Among the spin-off benefits which are following the success of the hit Broadway musical Fela!, and the attendant media interest in Afrobeat, is the revitalization of the Brooklyn band Akoya Afrobeat. Formed in 2002, Akoya was off radar for much of 2009, while its members were involved in other projects, but it is once again performing regularly in the New York area. Which makes this an appropriate moment to remind readers of the band's outstanding P.D.P. President Dey Pass, its second and most recent album, released during the final death throes of the Bush presidency.
Two years later, P.D.P. still stands as the most credible and exciting set of Afrobeat to be recorded in the USA since Kuti's death in 1997. The music is authentic in every detailfrom the crucial (but these days often neglected) tenor guitars, twin baritone saxophone-anchored horn section, call and response vocals, retro-modern keyboards, Tony Allen
-inspired drums and percussion, and politically focused lyrics. In this respect, the band is fortunate to have in its lead vocalist, Kaleta, a veteran of Kuti's Egypt 80 band.
But the album is much more than a revivalist exercise. For a start, it's put together by a group of musicians all of whom, it is obvious, feel Afrobeat deeply: the band inhabits the music rather than simply assembling its constituent parts in a historically accurate fashion. On top of that, the musicians are secure enough in themselves to stretch the envelope from time to time; the album is full of little twists to the basic Afrobeat paradigm which, although Kuti never played them, are nonetheless true to his founding vision. Electric bassist Felix Chen, for instance, plays an ostinato on "Fela Dey" which is a very close relative of the one played by Boris Gardiner on the Congos' "Congoman" from their Lee Perry-produced, roots reggae classic Heart Of The Congos (Black Ark, 1977). The Jamaican connection is continued with the inclusion of Gardiner's contemporary and fellow legend, the tenor saxophonist Cedric Im Brooks, who guests on "Je Je L'Aiye." The horn section, though as at home with the basic Afrobeat riffs structure as the sections in Kuti's Afrika 70 or Egypt 80 lineups, sounds Ethiopian going on late period Sun Ra
The cover art of P.D.P. was created by Gharlokwu Lemi, from the 1970s an associate of Kuti's, who designed the original sleeves for such Kuti albums as Zombie (Phonogram Nigeria) and Ikoyi Blindness (African Music International), both released in 1976 and reviewed in Part 2 of this series. Lemi's evocative artwork provides the seal of authenticity.
Hopefully, Akoya Afrobeat will get around to making another album soon. A live set would be very welcome. Meanwhile, P.D.P. is not to be missed.
Tracks: Awa L'Akoya; Fela Dey; Je Je L'Aiye; B.F.B.F. Panama; Oluya; Wahala.
Personnel: Kaleta: lead vocal, African drums, percussion, second rhythm guitar; Ryan Blotnick: tenor guitar (2, 3, 5); Nikhil Yerawadekar: tenor guitar (6); Jay Gogan: rhythm guitar, tenor guitar (4); Steve Lustig: rhythm guitar (4, 6); Gabriel Hays: keyboards; Duke Msleku: tenor saxophone; Will Jones: baritone saxophone; Jared Tankel: baritone saxophone; Jeff Pierce: trumpet; Kelly Pratt: trumpet, flugelhorn; Felix Chen: bass guitar; Carlos Icaza: sticks; Yoshio Tony Kobayashi: drum set, sticks, percussion; Yoshi Takemasa: conga, bata, shekere, percussion; Marquel Dionne: backup vocals (2-4, 6); Darlene O'Keefe: backup vocals (2-4, 6). Guests: Cedric Im Brooks: tenor saxophone (3); Segun Ajayi: Yoruba chant (1); Gbenga Owoeye Wise: Yoruba chant (2), backup vocal (2, 3, 5, 6); Mai Lingani: backup vocal (6); Gloria Osaghae: backup vocal (2, 3, 6).