The term ‘afrobeat’ is generally credited to have been coined by the late Fela Kuti in the late 1960s. The sound owes much to its fusion of Ghanaian/Nigerian Highlife music and traditional West African percussion, as well as jazz, funk and psychedelic rock – a heady brew which, when combined with its overtly political messages, spread rapidly throughout the African continent during the 1970s before finding its way around the world (anyone remember Osibisa?). Since then it has maintained its popularity and the Brazilian group Bixiga 70 are undoubtedly one of the genre’s finest exponents. Formed five years ago and drawing their initial inspiration from Fela Kuti’s Afrika 70, the ten-piece band have fused afrobeat with sounds and rhythms from traditional Brazilian music, cumbia and carimbó; even the influences of Jamaican dub reggae and electronica can be felt. As a primarily instrumental group, any political messages are much less obvious, although their way of working collectively is a fine example of putting principle into practice and underpins their new album III. As the PR notes point out: “the process of creation is decentralized and acknowledges the importance of each musician in the room. The album was recorded live in the studio to further assure the depth of this collaborative spirit”.
The opening track ‘Ventania’ is an arrangement of a traditional Brazilian song which highlights the band’s awareness of and respect for its own cultural roots; its minor key providing the springboard for a stately reworking with some very tight horn playing – the sax solo is particularly powerful – while the keyboards and guitar explore some of the jazzier and bluesier elements of the sound.
‘Niran’ is a soulful, funky groove which tips its hat knowingly to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s; its tight wah-wah guitar, unstoppable bass and riffing horns would have fitted right into the original Shaft soundtrack, although Bixiga 70 add an edge which would have made even the unflappable John Shaft character keep an eye over his shoulder.
A definite highlight of the album, lead single ‘100% 13’ calls to mind the distinctive sound of the sorely-missed Compass Point All Stars band – in particular, the influence of Wally Badarou’s synth is both noticeable and welcome and, listening to it as I write this, it’s very easy to imagine Grace Jones topping off the song’s steady rolling rhythm with one of her unique performances. But for my money, its the dub mix which really rocks the house and its non-inclusion on the record is something of a mystery. Fortunately, it’s available to listen to on the band’s Soundcloud page and I really do recommend giving it a spin alongside the album.
‘Di Dancer’ is perhaps closer to what many listeners might think of as afrobeat; densely layered polyrhythmic percussion propel the syncopated horn section ever onwards while the lean funk of the guitar and fluid bass hold down the song’s core structure. A highlight of the record, I have a feeling that it might be something of a monster in a live setting, one can imagine it stretching out into an extended workout that would allow the band to fully acknowledge the influence of Fela Kuti.
Kraftwerk-style analogue synths open ‘Machado’ but its the tireless riffing of the horn section against the dense polyrhythms of the percussionists that steal the show with performances so tight that you couldn’t get the proverbial cigarette paper between them. A spiralling trumpet solo paves the way for a fabulously retro synth solo before the entire band return to build the song to its climactic end.
‘Martelo’ is apparently a specific move in the martial art of capoeira which basically involves kicking your opponent in the head, a manoeuvre which I’m sure was regularly used to good effect by the late Bruce Lee in his famous kung fu films and may well have influenced this tune, with its nimble arrangement of relentlessly spinning horns and waves of percussion building to deliver a mighty musical roundhouse kick before bowing politely and disappearing silently back into the night.
The mood settles down a little for ‘Lembe’, a rattling midtempo exploration of some of the more traditional African elements of the afrobeat sound and another highlight. The percussion has a lightness of touch which sits well against the moody horns; there’s a virtuoso tenor sax solo in there too, but the whole locks together in a way which is true to its roots yet manages to feel very contemporary.
Not to be confused with the overwrought power ballad by the Spanish heartthrob Carlos Macias, ‘Mil Vidas’ (‘a thousand lives’) is a muscular slab of simmering percussive funk with some lovely intertwined flute lines, a wild trumpet solo and an impressively tight call-and-response between the horn section and the guitar. About as far as you could get from an emotionally sentimental power ballad, really – and all the better for it, as far as I’m concerned!
The album closes out with the quite gorgeous, introspective ‘7 Pancadas’; opening with a very visual sound picture in which synthesised waves break as the foghorns of distant ships call through the sea mists, while a rasping sax converses with a muted trumpet. A huge bass sound makes its presence felt over hand percussion pattering like raindrops on the dock, as a chiming guitar rattles by like a distant freight train and a chirruping horn section ties it all together and carries us home through the night.
Bixiga 70 have come a long way in the two years since their previous album; III finds the band themselves sounding their most confident so far on a solid and highly enjoyable album with engaging compositions and impressive playing by all ten members, either solo or as an ensemble. Factor in recording and production values of an equally high standard and you’ve got a very accessible album which deserves to be a significant crossover success.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Out Now via Glitterbeat
Order it via: Amazon