Contributed by Gee Forjay (@312mrg)
Afrobeat is a sound and a movement, music and a state of mind. It's the joyous awakening of a continent from a colonial nightmare and the crushing realization that the nightmare isn't over yet. It's anguish and happiness whipped together with traditional drums, cheap guitars, and even cheaper amps. For the uninitiated, Afrobeat, in its purest form, is intensely beat-heavy, drawing as much inspiration from American funk, soul and jazz as from aboriginal chants and rhythms. Allmusic.com states that "its musicians tended to favor large ensembles, extended grooves and improvised jam sessions, but that at its core it was dance music." Over the course of the the 1970s, however, many varieties and mutations would spring up, each drawing from more distant forms. The evolution continues today.
If you've heard it and especially if you've heard it live, you've felt it. Twelve years ago, I meandered into the Park West for a triple bill show, but the headliner that night (Mike Clark's Prescription Renewal) didn't make the biggest impression. Instead, it will be remembered as the night I discovered a genre. I didn't know this sound existed, but the moment I heard it, I was hooked, because I felt it.
Antibalas was the band that provided this introduction and it will always be my reference point. From the moment they took the stage, they commanded the room and sonically carved out dance space on the hardwood of the Park West. Their cinematic stage presence, polyrhythmic percussion and symphonic funk created the pulsating driving beat, like a washing machine revving the room into a spastic spin cycle.
While the low end stabilizes, the keys and horns trade off leads and licks that take you from a stand still to the cliff's edge of a full-on freak. That shit happened in every song of their 40 minute set. The band had me hooked two songs in, and this was before I even knew they had a vocalist.
I've since seen Antibalas about three additional times in Chicago, again under the purple chandeliers of the Fillmore in San Francisco, and also in Milwaukee. I loved closing my eyes at shows like these, riding on the waves of the rhythm and surrendering to the power of the music. Antibalas has written a significant page in the genre's growth in recent years. However, my exposure to the true pioneers like Fela Kuti, Fema Kuti and Tony Allen has led to some brilliant places as well.
Sound this rich deserves attention -- and I want to provide a place to start. I have put together a 90 minute playlist of songs and bands that serve as a fine introduction to this music: from its earliest days to its modern manifestations. A soundtrack for everyday activites, or a playlist that can be slid on as a party is turning the edge late in the evening, I dare you to try not to dance, shake or move. At 8AM, 5PM, or 2AM - Afrobeat is fully adaptable to its surroundings.