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Category: afrobeat

Sizzling Afrobeat and Gospel at One of the Year’s Best Twinbills to Kick Off September

One of the best twinbills of the year is happening this Sept 1 at 7 PM at an unlikely spot, Baby’s All Right on the south side of Williamsburg, where psychedelic Afrobeat band Super Yamba share a bill with the rousingly soulful Harlem Gospel Travelers. The venue has reopened and the bands’ publicist advises that there are no restrictions; cover is $15 for what promises to be an awesome dance party. The venue webpage isn’t clear on who’s playing first, but it doesn’t matter because both acts are worth sticking around for.

Super Yamba have been one of the best party bands in town for several years. Kaleta, their frontman brings a deep background to the music after getting his start in Nigeria as a sideman with King Sunny Ade and then Fela Kuti in the late 70s.

Super Yamba’s most recent album Medaho came out in 2019 and is streaming at Soundcloud. The title means “big brother,” but in a good way. It’s a shout-out from Kaleta to his older brother, who is tragically no longer with us but was responsible for introducing the bandleader to Afrobeat.

The album is best appreciated as a cohesive whole, ideally with everybody on their feet. Throughout the playlist, organ swirls and blips tightly over strutting bass and drums. The opening number, Gogo Rock has a long, sinuous wah-wah solo from the bandleader. Track two, Mr. Diva has bitingly catchy minor-key brass riffage that Kaleta artfully picks up with his guitar as the song winds along, and a grittily insistent vocal: there’s no mistaking this for a dis!

Briskly stepping rhythms circle through Hungry Man, Angry Man as the organ keens and chirps overhead. The album’s title track is an edgy, practically punk jam with deep-space wah guitar and a clattering, circular groove. The band work a tastily quadrangulated, understated call-and-response from bass, to guitar, to organ and then horns in the next track, Goyitò

The rhythms get trickier in Jibiti, then the band kick into the Super Yamba Theme, pulsing along on the album’s catchiest bassline and stabbing horn interplay. It’s also the album’s most hypnotic interlude.

Adjotò is a big concert favorite and the most intense, careening number here. The band take the album out in a blaze of brass and staccato distorted guitar in La Gueule (Afro-French insult: “shut up”).

This blog has been in the house at several Super Yamba shows, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The most recent one was a private event in Williamsburg in the fall of 2019; whether playing for the public or just the cognoscenti, they jam like crazy.

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The Budos Band Bring Their Undulating Menace Back Home to Staten Island

Most bands tend to mellow out as they get older, but Staten Island’s Budos Band went in the opposite direction. They started out playing a psychedelic blend of Afrobeat with frequent Ethiopiques tinges and then brought a macabre Black Sabbath influence into the mix. They’re got a free outdoor concert coming up on August 4 at 7 PM on their home turf at Corporal Thompson Park, which is close to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. If you’re not a Shaolin resident, be aware that it’s a good half-hour on foot: hang a right, for starters, after you exit the ferry terminal.

Their latest album Long in the Tooth, arguably their most concise, catchiest release yet, came out during the dead of the 2020 lockdown and is streaming at Bandcamp. This time out the ghosts seem to be dancing in the courtyards of haunted castles on the Ethiopian coast rather than in gloomy Albion. The group open with the title track, guitarist Tom Brenneck building an ominous surf tune way down at the bottom as organist Mike Deller’s keening Farfisa lines float overhead, baritone saxophonist Jared Tankel the smoke peeling off the fire from Andrew Greene’s trumpet.

Track two, Sixth Hammer perfectly capsulizes the direction the band’s taken in the last few years: menacingly looping Sabbath chromatics over a cantering Ethiopian rhythm fueled by the funereal funk of the percussion section: Brian Profilio on drums, John Carbonella Jr. on congas, Rob Lombardo on bongos and Dame Rodriguez on everything else.

They slink their way through the tantalizingly brief Snake Hawk, which could be Beninghove’s Hangmen playing Mulatu Astatke. Then bassist Daniel Foder spaces out his boomy chords to punctuate Dusterado, a slower, organ-fueled oldschool noir soul groove.

The horns take over with otherworldly Ethiopian chromatic riffage over a go-go flavored pulse in Silver Stallion. Haunted Sea could be what an Ethiopian horn band might have done with a dark Dick Dale theme a half-century ago. Then the band shift from dark vintage soul to a brassy Afrobeat blaze in The Wrangler.

