Chopteeth is a Washington, D.C.-based ensemble founded in 2004 by a labor organizer who fell in love with the hard-charging, politically explosive pepper pot of 1970s-era Afrocentric funk music. The name itself is a reference to Afrofunk’s cornerstone, Fela Kuti, and Chopteeth’s music is overwhelmingly indebted to him stylistically. On Afrofunk Big Band, their debut release, the group is tight and technically impressive, leaving little doubt that they have mastered the demands of the genre. While it eschews massively extended jams (no track runs longer than seven minutes), the disc is packed with hypnotic rhythms, fat brass melodies, and accomplished solos, particularly from keyboardist Jon Hoffschneider.
It’s a formula that’s sure to please fans of groups on the Ropeadope and Daptone labels, like Antibalas and the Budos Band. Unlike these groups, however, Chopteeth adopt modern recording aesthetics on Afrofunk Big Band, bringing them somewhat closer to the sound of Galactic. Yet Chopteeth’s ambitions lie in more than just laying down some dirty funk; like Fela, they also see themselves as agents of change, and the majority of the ten tracks on the album feature lyrics of a political or revolutionary nature. Here the group stumbles; in their zeal to meticulously recreate the zeitgeist of Fela’s music, they tack on a parade of vague and shopworn complaints about corrupt politicians, blind journalists, nefarious demagogues, and the evils of war. After eight years, listening to musicians preach about the foibles of the Bush administration has become frankly tiring. The fact that these are often delivered in Fela-esque pidgin English takes the homage too far; it wears the music thin, making Chopteeth’s Afrobeat feel like a parody or a throwback rather than a contribution to a living, vibrant tradition. Antibalas’s best offerings are protest songs in title only, and are most effective when the music itself makes the social case; as they are excellent students, the members of Chopteeth would do well to take note.