SOULJAZZ ORCHESTRA CD release party with DJs JOHN KONG and JASON PALMA at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Saturday (February 24). $10. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
An Afrobeat band from Ottawa? It sounds less like a catchy tag line than a punchline.
But since the Souljazz Orchestra recently hit the top 10 in the BBC's annual Gilles Peterson Worldwide Best of 2006 list - scoring an impressive number-nine ranking with their boldly rolling Mista President - the brass blasting seven-piece assault unit is having the last laugh.
Just mentioning the unlikely coup to Rhodes-rocking Souljazz Orchestra main man Pierre Chrétien, who originally formed the group as a funky jazz combo while studying and living in residence at the University of Ottawa, inspires the giddy laughter of someone who finds themselves seated at the final table of a Las Vegas Texas hold 'em tournament after having to borrow the $26 buy-in.
The great thing about making the Worldwide year-end list is that the rankings aren't subject to DJ Peterson's questionable taste. It's a global listeners' poll based on what was played on the program during the year. That means more of Peterson's musically sussed audience enjoyed the timely Bush-bashing of the Souljazz Orchestra's Mista President than the tunes of Lupe Fiasco, Jazzanova, 4Hero, Theo Parrish and Bonobo - although they were no match for Gnarls Barkley's instant classic Crazy.
"As excited as we were to hear that our song ended up in the top 10," chuckles Chrétien, "we couldn't help but wonder, 'Who voted for us? Who even knows about our band?'
"We paid for the recording ourselves. I did all the original artwork on my home computer, and I sent out a few copies to people I knew. It was really a low-budget operation. So to get this kind of recognition for our work is amazing.
"Most of the feedback we've received since has been from people around the world who can't believe we're from Canada. We've got e-mails from Nigeria and South Africa, and they seem to be really digging our stuff, which is very encouraging."
It's not difficult to understand the incredulous response to learning that the Souljazz Orchestra are Canucks. Just listen to how effortlessly these youthful Ottawa hombres shift from pummelling Fela Kuti-inspired Afrobeat breakdowns into hard-swinging soukous grooves right through breakneck Afro-Cuban descargas on their Freedom No Go Die album. It's being re-released by Do Right! after selling out its initial pressing.
Some hardcore Afrobeat purists may argue that unless you are a blood relative of the Kuti family with at least one former member of Afrika 70 in your group, you should not be permitted to play the music - with that going double for anyone lacking proof of Nigerian citizenship.
However, as bands like Brooklyn's Antibalas, Montreal's Afrodizz and Ann Arbor's NOMO have well demonstrated (see sidebar), some of the most exciting Afrobeat music is now being made far away from its West African origins.
"Afrobeat music is already a hybrid form based on funk and jazz from the United States, the European classical tradition and the folkloric music of West Africa. I think anyone paying tribute to the music Fela helped create deserves props.
"He was such a brilliant composer, beyond the powerful lyrics and his stage presence. In the early 70s, musically speaking, he was way ahead of the rest of the pack, and I think his classical training in London had a lot to do with it. Throughout his songs there's continuous thematic development where little motifs and riffs constantly appear, transposed up and down and echoed in the horn lines, guitar lines and what's being sung. So even if the song lasts 30 minutes or more, it never gets boring."
Still, you have to wonder how a software engineering student and his Ottawa pals hit on the concept of playing Afrobeat. It isn't exactly something you can just pick up over a weekend after listening to a reissue of Fela's Coffin For Head Of State. Clearly something happened since their largely instrumental funky jazz 2005 debut, Uprooted, that got them to the considerably more Afrobeat-oriented Freedom No Go Die, featuring the vocals of Burundian soukous great Mighty Popo, Alanna Stuart and Chrétien's partner, Marielle Rivard, who delivers the stirring closer, a beautiful reading of Pharoah Sanders's The Creator Has A Masterplan.
"We were doing mostly soul-jazz covers while playing at this little place near the university called Café Nostalgica. But when we began getting gigs at the Mercury Lounge, we were playing to more of a dance crowd, so our repertoire became more uptempo and funkier.