Brenneck – who sticks with a vintage, gritty tube-amp reverb sound here for the most part – kicks off Gun Metal Grey with his distortion turned up to breaking point, the horns swooping in with a brooding resonance. To what extent is there bullshit in the next track, Mierda De Toro? The joke seems to be the resemblance to a famous surf song, reinvented as a cantering groove built around a catchy descending bassline.

The most straightforwardly trad Ethiopian themes here are Budonian Knight and the closing cut, Renegade, Deller’s funeral-parlor organ and Brenneck’s icepick wah guitar building to a surreal dubwise break and then back. How great is it to have these amazing, darkly individualistic instrumentalists playing live shows again!

Sonny Singh Reinvents Ancient Sikh Themes As Catchy, Slinky Dance Tunes

Sonny Singh is best known as the soaring trumpeter in New York’s well-loved, ecstatically brassy bhangra dance group Red Baraat. But he’s also a composer and bandleader. His debut album Chardi Kala – streaming at Bandcamp – resembles his main band in that the music draws on ancient traditions from the Hindustani subcontinent, but it’s less thunderously percussive and more enveloping. Tantalizing hints of the Middle East and Afrobeat filter in and out of the music as well. For lyrics. Singh draws on medieval Sikh chants which celebrate subversion and defiance in the face of repression: spot-on choices for this moment in history.

To open the record, Singh and ensemble make a ringing, resounding guitar rock anthem out of an old Punjabi melody. Red Baraat are a large band, and there’s a small army playing on this album. Singh sings, plays trumpet and harmonium, joined by the core crew on most of the rest of the tunes: Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Wil Abers on bass and Dave Sharma on drums, plus Ernest Stuart on trombone.

The title track is a balmy, lilting tune with brightly sailing trumpet. Track three, Ghadar is a darkly gorgeous bhangra-rock number with Andalucian-tinged chromatics and flaring Goldberger guitar. Singh makes a swaying, starry anthem out of a kirtan theme in the album’s fourth cut, followed by an undulating melody with bright horn counterpoint, swirly harmonium and stinging guitar from Nadav Peled.

After that, we get psychedelic trip-hop with swooshy keys; a bright Punjabi soul song; a chugging bhangra brass anthem that sounds like a Punjabi Burning Spear song; an ecstatic, dub-tinged ghazal; a revolutionary-themed Bollywood spy theme; and an airy coda. All of this you can dance to.

Singh’s next restriction-free New York show is July 10 at 5 PM in the parking lot at Culture Lab in Long Island City.

Hard-Rocking Balkan Brass, Romany and Indian-Flavored Sounds From Black Masala

Black Masala‘s 2016 album I Love You Madly made the best albums of the year list here; at the time, this blog equated them to a Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. The Washington DC group’s most recent album, Trains and Moonlight Destinies – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder, with more of a roaring punk edge, through a typically diverse mix of Balkan, Indian and hard funk themes.

The album’s title track is closer to Gogol Bordello than the Slavic Soul guys, layers of guitars beneath the blazing brass of trumpeter Steven C and trombonist Kirsten Warfield, pushed along by Monty Montgomery’s oompahing Balkan ska sousaphone. The band’s axeman Duff Davis contributes a slashing doubletracked guitar solo.

Percussionist Kristen Long takes over the mic, adding a sultry edge to the dramatically pouncing Midnight Bhangra. Again, there’s as much guitar roar as biting brass here, like Red Baraat at their most rock-oriented. Above the Clouds could be a majestic early 70s Earth Wind & Fire hit…with a sousaphone.

Drummer Mike Ounallah hits a strutting minor-key Balkan reggae groove with Tell Me Again, Davis slashing through the mix when he isn’t doing droll chicken-scratch accents. The party anthem Empty Bottles shifts between brassy rocksteady and ska; then the band mash up New Orleans with Bo Diddley in Whatcha Gonna Do,

The kiss-off anthem Big Man is a mix of Balkan brass, hip-hop and punk rock, trumpet and trombone duking it out from opposite channels. The band wind up the album with the deliriously blasting Romany dancefloor stomp Chaje Shukarije.

Haunting, Wildly Psychedelic East African Sounds Rescued From an Obscure Archive in Djibouti

Many emerging African nations in the 60s and 70s had a national band. Those were typically established by newly independent regimes, to help concretize a national identity in areas which had been balkanized by Western imperialists. While those groups may have been founded and then exploited for propaganda purposes, their music was often very good, and fascinatingly cross-pollinated. One of the most intriguing was from Djibouti.

