Every land is their Motherland

On a sunny spring day in West Asheville, eight musicians are busting out of the garage where they’ve been practicing for the last six months. Not busting because of their sheer numbers — I’m talking about wailing solos, fierce grooves and a funkified dreamscape of sound.

They play saxophone, French horn, guitar, bass, keys, wood block, djembe … yeah, I said djembe. But don’t call them an African ensemble, please.

Bassist Ryan Reardon quickly points out, “We’re not an African band.” And their European looks (three-fourths of the band is distinctly Celtic, in a reddish hair and ruddy-complected kind of way) attest to this point, even though their shakers, hand drums, hip-twitching meters and lyrics from the Ivory Coast say otherwise.

The Afromotive — which debuts locally at the Blue Ridge Biodiesel Benefit at Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company, and plays Greenlife’s Earth Day Celebration the next day — is definitely influenced by African sounds. And, though you’ve never heard of this band before, as soon as they take the stage you’ll be up there cutting a rug right along with that notorious, local, Chuck Taylors-wearing dancing maniac who frequents any show with a world-beat flavor.

This isn’t what they meant by “Afro-Celt”

Okay, not everyone in The Afromotive is, um, melanin-challenged. Singer and percussionist Kevin Meyeme (Ballet Warraba) came from the Ivory Coast in West Africa, where he performed with the dance company Tanably. He moved to Asheville a year ago, and keeps busy teaching dance; Meyeme joined The Afromotive a few weeks after its inception last fall.

And if Ivory Coast-to-Asheville seems like a long journey to be in a not-exactly-African band, the group’s other members have made equally convoluted transitions.

Reardon, who’s classically trained, explains, “I’ve always played djembe, and was interested in African music.” On his way to his current band (where he doesn’t play djembe), he appeared in a symphony orchestra and in a jazz trio.

Keyboardist Michael Christie recently relocated from the Philadelphia area, where he performed electronica in Second Sky. It’s his high-energy stylings — reminiscent of the ’60s-era organ obsession (that soulful swirl that defined Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Doors) — that often drive The Afromotive’s melody.

Perhaps more than anything else, this band is an amalgamation of its musicians’ experiences — the true sum of all its parts.

“This is a new hat for me,” says French-horn player Liz Donahue, who, like Reardon, is classically trained and played in a jazz ensemble. She also sung and strummed rhythm guitar in Celt’s Crossing before leaving Ohio for WNC.

Another jazz fanatic, tenor saxophonist Rueben Haga counts Nigerian artist Fela Kuti as his main influence. After playing with Mexico-based Roots and Wisdom for a year, Haga had moved to California when he got a call from his cousin, percussionist Jeremy Long.

“I came to Asheville for this band, really,” Haga admits.

Following the music

Long, who’d been organizing drumming sessions outside The Getup Exchange (the downtown-Asheville shop he owns with his wife), had the idea to fuse a brass band with African rhythms.

The percussionist cut his teeth in the Las Vegas punk outfit Politikil, but had also put in his time as a street performer in New Orleans and in Austin, Texas, where he and Haga played as a horn-and-drum duo.

Rounding out The Afromotive’s far-flung roots (okay, no one claimed gamelan or rockabilly in their past, but nearly every other genre is covered), guitarist Lapo Casini has gigged in a jam band, a bluegrass band and a folk duo with his dad. Oh, and his brother is Biko, from local funk group Strut.

And then there’s kit drummer Ryan Allard, who — like Casini — did the jam thing (Driftopia) before moving to Asheville and signing on with local act Marsupial. “I didn’t really take lessons,” he explains. “I just played with a lot of people.”

Serious-jazz sensibilities aside, The Afromotive definitely benefits from that laissez-faire spirit. “Instead of taking blues or jazz progressions, we’re taking traditional African beats and making our sound around that,” Reardon explains.

He adds, ” … It’s still in a Western [music] sense, which is good, because people can grasp it.”

Really, no grasping is required. It’s earthy hand drums juxtaposed with brassy horns. It’s a high-tech riff dropping neat as a pin into a full-on percussive melee with rattles, shakers, woodblock, djembe, and floor tom — and then a seamless transition back into instrumentals.

All you really need to know is how to move.

The Afromotive plays the Blue Ridge Biodiesel Benefit at Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company (675 Merrimon Ave.) on Thursday, April 21. The event kicks off at 9 p.m. with a video (French Fries To Go) and discussion, followed by music at 10 p.m. Cover is $6. Info: www.blueridgebiofuels.com or 254-1281. Also catch the band at Greenlife Grocery’s Earth Day Celebration (70 Merrimon Ave.) on Friday, April 22. The free event runs 11 a.m.-8 p.m., with food sampling, kids’ activities and more. Info: 254-4943.

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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