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Translating Freedom

Baltimore Afrobeat Society, Floristree, Oct. 18

Frank Hamilton
The Baltimore Afrobeat Society Lets The Rhythm Hit It At Floristree.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/22/2008

Five years into its adventure,the Baltimore Afrobeat Society is only growing stronger. As organized and coordinated by saxophonist Chris Pumphrey (often the mohawked man conducting changes and segues with hand signs onstage), the Baltimore Afrobeat Society has become a local joy, playing out infrequently but delivering epic, jubilant sets each and every time this 23-member ensemble hits a stage. This past Saturday night's performance at Floristree was no different, and at the end of the eighth song, a little more than two and half hours of solid music from the deep songbook of the vanguard of Afrobeat, the late Nigerian Fela Anikulapo Kuti, both band and the nearly 600 wiggling people in the audience looked both charged and spent from the journey.

The thing is, the Baltimore Afrobeat Society shouldn't work at all. The band's ranks are filled primarily with musicians from Baltimore's off-the-map experimental music community, where catholic musical forms and instrumentation are mere conventions to be rewired, short-circuited, and re-created in some fashion to yield sights and sounds that, ideally, haven't been heard before. Take the usual musical project from any one of the Baltimore Afrobeat Society's members--keyboard player and Fela vocalist Tom Boram; saxophonists John Berndt, John Dierker, Ben Forstenser, Rose Hammer, Pumphrey, and Calvin Tullos; trumpeters Mike Cerri, Chris Manthorne, and Geof Manthorne; conga players Mike Wright and Zak Fusciello; shaker Steve Windows; cowbell/woodblock Bob Wagner; drummer Curtis Gorham; guitarists Chris Donoghue, Matt Dickinson, and Erich von Marko; bassist Dan Breen; and perpetually dancing female vocalists Abby Mott, Shawna Potter, Katie Pumphrey, and Kristen Toedtman--and, apples to oranges, it doesn't sound anything like Afrobeat, although many of these free improvisers are more than familiar with the extended jam. Baltimore improvisation is many things, but sitting well inside the pocket of an ecstatic groove is not what you're going to find veterans of the Red Room doing on their own.

And yet--that's the big question here. And yet why and how does this ensemble pull off this politically charged, sexually insistent music with such a vivacious glee? The rediscovery of both Afrobeat and Fela Kuti himself is one of the many gifts the age of digital reproduction has bestowed upon music and culture fans. Almost his entire catalog was released as CD twofers during the tail end of the 1990s and early 2000s, and compilations such as Nigeria 70 made heads swing as ears first heard the ass-flattening funky struts churned out by African bands in the 1970s.

There's something extra special about Kuti's blithe combination of irrepressible music, political ideas, and defiant attitude, though, that's even more attractive. In many ways, Kuti's music speaks directly to generations weaned on DIY politics and art. Kuti's album artwork and bluntly direct language--such as Coffin for Head of State's combination of actual photographs and hand-drawn cartooning, Original Sufferhead's text collages, and Expensive Shit's photo of shirtless women raising their fists behind barbed wire--speaks very, very directly to anybody who grew up with hardcore 7-inch album art, punk's engaged directness, and many musical subculture's subversive imagery.

As in, when you see the Baltimore Afrobeat Society perform you get the feeling that something about this man and his music just connects with the musicians playing it, even if the predominantly white ensemble knows very little about what it was like to be a radical African in the 1970s. Nothing is insincere, not even Boram doing his best to re-create the sharp notes and yelping volume spikes of Kuti's often pidgin English lyrics. That Boram often has the beard of a Mennonite elder and the wardrobe of a revivalist preacher only distances the band even more from its source, but in the distance grows its greatest strength: The Baltimore Afrobeat Society isn't trying to take Fela Kuti and make him their own; they've given themselves to the music in order to try to re-create its dizzying freedom. And so these local musicians, very much used to large-scale collaborations, can tap into their seemingly bottomless energy wells to ignite Kuti's music onstage.

And it's definitely an exothermic reaction. The set list--"Stalemate," "ITT" (featuring a screaming solo from Dierker), "Na Poi," "Just Like That," "JJD," "Coffin for Head of State," "Kalakuta Show," and "Everything Scatter"--offered Afrobeat's rhythmic ebbs and flows, which opens up here and there for gorgeous solos, swells that part the hair when nine horns start blowing, and the sort of unbridled pure-sex funky bass and drums that only a man who has had 70 wives can muster. Boram, as always, is a marvel as Kuti's stand-in, energetically wiry and expressive. Nothing about his walking in Kuti's vocal shoes feels mannered. The female singers must have marathoners' lungs to dance and sing in place for so long. And bassist Breen--standing atop a riser behind the drum kit wearing wrap-around glaucoma shades, an oxford shirt, tie, pale blue scarf, and wild mane of curly hair--looked like an internal-affairs cop from a 1970s Sidney Lumet movie auditioning for a role in a Noel Redding biopic. In other words, effing perfect.

But the end of the night belonged to guitarist Chris Donoghue, who unfurled a run-on sentence of an out-of-sight guitar solo in "Kalakuta Show" that sounded like he was channeling Get Up With It-era Pete Cosey with his heavy, freakshow pyrotechnic work. And every Baltimore Afrobeat Society show includes such a moment because the ensemble makes room for such individuals in the funk maelstrom, a moment when one player just rips his or her head open lets it all flow out. Anxiously awaiting the next brainbomb. (Bret McCabe)

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