That country’s group, 4 Mars’ bandname commemorates the founding date of the ruling People’s Rally for Progress party there. What makes this music so unique is not only the haunting chromatics common throughout what is now Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, but also the global influences that passed through Djibouti’s ports. For centuries, the region has been a major Indian Ocean commercial hub: no wonder the Chinese Communists are building a naval base there.

In a much more fortuitous and peaceful development, the American firm Ostinato Records recently gained access to the massive archives of Radiodiffusion-Télévision de Djibouti and is mining the collection for all sorts of treasures never before heard outside the country. The new 4 Mars compilation Super Somali Sounds From the Gulf of Tjadoura – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first release, comprising both studio and concert recordings made by the regional supergroup between 1977 and 1994.

A couple of the cuts here are questionable: how appropriate is it to include a tribute to a repressive political figure? Sure, the praise-song tradition in Africa goes back centuries. But comparatively speaking, does the inclusion of Dixie in an anthology of American folk songs enhance the album’s historical value…or compromise it ethically and esthetically?

The album’s opening track, simply titled Natesha (Compassion) sets the stage: a Bollywood-influenced, melismatic chanteuse out front of what sounds like a lo-fi, vintage synth-driven roots reggae band playing a dark minor-key groove. That beat is actually dhaanto, an ancient East African rhythm that eventually made its way to Jamaica.

The quasi-reggae pulse gets more organic, with swirly organ, spare bass, trebly tremolo guitar and one-drop drums in the epic, almost ten-minute Hobolayee Nabadu (Hello Peace). The group’s saxophonist, Mohamed Abdi Alto – who now leads the excellent Groupe RTD – plays spare, biting minor-key riffs and remains an often haunting presence on many of these tracks.

Dhulika Hooyo (Motherland) is cheerier, with more surreal harmonies and a massed choir which could be half kids: at their peak, the group comprised more than forty members including dancers. How powerful is Tamarta (Power)? Not so much: this is one of the more synthy tracks, guy/girl vocals matched by tradeoffs between flute and keys, shifting to an unexpected latin soul-inflected groove.

Daroor (rough translation: Drought) has a loping, vaudevillian beat behind the Bollywood-style vocals. The number after that is faster: imagine Fela playing rocksteady. The song for an iron-fisted Djiboutien ruler has more of a strut and is a lot shorter. Likewise, the pulse of Lana Rabeen Karo (It Cannot Be Desired), a long one-chord jam which seems less forced: one thing that definitely can’t be desired is having to sing for a dictator.

Tellingly, the female singers are missing until a couple of minutes into the even more disturbingly titled Tilman Baa Lagu Socdaa (Follow the Rules). Like several of the reggae-ish tracks here, Inkaar Walid (The Elders’ Curse) could be a Burning Spear anthem with surreal Chinese flute and Balkan pop influences.

The broodingly catchy Abaal (Gratitude) seems to be of the same early 80s-tinged vintage as the album’s opening number, with flaring metal guitar, warpy synth and hasty, overcompressed lo-fi production. An acerbically modal traditional wedding song gets a bouncy, electric update with keening flute and synth along with more Ethiopian-flavored vocals: it’s arguably the catchiest track here. The concluding epic is a real departure, a melancholy, pentatonic Chinese ballad. Goes to show what a range of flavors the trade winds will blow in. Let’s hope for winds of trade rather than winds of war in that part of the world in the coming years.

Punchy Afrobeat Grooves From Surefire Sweat

Toronto band Surefire Sweat play a very tight, purposeful style of Afrobeat. Solos are short and succinct, the grooves a little heavier and more focused than most acts who jam out African-flavored funk. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open with Threshold, a brassy stomp built around an assertive, repetitive riff from tenor saxophonist Elena Kapeleris (their not-so-secret weapon here), baritone saxophonist Paul Metcalfe and trumpeter Brad Eaton.

Set to bandleader/drummer Larry Graves and bassist Liam Smith’s soukous-flavored groove, For All the Times I Never Came to See You has similarly punchy horn riffage and a bright, spiraling solo from Kapeleris.

The rhythms grow trickier and more loping in Sunshine Interference, with a jaggedly allusive guitar solo from Paul MacDougall. A Tale of Two Times is moodier and a lot closer to vintage Fela, Kapeleris’ long, pensive solo at the center. The band build RH Factor, a bright, cheery tune, around exchanges between Graves and percussionist Dave Chan along with a spacious trumpet solo.

