[21 December 2006]
It would be very very unkind to slag off Eufórquestra just because they are a band full of white dudes from Iowa City playing Afrobeat music. But I know people who would do just that—including, once upon a time, probably, me. But I am no longer that guy (so much older then, younger than that now, etc). Plus, they are really pretty damn good as a band.
Afrobeat (if you already know this, then sorry to waste your time with the history lesson) is a style of music from Nigeria that relies on long, danceable, guitar-based jams. Fela Kuti is the big name behind this genre, but there have been many more: King Sunny Adé‘s “juju” style, so popular throughout the 1980s, was heavily influenced by Afrobeat, and longtime Fela drummer Tony Allen has put out one of 2006’s best records with Lagos No Shaking. In the U.S., the best-known group is the political combo Antibalas, whom I think are slightly overrated, but definitely really understand this style of music and its deep relationship to civics in Nigeria.
I won’t say that Eufórquestra is Fela- or King Sunny-good, or even that they have gotten anywhere near Antibalas on this, their second record. But these seven Iowans win major points because their melodies and polyrhythms are more than just slavish copies of their idols. For one thing, they directly acknowledge the influence of Afro-Cuban music on Afrobeat, and work very hard to explain this in the liner notes. For another, they fully admit that they are trying to create a new style of American music, and that they are only using elements of Afrobeat and Afro-Cuban music. So they’re off the hook for that.
More importantly, they can jam like sixty. Drummer Josten Foley does the heavy lifting here, keeping up fluid and reliable beats for ten minutes or more when he needs to. He is aided in this by percussionist/singer Matt Grundstad and bass player Adam Grosso. (Actually, the electric guitar is usually a rhythm instrument too, so let’s include guitarist Mike Tallman in that group as well.) Long songs like “Ogun” and “Elegua” just float by, due to the hypnosis achieved by these musicians.
Most of these songs are dedicated to Yoruban gods, and most of the vocal work is Afro-Cuban call and response stuff. I have no idea what they’re singing, but I guess they’re mostly based on old religious chants. Even though none of them are really understandable, it doesn’t matter—they’re spiritual and sexy, mystical and yet extremely down to earth at the same time. It doesn’t hurt that the songs are usually punctuated with beefy, jazz-based sax solos, which help keep things from flying off into the atmosphere.
Eufórquestra is also trying some new things here. The breaks on “Ochun” are as experimental as they are hot, and I’m pretty sure I hear a Santana influence on “Obatala.” But counting up who does what where and when is a mug’s game. The truth is that this is a really good fun CD with lots of great Afro-inspired music on it.
Even if they are seven white dudes from Iowa. Man, that’s not so far from where I live—maybe I’ll just trip down there sometime and get my Midwestern groove on.