
Q: Who has encouraged you the most to pursue a career in music?
A: Friends and family have been enormously supportive overall. We’ve actually received a lot of positive support from Nigerians living in the US. They seem really thrilled that we’ve absorbed a piece of their culture and made it our own so to speak. There’s a Nigerian guy named ‘Nee’ (sp?) who has been to more than 20 of our Chicago shows and he always gives us a nice bump in the vibe department.
Q: Describe the moment you decided to quit your day job to pursue music as a career. Where (city at least) and when (year at least)were you?
A: Most of us still make our livings in a combo of music and other pursuits but many of us can describe a point at which a dedication to a music career seemed to cement itself. I think there is a point of no return for many musicians when they start cutting into a deeper levels of fulfillment from doing it. As far as time and place, for me it was about 2 years out of college around ‘96 in Greeley, Colorado. Every other pursuit took a back seat after that.
Q: What impact has touring had on your career?
A: Touring gives the band a chance to play a string of back-to-back shows so it rapidly hones your live performance. You improve individually and collectively. It also sharpens your sense of identity because you’re connecting with people across geographic and cultural space. And of course it grows the size and scope of your audience.
Q: Which do you enjoy most - performing live or recording in the studio?
A: Both have their appeal in different ways but for raw enjoyment you can’t beat a good live show. In the studio the satisfaction is more akin to what you get from the end result of hard focused work. It’s the assembly of your vehicle. At shows you get to actually drive it
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
A: The best advice I’d give to any musician would be that you have to feel what you’re doing, not just execute the mechanical workings of your instrument, scales, notes, and all that. It’s about connecting on stage and with the crowd. It can be extremely challenging depending on the circumstances but the pay off when it works what it’s all about.
Q: What historical musical moment do you wish you were present for?
A: I would have liked to be in the studio when a few classic albums were written and recorded. Any Pink Floyd or Beatles album, for example. The Fela recordings of course. Maybe Sgt. Peppers or Dark Side of the Moon—moments in music history when life was being made.
Q: Which artist would you most like to work with, dead or alive? And why?
A: I think it would have been interesting to work with Miles Davis even though he could be a ball buster I’m sure. Everyone describes their experience working with that guy as being a pinnacle moment in their music career.