The album’s catchiest and darkest number, On the Phrynge has some cool, subtle rhythmic shifts around an uneasy, trilling Kapeleris solo. Number Nine, a shout-out to longtime Fela drummer Tony Allen, slowly grows more complex, with accents from the whole band shifting through the mix. They close the record with Scuffle Strut, a slow New Orleans funk tune set to a pretty straight-up rock beat.

A Picturesque, Psychedelic New Instrumental Soul Album From the Menahan Street Band

Of all the oldschool soul groups that followed Sharon Jones’ ascendancy out of New York in the mid-zeros, Menahan Street Band were the most distinctive, psychedelic and also the darkest. Nobody did noir soul in New York like these guys. And they didn’t even have a singer. It’s been a long time between albums for them, but that’s because everybody in the band is also involved with other projects, or at least was before the lockdown. Their long-awaited new album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band lives up to its title and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Midnight Morning, sums up how these guys work. It’s a steady oldschool 70s groove, bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Thomas Brenneck’s twinkling keys and sheets of organ over the graceful, understated rhythm section of guest bassist “Bosco Mann” – hmmm, now who could that be – and drummer Homer Steinweiss. But the gently gusting harmonies from Leon Michels’ tenor sax and Dave Guy’s trumpet are more bracing than they are balmy.

Regular bassist Nick Movshon takes over with a spare, trebly hollow-body feel on the second track, Rainy Day Lady, Brenneck’s sparse, eerily Satie-esque piano exchanging with the horns and Michels’ organ as the sun pushes the clouds away. They completely flip the script with The Starchaser, a gritty, tensely cinematic, Morricone-ish tableau driven by Brenneck’s trebly, careening guitar and Michels’ trailing sax lines.

Silkworm rises out of dubwise trip-hop mystery with Brenneck on keening portamento synth along with the horns. Cabin Fever is surreal fuzztone Afrobeat; after that, the band return to enigmatic oldschool slow jam territory with Rising Dawn and its blazing layers of guitar.

The album’s most tantalizingly short interlude is Glovebox Pistol, a slinky desert rock theme in wee-hours deep Brooklyn disguise. Likewise, Queens Highway is a slow, spacious after-midnight miniature.

Michels’ organ swirls, the horns waft and Brenneck’s layers of regal soul chords permeate the next track, Snow Day. Brian Profilio takes over the drums on the cheery, dub-inflected miniature Parlour Trick. Mike Deller’s Farfisa loops and washes filter over a funky strut in The Duke, Ray Mason’s trombone beefing up the brass. Stepping Through Shadow has a wistful tiptoe pulse and elegant Stylistics jazz chords.

Devil’s Respite is the album’s best track, a darkly anthemic vamp with couple of unexpected tarpit interludes before the brass kick back in again. They close the record with There Was a Man, a slow, fond 12/8 ballad without words with the feel of a late 60s classic soul instrumental like The Horse. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2021 page here – and there’s going to be one. Spring is coming to New York right now, and it’s about time!

A Heavy Psychedelic Afrobeat-Metal Suite From Here Lies Man

Here Lies Man are a spinoff of legendary second-wave Afrobeat band Antibalas. Their first couple of records basically metalized that Fela-inspired sound, with mixed results. Their new album Ritual Divination – streaming at Bandcamp – is where the rubber really hits the road.

They’re found themselves here: if you have to hang a name on what they’re doing, you could call it heavy psychedelia. Rhythms shift suddenly, dubwise touches filter through the mix occasionally, guitars roar and stab. Because much of this album is basically a suite – or a Fela-style sidelong jam separated into shorter tracks – it’s best enjoyed as a whole. And it’s a long album, sixteen songs, mostly instrumental: you could say that after awhile it all sounds like one long song, but it’s a good one.

They open the album with In These Dreams, a loping minor-key groove with gusts from Marcos Garcia’s distorted guitar and organ from Doug Organ (that’s the dude’s name) over a beat that’s practically reggae until the chorus kicks in. I Told You (You Shall Die), the second track, is a killer minor-key number that could be a heavier Budos Band with a mellotron.

They run the big, brisk riff from Underland over and over, then with What You See they shift up the tempos with it. Can’t Kill It has a circling stoner blues riff, a tricky rhythmic interlude from bassist JP Maramba and drummer Geoff Mann and a big, swirly stampede. Things get swirlier, then more suspensefully gritty in Run Away Children

If Sabbath had played Afrobeat – or if Fela had been a metalhead – you’d have I Wander. There’s a little stoner boogie in Night Comes, and postpunk stomp in Come Inside.