"At the time we were all getting into African music on our own. I was also playing with some musicians from Madagascar, and a couple of the other guys were splitting time with this Nigerian group based in Ottawa called Beautiful Nubia. So the African influence started to seep into our own sound. It's kind of weird, but when we first tried playing Afrobeat together, everything clicked. It just felt right."
It was almost by accident that the group's charismatic frontman, saxophonist Ray Murray, picked up the baritone. His switch from alto saxophone might appear to be a minor detail best left to the album credits, but it proved to be a key factor in the Souljazz Orchestra's whole transition toward a more Afrobeat-oriented group concept.
When alto sax player Zakari Frantz joined the group, Murray, who was already playing the instrument, offered to rent a baritone sax to see what would happen.
"So he showed up with the bari at the next rehearsal and when he started to play, we were all like, 'Oh my God, that's the sound!' He's stuck with the baritone saxophone ever since. He found his instrument."
As it happens, it was Murray who also provided the connection to Mighty Popo, having played with him in the popular Ottawa reggae crew Raggamuffin. Although the recorded results of the Souljazz Orchestra's collaboration with Mighty Popo make it seem like they've been performing together for years, it was actually a one-off studio throwdown, which didn't come off as smoothly as it sounds.
"Mighty Popo is used to being the guy in charge, so it was a bit tricky for him to step into our thing at first, but he's so talented that there was never really any problem. We had some lyrics written out for him to sing, and he looked them over and said, 'How about if I just ad lib something instead?' So he did. A lot of what you hear on the album is Mighty Popo making stuff up on the spot. It all worked out great."
Additional Audio Interview Clips
Pierre Chretien explains the difficulties of finding African beat musicians in Ottawa
Bring gear to early Ottawa shows
Music from Souljazz
The creator has a masterplan
Fela Kuti's Offspring
When Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti died 10 years ago, the Afrobeat form he pioneered didn't go with him. The sound and fury of Kuti's music lives on in the work of a younger generation who've never been to West Africa but are inspired by his badass grooves and tireless fight against political oppression and social injustice. Here are the bands to watch:
ANTIBALAS Begun as the Desco studio hoax the Daktaris, Brooklyn's Antibalas have become the standard-bearers of contemporary Afrobeat, and their forthcoming John McEntire-produced Anti- label debut, Security, could be the breakthrough album they've been threatening. www.anti.com.
NOMO When you think Ann Arbor music, chances are that the MC5 and Stooges come to mind before Afrobeat, but the 16-armed NOMO beast is working to change that perception. Last year's brilliant New Tones (Ubiquity) found them tempering their Fela fascination with the homegrown spiritual jazz sound of Tribe and a greater use of household percussion, which bodes well for the next album. www.nomomusic.com.
AFRODIZZ Back in 20o2, while the Souljazz Orchestra were revving up in Ottawa, over in Montreal guitarist and composer Gabriel Aldama was reworking some of Fela Kuti's ideas with his own horn-backed outfit, Afrodizz, who also hooked up with Do Right! for their 2004 album, Kif Kif. Since then Afrodizz have continued to blaze their own trail, resulting in the electro-tweaked Froots. www.afrodizz.com.
ORGONE Although not expressly an Afrobeat combo, Los Angeles crew Orgone, assembled from the studio aces behind the wicked joints of Breakestra and Plantlife, have clearly been inspired by Kuti's attack, as can be heard on their Danny Krivit-retouched take of Funky Nassau and their own pounding Afro-disco gem Hambone. Dope. www.nuffroperecords.com.
AKOYA AFROBEAT ENSEMBLE A hard-walloping 13-piece boasting members from Japan, Ghana, Benin, Panama, South Africa and the U.S., Akoya is the United Nations of Afrobeat. Their 2004 debut disc, Introducing The Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble (Afrobomb), gave notice that Egypt 80 belter Kaleta has a bold new Afrobeat bangin' crew behind him to deliver his politically incisive broadsides. Their new album, PDP (President Day Pass), with cover art by the great Ghariokwu Lemi, isn't going to let up. www.akoyamusic.com.