Music

Ladybrille Music: Afrofunk Politics and Party Grooves Fall into Place on Elikeh’s Between 2 Worlds

 “Let’s go under the tree; the drums are already beating. Hey! Wow! Look at how people are shaking their things already!” cries bandleader and songwriter Massama Dogo of Washington DC’s cross-cultural Afropop party, Elikeh. “In Togo, when people are drumming, people say the drummer is burning. Let’s go! He’s on fire.”

The eight-member group knows how to get the fire burning. They channel that energy into funkified pop anthems and thoughtful critiques of corruption, ignorance, and cultural neglect. Now on Between 2 Worlds (Azalea City Recordings; release: August 23, 2012), the group digs deep into the African vintage pop inspiration, the reggae vibes, and the current craze for African-inflected funk and blues on an album that easily straddles two continents.

With bold brass, interlocking percussion, and a sixth sense for the groove, Elikeh mixes precision with just enough raw power to pack a punch. Joined by Malian guitar whiz Vieux Farka Toure (“Alonye”) and jam guitar master John Kadlecik (Furthur, Dark Star Orchestra; “Nye’n mind na wo”), Between 2 Worlds moves from Togolese roots and beats to purring organ and hot grooves, from immigrant alienation to exhortations to keep one’s culture and sense of self (“Know Who You Are”).

“I always describe Elikeh’s music as like taking Fela Kuti and mixing him with Bob Marley. Put in a pot and stir for three minutes and add some Osibisa and Togolese traditional music to it and let it all boil for two more minutes,” Dogo laughs. “Then you add a sprinkle of rock and you have Elikeh.”

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Massama Dogo and Elikeh have long been striving to get people under that tree, shaking it to those drums.

Dogo’s original impetus for starting a band began back home in Togo, a place that still inspires and distresses him. He longed to hear more of the music rooted in local traditions, in a scene dominated by rap, synths, and playback. Dogo himself had cut his teeth playing with a variety of reggae and pop bands around Lomé, Togo’s biggest city and capital.

But Dogo wants to do more than incorporate tradition into well-arranged pop. He wants to change his compatriots’ minds. In songs like “No Vision” and “Foot Soldier,” Dogo calls for people in his homeland and across Africa to see what he feels is the true source of the poverty and inequality that haunts Dogo every time he returns home.

“When I’ve gone to Togo, I’ve gone to touch base with my country and ancestors, and really see what’s going on there,” Dogo explains, describing a recent trip home. “People need to defend themselves. It’s not the West that’s the main problem; it’s the leaders,” leaders Dogo repeatedly takes to task for their greed and unwillingness to serve the people.

But Dogo and Elikeh inhabit another world beyond West Africa and its joys and struggles. Winding up as an immigrant in Washington DC in 2000, Dogo unknowingly landed in an unlikely African music pop hotspot. Home to musicians from across Africa—as well as skilled and versatile musicians from jazz, funk, and classical backgrounds—Dogo soon gathered a crack team of diverse, Afropop-loving players. Many of them, including Nigerian lead guitarist Frank Martins, knew how closely politics and music are entwined: Martins was arrested when authorities heard that his upcoming record had political leanings. Once freed, he fled for London and eventually landed in the U.S.

Over time, Elikeh became more than a simple vehicle for Dogo’s vision; it became a tight musical collective with a seasoned sound and distinct sensibility, a band that united two worlds. That’s why Dogo and the band decided to record their next album in Togo, Mali, and DC, bringing in both current bellwethers of African popular music (Vieux Farka Toure’s dazzling Malian blues guitar work) and musicians drawing on American rock roots (Kadlecik’s vocal and instrumental response to Dogo’s urgent calls in Togo’s Mina language).

These sonic conversations lie at the heart of the album. With an almost delicate, vintage sound, Toure strikes up a conversation with Dogo, and Malian master Mamadou Cherif Soumano’s sparkling kora contrasts with Kadlecik’s rock lines. The back-and-forth echoes both traditional call-and-response and the complexities of the immigrant experience Dogo explores and breaks down in his songs.

The two worlds Elikeh operates in are audible in other ways, as well. “Eh Wee” rips from a rock start to a steady groove, and tracks inspired by UK-Ghanaian funk band Osibisa capture some of the band’s genre-hopping vintage glitz (“Olesafrica”). Though Fela is the best known Afrobeat patriarch, Elikeh rethinks the Sierra Leonean Afro-soul legend Geraldo Pino’s hit, “Let Them Talk.” Pino blew Fela’s mind back when he was finding his musical way, and has been rediscovered in the wake of Fela’s own revival.

“This song made the album because it really echoes our experience,” Dogo notes with a smile. “If in your heart you know what you are doing is right, go for it , and don’t listen to what people are saying.”

Photocredit: Lisa A. Walker

Ladybrille Magazine

Founded in 2007, Ladybrille® Magazine is a California based pioneer digital publication demystifying the image of Africans in the west through contemporary African fashion and celebrating the brilliant woman in business and leadership, with an emphasis on the African woman in the diaspora. Our coverage includes stories on capital, access to markets, expertise, hiring and retention, sales, marketing, and promotions.

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