Interview: Alma Afrobeat Ensemble

Alma Afrobeat Ensemble Interview Web

The eclectic modern afrobeat sounds of Alma Afrobeat Ensemble can be traced back to 2006, when founder Aaron Feder relocated from Chicago to Barcelona. Once there, he cultivated a group of international musicians, including Nigerian singer, Joe Psalmist. The group has since released three albums, with their latest, It’s Time, featuring an exciting combination of new songs and remixes by popular DJs from around the world. We talked to Aaron in advance of Alma Afrobeat Ensemble’s show at The Cedar Sunday, May 22nd

Q: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

A: I listened to a bit of everything growing up. I was lucky in that my parents raised me in a house across the street from famed Ravinia Festival in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Ravinia is a summertime venue that hosts not only the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but wonderful acts like Buena Vista Social Club, King Sunny Ade, Derek Trucks Band etc.  Being able to hear that out my window was a huge musical influence. Additionally, my parents have a nice vinyl collection, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Woodstock albums, but especially Bob Dylan. My thirst for protest and social awareness is definitely rooted in Bob’s music.

I also began working at a record store in Highland Park, where I grew up, and this afforded me the opportunity to listen to everything and more!

However, my true musical coming of age came when I traded Pearl Jam tickets to go see the Grateful Dead in High School. That changed my whole musical panorama, from the crystalline guitar sound of Jerry Garcia, to the open improvisations, long, trance inducing arrangements and people dancing everywhere.

Q:  What prompted your move to Spain and how did that influence the band?

A: On the one hand I had studied in Spain, like many Americans, but also I did my graduate work in Spanish Linguistics, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to come with a teaching position at the university of Barcelona in 2001-2002.  This gave me a taste of what living and working here would be like, and I played my first gig here at a Canadian owned bagel shop, of all places!

I then returned in 2006 with the same job, but this time I had the idea to re-form Alma Afrobeat Ensemble, a band that I had formed in Chicago and Champaign (IL) while in graduate school.  A few days after returning to BCN (in 20016) I met Kwame Adzraku. It was relatively late at night (by USA standards) and I was in Gracia, which was kind of like the old East Village at that time and I saw an older African guy walking down the street with a pair of drumsticks in his hand. I stopped him and started talking to him in Spanish…when I saw that he had a pleasantly puzzled look on his face, I realized he did not speak too much Spanish (though now he does!). We went for a drink at a bar I was going to anyways- the Bar Electric, a mythical (now defunct) small music venue that had shows 7 nights a week. We got to know each other that night, which ended with Kwame telling the owner, Marlene, that he and I would be playing there soon.

I then spent 3 or 4 months with Kwame everyday at his house, a large squatted school building which had African concerts and parties on the weekend. He taught me the basics of guitar for high-life, soukous, native blues and more. I later joined his band, Kwame Afrovibes, and he was the drummer and singer for Alma Afrobeat Ensemble’s first album, and first few tours of Spain.

The actual “reformation” of the band occurred the summer after my first 7 months here, because we got an offer to play at Fiestizaje, a huge free outdoor festival in the middle of Galicia, on the path of “Santiago’s way”, (el Camino de Santiago). I found the other musicians I wanted, and we did a short tour across the country, stopping in Madrid along the way. The festival was a huge success- we played from 4 am until sunrise…I will never forget the sight of the sun rising over the mountains, and where there had previously been 5,000 people, there were only discarded beer cups…we had breakfast looking down over the Bierzo valley, and got back in the van to drive 8 hours back to Barcelona.

Q: What is the Afrobeat scene like in Spain?

A: There really is not an Afrobeat “scene”, so to speak. There is one other band playing Afrobeat, strictly speaking (Ogun Afrobeat, from Madrid), and there are a few Afro influenced bands, it is really more appropriate to address the Africanmusic scene. There is a significant number of talented African musicians and groups living in Barcelona. A few years ago we realized that this great pool of musicians was not really getting the opportunities we felt that were deserved, so together with our manager (Javi Zarco- Ojos de Brujo, Peret, Dusminguet) and our bass player Fernando Redondo, the three of us formed Slow Walk Music, a record label/production/booking company that specializes in African music from Barcelona. In those 2 years we have released around 10 albums from 5 or 6 different musicians and groups. In fact, as AAbE is in the USA, Ebo Taylor (legendary Ghanaian musician) is touring Spain on a tour we helped organize.

Q: You’ve said that you like to incorporate local musicians into the group while on tour. Where did this idea come from?

A: Well, music is a communal art form- while I do not want to take anything away from the European classical music tradition, but the oral tradition has always been more interesting to me. Music is supposed to be inclusive, not exclusive, and we reflect that through our live shows.

