Afrobeat—a musical fusion of jazz, highlife, Yoruba music and infectious percussive drumming is undeniably seeing a recent rise in popularity. The genre developed across the continent of Africa in the 1970s, especially in Nigeria, the birthplace of legendary multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Kuti is credited as being the primary progenitor of the genre and even coined the term “afrobeat” himself, after a tour in the U.S. with his group Nigeria ’70 (later known as Africa ‘70).
The influence this movement has had on the West is evident in the critically acclaimed musical Fela!, local group the Chicago Afrobeat Project, as well as the Zongo Junction and the Souljazz Orchestra—who performed together at the Empty Bottle on Friday, December 7th to a comfortably packed crowd. For those who haven’t visited this venue, a Yelp reviewer successfully summed up my first impression, “one of the GREAT dirty rock clubs of Chicago…shabby exterior, friendly bartenders…love.”
The Zongo Junction opened the show and came out strong with 11 members, including an impressive brass section and two percussion instrumentalists. The group hails from Brooklyn, New York and have thrived in their own local Afrobeat scene. Tracks from their debut album Thieves! (2012) got the crowd moving pretty quickly since most of the audience seemingly came to dance in the first place.
The Souljazz Orchestra, a Canadian based group with international roots, took over after a short DJ interlude and leveled the scene with “a percussive explosion of Soul, Jazz, Afro, Latin and Caribbean rhythms, driven by majestic horn-drenched melodies, all backed by an arsenal of overheated primitive keyboards.” Touring on their latest album Solidarity (2012) released by Strut Records, they encouraged a dancing frenzy with songs such as “Bibinay,” “Conquering Lion” and “Ya Basta.” Another real treat was their rendition of the classic “Because of Money” by the 3rd Generation Band, a 1970s Afrobeat group from Ghana. As a Ghanaian, it was a pleasure to see these talented musicians paying homage to my home country.
As if their powerful set wasn’t enough, they encored with the Zongo Junction, sharing the stage together— all 17 members of both bands combined for an exhilarating Afrobeat extravaganza! With such a forceful performance, it is safe to say that the Afrobeat movement is blessed with new torchbearers to continue its “fiery interpretation,” pulling from the intentions of the past whilst blending it with strong locally sourced musical innovations.