Carrying on Fela Kuti's legacy

Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 29, 2004) – Fela Kuti is to Afrobeat what James Brown is to funk and Bob Marley is to reggae. A pioneer and a larger-than-life legend, the Nigerian singer, instrumentalist and bandleader was more than just a musical innovator – he was a politically outspoken cultural rebel – a founder of a populist political party and subsequently a political prisoner -- and a hero to a whole generation of musicians and fans.

Kuti died of AIDS in 1997, but his musical legacy lives on in the work of a wide variety of American groups and performers, including David Byrne, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, the last of which performs in one of Mass MoCA’s popular dance parties tomorrow night at 8.

Brooklyn-based Antibalas (the name means bulletproof) -- which has previously performed in the Berkshires at BerkFest and at Club Helsinki -- was founded six years ago by musicians from New York’s Latino, African, white and Asian-American communities, many of them members of the Soul Providers and the Daktaris. Dedicated to perpetuating Kuti’s legacy, the 15-piece band plays songs by Kuti alongside originals inspired by Latin music, jazz and funk. The group specializes in long, horn-heavy dance jams powered by bass and percussion, with Afrobeat’s trademark fluid, sinuous guitar and keyboard lines.

Inner Visions

According to reggae group Inner Vision’s website, it was at a gig last year at Club Helsinki, part of a 50-city, cross-country tour, when the 22-year-old band finally felt like they had reached a turning point. “It was at a very small but wonderful club named Club Helsinki that the band realized they had arrived,” says the website. Based on the island of St. John in the Virgin Islands for the last two decades, Inner Visions has turned its sights to conquering the U.S. mainland in the last two years. The group – which brings its signature brand of conscious roots-reggae back to Club Helsinki tomorrow night at 9 -- has shared stages with reggae greats including Bunny Wailer, Marcia Griffiths, Jimmy Cliff, Steel Pulse and Wailing Souls, among others.

Holmes Brothers

The Holmes Brothers have been together even longer than Inner Visions. Since 1979 the group, including bassist/vocalist Sherman Holmes, his brother guitarist/vocalist Wendell Holmes, and drummer/vocalist Popsy Dixon, has performed its rootsy style of soul, gospel and blues. In recent years the Holmes Brothers have enjoyed their highest profile, recording with Van Morrison and Joan Osborne and appearing on popular TV shows including “The Late Show with David Letterman.” The group celebrates the release of its terrific new CD, “Simple Truths” (Alligator), which includes songs by Townes Van Zandt, Bob Marley, Gillian Welch, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, at the WAMC Performing Arts Center in Albany tomorrow night at 8.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

They probably boast one of the most recognizable sounds in the world. Ever since Paul Simon popularized them on his album “Graceland,” choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo has lent its unique blend of traditional South African folk and American gospel music to a variety of projects, including “Sesame Street,” Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalker” video, a 7-Up commercial and a Heinz baked beans ad. The group, still led by founder Joseph Shabalala and now including four of his sons, kicks off its winter tour celebrating the release of its new CD, “Raise Your Spirit Higher” (Heads Up), featuring its rich, 10-part a cappella choral arrangements, on Wednesday, February 4 at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton. The group returns to the region with a concert on February 22 at the Troy (N.Y.) Savings Bank Music Hall.

Mark Erelli

Singer-songwriter Mark Erelli has always had more than a hint of country in his music, but on his latest album, “Hillbilly Pilgrim” (Signature Sounds), he jumps into country with both boots first. Twangy steel guitar, fiddle, and thumping acoustic bass dance around Erelli’s vocals on 10 original compositions and one cover of a Clarence Gibson tune, most done in an upbeat, western-swing style. Erelli celebrates the release of the new CD with a concert at the Iron Horse in Northampton tomorrow night at 7.

New shows

Some additions to the upcoming concert schedule at Club Helsinki include teen-jazz vocalist sensation Sonya Kitchell, leading her next Friday, a tribute to Johnny Cash by local musicians on February 15, and Buckwheat Zydeco on February 25, the day after “Fat Tuesday.” Tonight, a series of benefit concerts for the Berkshire Community Radio Alliance (BCRA) – a non-profit organization working to create a volunteer-run, non-commercial community radio station based in Great Barrington – kicks off at Helsinki at 9 with a concert by rock band Enemy Love.

(Mass MoCA, 413-662-2111; WAMC, 800-323-9262; Club Helsinki, 413-528-3394; Calvin Theatre and Iron Horse, 413-586-8686; Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. (518) 273-0038)

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 30, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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