Q:  How has your sound evolved since your debut full-length, Toubab Soul?

A: Our sound has evolved primarily around the different singers we have had. Kwame Adrzraku (Ghana) was on our first album, and he brought a rootsy- high life influence. Our second album, Life No Get Dublicate, featured Babacar Gaye (Senegal), a rapper. So on that album we developed a new, urban Afrobeat feel. And on the new album we feature our new singer, Joe “Olawale” Psalmist (Lagos, Nigeria) and we have developed an even more powerful dynamic, as Joe has an incredibly strong voice.


Alma Afrobeat Ensemble

Alma Afrobeat Ensemble
The band locks into a fierce soulful groove. With a laugh, the singer enters, Rhodes and percussion percolating behind him. “It’s a beautiful world,” he chuckles, and the music starts to lift off. The Alma Afrobeat Ensemble is on the stage. And that’s where they’ll be starting on May 19th, 2016, as they begin a 10 day Midwestern tour to support their third album, It’s Time (to be released April 1, 2016). It’s definitely time for the band, bringing the heartening sound of Afrobeat from Barcelona, Spain to the American heartland.
“It’s a little weird,” says guitarist and group founder Aaron Feder. “I actually started the band in Chicago in 2003. But I moved to Spain 10 years ago and that’s where it really began to happen. So this is actually our first proper American tour.”
To say it’s taken off hardly does the band justice. They’ve closed out the last night of WOMAD Canary Islands, taking the coveted headlining slot, and shared the stage with the legendary master of Ghanaian highlife music, Ebo Taylor, as well as the junkyard pioneers Konono No 1.  Afropop Worldwide has called the band’s sound “as dark and intensely danceable as any African musical experience can be,” and their songs have been featured on PRI’s The World, in movies and on TV shows. It’s very definitely time.
“It’s Time has 35 minutes of music that we played live in the studio, with just a few overdubs later,” Feder says. “Then we gave those tracks to some DJs to reimagine the music. We’ve done that all through our career, with every album. The only instructions were that they shouldn’t sound like the originals.”
The five remixes by the likes of DJ Farmo, DJ Phader, Los Kalakos, DJ Quiet and Ray Lugo, that make up the rest of the album do the band full justice, but certainly take the music in very different directions, bringing in elements of hip-hop, coupé decalé, dance music, and dub. And that’s absolutely fine, Feder says.
“We’re not purists. Afrobeat has always been dance music. That’s what Fela made. But he was also influenced by what he heard when he was in London and Los Angeles. He saw the possibilities for the music, and we try to also. We’re not revisiting the past. We want to embrace the future.”
Like Fela Kuti, the originator of Afrobeat, the band isn’t afraid to tackle difficult issues in the music. “Shakedown” explores racism and corruption, while “Lost” looks at the philosophical implications of being a good person. But through it all, the beat continues, moving feet as well as hearts and minds.
Putting original music and remixes on the same disc also deliberately raises the question of what, exactly, is an album these days.
“We certainly wanted to consider that,” Feder notes. “The definition has changed so much in the last 10 years. So often now, people think in terms of individual tracks and all the different formats, so bands have to, as well. But we still tell a story with the album, hence the Side A and Side B. Plus, just before the tour we’ll put out a vinyl version of It’s Time with just the four original cuts. But there’ll also be a code to download all the tracks, including the remixes. We think it’s quite a modern album.”
The album also marks another big change:  the addition of a new member to the nine-strong band. Singer Joe Psalmist was born in Lagos, Nigeria; he has Afrobeat in his blood and that shows in the way he’s quickly become an integral member of the band, with a commanding presence both onstage and on recordings.
“I met him two years ago,” Feder recalls. “Joe comes from a musical family and he runs a gospel choir here. He fits naturally into the band, this takes him to part of his musical heritage. He’s very influenced by soul music and you can hear that in his voice.”
The band has evolved. That’s documented in the music Alma Afrobeat Ensemble has released, and all the shows the musicians have played, even taking the music back to the African continent on one notable occasion when they played in the city of Ceuta.
In addition to the musicians coming from the Iberian Peninsula, the band will pick up local musicians in the Midwest, bringing a slightly different twist to the tour.
“It’s going to be good,” Feder says with certainty. “I’ve played with these people before when I’ve come back to Chicago. They’ll fit in, but they’ll also bring their own styles. When we tour we almost always pick up additional horn players and percussionists wherever we go; sometimes dancers and other guests. This way there is more of a community atmosphere, and we can have more interaction with our environment. And it’s going to be a thrill to bring this music back to where I grew up. I’m so proud of what everyone in the band has done, and what they’ve given and keep on giving.”
It’s Time.