Going to their happy place

The Afromotive, now entering its fifth year, is not the same band that it was at its explosive inaugural show at Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company. Nor is the group the one that performed a show-stopping New Year’s Eve concert, its horn section pulling out synchronized dance moves while lead performer Kevin Mayame tore off his shirt to lay into his djembe.

Beyond talking heads: The Afromotive is taking Afrobeat in a new direction – less social commentary, more uptempo danceability. Photos by Jonathan Welch.

For starters, native Ivory Coast drummer Mayame is no longer with the band. Nor is the once stage-filling lineup still topping out at 10 members. And other changes are afoot for this group (though their upcoming Orange Peel show, a shared bill with renowned jam act Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk proves the Afromotive is no less popular to the Asheville music scene or the festival circuit).

“In the Afromotive right now, it’s not about straight Afrobeat from Fela Kuti [the late Nigerian pioneer of the jazz-funk-African fusion genre],” says percussionist Adama Dembele. “It’s about a lot of creation, a lot of different ideas right now.”

The current iteration of the Afromotive emerges from a winter of regrouping with a fresh mission and a solidified vision of just what, exactly, Afrobeat means to them.

“Just to make good music”

“The cool thing about this music and something I was attracted to is the malleability of it,” explains baritone and alto saxophonist Ryan Knowles. “With an indie rock band there are certain things that have to exist for it to be in that vein. But Afrobeat, it’s not even a viable genre. It’s more of an offshoot of funk and African music.”

That has lead to sonic changes that bassist Ryan Reardon sums up as “more high energy, more up-tempo, more dance beats.”

“We’re still an Afrobeat group,” Reardon promises. In the beginning, the band (assembled from local and regional musicians, and a notable juxtaposition of African rhythms, an influx of African musicians, and the many trained jazz and rock musicians also calling Asheville home) focused on “developing a style within a style. Once we had accomplished that, we could move forward.”

Reardon points to Dembele, who’s descended from a line of 33 generations of djembe players, as a sort of cornerstone to the Afromotive’s Afrobeat foundation. But even Dembele has little interest in pure tradition. Growing up in Ivory Coast, he played in reggae bands and other projects that were “just to make good music.”

Add to that a decided move toward upbeat themes. “We’re kind of getting into more of a South African style almost. We’re writing more songs in major [keys],” says Knowles. According to the sax player, the former Afromotive catalog never included happy, sunny-sounding major-key songs. Instead, the band based its aesthetic around darkly seductive minor notes.

“For a long time, I felt like Afrobeat was a dirty, raw, underground type of music,” says Knowles, the band’s main composer. “But lately I’ve been wanting get into happy sounds, like the kind of music you’d hear if you were outside at a party.”

This is more than just a stylistic shift. Like many Americans, the Afromotive’s members are experiencing a sense of optimism since last November’s election. “Rather than bitching about the president, we’re trying to take care of things we can control, things that bring people together.  The majority of people come to see live music to enjoy themselves, not to hear political banter.  People hear that enough in their daily lives,” says Reardon.

Small number, big sound: Once a ten-member collective, the Afromotive is now a core group with a revolving cast of collaborators.

Past Afromotive songs followed an Afrobeat-prescribed social commentary. “Maybe I could think of a few Afrobeat songs that are happy, but most are about serious subjects,” Reardon notes. “Now we just want people to clap their hands.”

“We want to get away from political messages and get more into messages about people and having a good time,” says Knowles. “Instead of being so serious and taking yourself so seriously.”

Dembele adds, “More love messages.”

Maintaining the Afro

The Afromotive, once a sprawling collective, has pared back to a lean core of three or four (drummer Brian Jones was just added at press time), but this won’t necessarily translate to the stage show. The group continuously auditions new players, Knowles says, “because in a band of more than three or four people, you’ll always run into logistical problems. It’s good to have people around who know our music, and we’re very thankful for everyone who has played with us throughout the years and helped us get where we are now.”

And Reardon promises the upcoming Orange Peel performance will feature guest musicians, additional drummers and dancers—which is pretty much this bands M.O. From humble beginnings at Asheville Pizza, the band quickly gained the momentum to propel them onto stages at Tipitina’s in New Orleans in 2006, Atlanta’s Echo Project in 2007 (with the Flaming Lips) and Bonnaroo and Joshua Tree Music Festival last year. Soul singer Erykah Badhu joined the Afromotive on stage during a Knoxville show; saxophonist Jeff Coffin sat in at last year’s AmJam.

The biggest outward change is the marked absence of Mayame. Reardon reports the native Ivory Coast drummer and vocalist is alive and well, living in France and working with his dance troupe. But Mayame has no current plans to return to Asheville, and the Afromotive’s core trio seems to be drawing inspiration from their new configuration.

“Since we lost Kevin, a lot of things have changed,” Knowles points out. “The format of the horns worked better with a singer because the horns are not the main focus, they’re more of a supporting role. But now the horns are almost replacing the voice in a way.”

Dembele reasons, “A lot of times with a lead singer, everyone is just waiting for the singer to do the show. Now the instruments are doing the show, so for me, it’s a lot richer. We still sing, but it adds to the music rather than being the central focus.”

He continues, “Some kinds of music are mostly about the vocal. But the kind of music we do—Afrobeat, funk—is more about the instrument.”
The way Knowles sees it, the term “Afro” in the band’s name both “implies a lot and limits a lot.” The core trio even talked about a name change, but came to the realization that, “Our evolution is a natural one and we’re not saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do this because in Afrobeat you’re supposed to do this.’”
Or, as Reardon notes, “It’s still coming from us. It’s evolved, but it’s not completely different.”

Labels aside, the Afromotive has a secret weapon. “It’s so cool to have a guy like Adama step in because he takes it to the next level,” Knowles says.
Just how does Dembele take the Afromotive to the next level?

“With my power,” the percussionist says with a laugh.

who: The Afromotive (with Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk)
what: >Nu-Afrobeat
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, April 3 (9 p.m. $14 in advance, $16 at the door. 225-5851 or www.theorangepeel.net.)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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