Collector of Vanities has the whole picture: funereal organ, punchy chords, allusive chromatics. Disappointed will not disappoint you with its weird mashup of garage rock, dark dub and a goofy Sabbath reference. Then the band shift between leaden riffage and fleet-footed, organ-spiced Afrobeat in You Would Not See From Heaven.

Strangely, The Fates Have Won is one of the album’s catchiest yet most hypnotic tracks. Out Goes the Night has weirdly undulating rhythms and the trippiest organ parts here. The group finally wind everything up with Cutting Through the Tether, another organ-infused tune and the most trance-inducing one on the album.

Irresistibly Edgy, Catchy, Psychedelic Tropical Dance Sounds From Superfonicos

Texaas-Colombian band Superfonicos play slinky tropical psychedelia. They’re part cumbia, part skaragga, part Afrobeat and part classic descarga too: there’s no other band on the planet who sound like them. Their debut album Suelta is streaming at Soundcloud. There haven’t been a lot of albums released lately, but this has got to be one of the best short albums of the year. It’s got a million textures to tickle the synapses – and you can dance to all of it.

It’s hard to figure out what that trebly, reverbtoned instrument that opens the first track is: turns out it’s reverb guitar, sax and gaita flute all at the same time. With wry reggaeton-infuenced lyrics, gracefully syncopated bass and hypnotically shuffling drums and percussion, it’s as catchy as it is hypnotic. That seems to be the point of the record.

The second track, Ethiopian Dust is a dusky gem, with an undulating clave beat, bracingly chromatic sax over trippy wah-wah guitar effects blipping through the mix, a brief guitar solo leaving a trail of sparks. Merecumbe is a straight-up oldschool disco groove with jagged merengue accents, biting Afrobeat brass and an even more searing guitar break.

With its chugging organ, shuffling drums and spare, dubwise bass, Rio Negro is closer to straight-up Afrobeat – until the instruments build an echoy web and the band make a cumbia out of it. The swaying, riff-driven Sigo Palante is the loudest track here. They close the album with the title cut, rising from a toxic cloud of noise to a a funky wah guitar groove with a couple of reggaeton breaks, a metalish guitar solo and punchy minor-key horns all around. Let’s hope we get an even longer album from these guys – singer/gaitero Jaime Ospina, guitarists Erick Bohorquez and Andres Villegas, bassist Nico Sanchez and percussionist Daniel Sanchez – next time around.

Ferocious Oldschool Protest Soul and Funk From Soul Scratch

Soul Scratch play fearlessly woke, searingly political funk and soul with a spot-on early 70s vibe and more than a hint of Afrobeat in places. The production really nails a vintage analog feel: trebly, organic guitar and bass, shuffling percussion with drums and congas, and blazing, incisive horns. Their album Pushing Fire is streaming at Bandcamp.

The brass punches in, Joel Givertz’s wah-wah guitar scatters and the rhythm section – Johnny Chou on bass and Adam Greenberg on drums – slinks along with an emphatic 70s latin soul groove on the confrontational opening track, Pacified. “Where’s that outrage now, where’s my people on the streets? Corporations got a voice while we sit silent in defeat!” frontman Dale Spollett reminds. “We’ve got that same old addiction, a different kind of coke.”

Look How Far We’ve Come is an impassioned noir soul ballad in 6/8 time, referencing the murder of Eric Garner, “Just another life lost to the beast.” The horns soar and punch in over a strutting, swinging minor-key vamp in The Road Looks Long, a message of strength and resilience for dark times.

The bass scampers underneath the summery horns of the instrumental Odessa Heat, capturing that magic late 60s moment when American soul bands started to catch what was coming out of Ethopia, and vice versa. The group go back to a warmly soulful sway in It’s Not Over, a bittersweet look at the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the work still left for us to do. “Don’t cry now, it’s not over,” Spollett encourages. “Ir’s hard to change a system, there’s no fellowship, only greed.”

Kiss Me in the Morning is a one-chord jam and a launching pad for his soaring voice. They pick up the pace with more of a vintage JB’s feel in Be Kind and then keep that going, reaching escape velocity in Empty Cup, smoky baritone sax underneath the brass.

The album’s catchiest instrumental is the simmering Fireside Lounge, which could be a vintage Isaac Hayes jam with a tight, purposeful Matt Reale trumpet solo over the rippling wah-wah backdrop. They close the album with Thank You, a slow vintage Memphis style gospel/blues ballad. This is a great party record and a great dance record – and it’s also inspiration to keep up the fight.