Monday, May 02, 2005

Original Sufferheads

Antibalas? Forget about it. Femi Kuti? Not even close. Tony Allen? Don't think so. Improbable as it sounds, the best afrobeat band on the planet right now is The Baltimore Afrobeat Society. I know it seems crazy, but I also know what I heard.

Last Friday night, the 21-person ensemble played one of their semi-annual gigs at a loft space on the fifth floor of the H&H Building in downtown Baltimore. The show wasn't advertised or listed in the paper and my friend Megan had to call several friends just to find out what time it started. And yet when the band trickled onstage just before midnight, the place was packed with over 500 people. It was a youngish crowd - mostly under 40 - but evenly mixed both racially and gender-wise. People started dancing during the first tune and most stayed for the entire non-stop, three-hour set.

The Baltimore Afrobeat Society is an unlikely amalgam of folks to play the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. And that's putting it mildly. The instrumentalists are a largely lily white bunch, looking both scruffy and studious. The female back-up singers wear bikini-tops and bicycle shorts. Weirdest of all is the lead singer - a pasty fellow with a bushy black beard, glasses, and porkpie hat. So these are the people bringing to life the music of the "Black President," Nigeria's outspoken and militant pan-africanist?

Authenticity took a beating from the very first notes of the show. The B.A.S. has a tight, loud, and powerfully raw sound. They've done their homework and got Fela's grooves and arrangements down pat. The songs built, ebbed, and built up again as effortlessly as the records. The back-up singers were pitch-perfect - chanting, sassing, and ululating in unison - maybe even better than their counterparts in Afrika 70. Amazingly, the bearded lead singer seemed to be channeling Fela - his inflections, his pidgin English, his growling bass voice.

But this wasn't some slavish imitation, either. The achievement of the B.A.S. far outpaces any typical cover band. Their tempos were occassionally more frenetic, the solos stretched in different directions, and the saxophonists and trumpeters weren't afraid to inject some skronk into their playing. Amazingly, people didn't blink or stop dancing during some of the abrasive soloing - often it incited a more frenzied response from the crowd. The set was laced with Fela classics - "Kalakuta Show," "Go Slow," "Open and Close," "Zombie" - but also avoided too many obvious choices. Already operating on only a few hours sleep, I was expecting to last just a few songs but the blazing three hour set passed before I knew it. I left the show sweaty and blissfully worn out, wondering what Fela would've made of a bunch of bohemian white kids from Baltimore inhabiting his songs so fully. But then you can't pick your disciples - they pick you. And the Baltimore Afrobeat Society proved themselves worthy of their master's mantle by any measuring stick.


Blogger bee said...

I was there and I worn out the rest of the weekend from the best night I have had in a while!

11:41 PM  

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