For the past six years, a strange sound has been heard emanating from various venues in the Pioneer Valley.
At times both jazzy and funky, the noise defies definitive description. Many listeners, upon their first encounter with such an unusual beat, become entranced by the swirling rhythms and the conglomeration of instruments that creates them.
It features guitar, drums, trombones, alto sax, congas and more. The name of the music is Afro-beat. And no one in Western Massachusetts plays it better than Shokazoba.
The name is a pidgin English pronunciation of “shock absorber” once uttered by lead vocalist Kwame Nyarko. The now 10-piece group first formed in 2005 as a result of weekly jam sessions held at the old Paragon Arts and Industries building in Easthampton. After repeatedly covering old folk songs and Grateful Dead numbers with a collection of different players, Shokazoba founding members Keith Laudieri and Wendell Rheinheimer discovered Afro-beat music after a night out at the Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton.
“Keith and I were introduced to Afro-beat when we saw a band called Antibala Afro-beat Orchestra,” says Rheinheimer. “They are an amazing band that helped popularize this style of music in the U.S. I remember hearing them for the first time at Pearl Street and was totally intrigued by their sound. They played for three hours with no set break and the whole place was dancing non-stop.”
Almost immediately, Rheinheimer and Laudieri began casting about for other individuals interested in joining them to create a full Afro-beat band based in the Pioneer Valley. To accomplish such a feat, however, the pair were going to need a lot of people.
Rheinheimer says, “We posted flyers all over town looking for ‘everybody’ needed to form an ‘Afro-beat band.’ The original flyer was something like, ‘Afro-beat Band Forming. Needed: sax, trumpet, trombone, keys, percussion, singers, bass, dancers, guitars.’ Basically we had only drums and one guitar. We got a call from Jason [Moses] (keyboards, trombone, vocals) and Dave Moses (baritone and alto sax, vocals), who were already very familiar with the style, as well as other folks, including a banjo player to play picking lines. Kwame [vocals, percussion] followed shortly after.”
With a musical background tracing all the way back to his grandfather, who was a folk singer in the Akan tribe of Ghana, Nyarko provided a crucial link to the origin of the sounds Shokazoba was trying to emulate. Though Afro-beat was not actually created in Ghana, the music’s roots were heavily influenced by the small West African nation as well as its neighbor to the east, Nigeria. In fact, it was in Nigeria that Afro-beat music first became popular, mostly as a result of the tireless efforts of pioneering musician Fela Kuti and drummer Tony Allen.
According to a 2010 article in The Independent, it was Kuti who “fused Ghanaian high life with jazz, funk and native Yoruba music to create Afro-beat.”
But it was Allen who, after playing with Kuti for almost 20 years, created yet another sound upon leaving Kuti’s band Africa ’70 in 1979. Dubbed Afro-funk, it features such other genres as rap, electronica and R&B.
“In the beginning, we were definitely trying to perfect a traditional Afro-beat sound. We started out as a Fela Kuti tribute band, only playing his music,” says Rheinheimer. “[But] we eventually found it inevitable and much more fulfilling to create something fresh. Our current sound is a combination of Afro-beat roots, jazzy improvisation, tight, funky arrangements and dance-oriented trance, following in the footsteps of Tony Allen. It’s something that needs to be heard to be fully understood.”
And Shokazoba is frequently heard as the band continually ventures from its home base in Northampton to play small clubs and festival stages across the Northeast and beyond. The group has also won a litany of awards for its work, including the Advocate‘s Grand Band Slam award for Best World Music Act in 2010 and 2011, as well as the title Best Jazz Act in a My411 Source poll in 2009.
Accolades aside, Shokazoba’s live show is about more than just entertainment. Taking a cue from Kuti’s frequent and often pointed commentary on the Nigerian government in his music, the band hopes not only to amuse but also to impart a message, one that listeners can take home with them after the gig.
Rheinheimer says, “The goal of our live performance is to raise awareness for the political issues we see as important, while creating an energetic Afro-funk dance party.”
He continues, “It is time for artists and musicians to join with activists and other folks working to bring awareness and healthy alternatives to the corrupt forces at hand. Let’s follow the example of Bob Marley, Ghandi, Fela and all those who fought peacefully for freedom from colonialism. Today we have a corporate colonialist system that needs to be addressed.”
And what better way to address the ills of the world than with some new music?
While Shokazoba is currently in the process of writing and recording its third studio album, one of the tracks already set to appear on the record Puppets seems to speak directly to the volatile political situation that is dominating headlines in the United States at the beginning of a presidential election year.
“The chorus goes, ‘They give us left puppets instead of right puppets/ they talk about change but everything is the same,'” says Rheinheimer.
Dire words, but the song, like most of Shokazoba’s material, builds slowly to euphoria. It begins with a stuttering funk riff, and horns eventually come in to accentuate the groove. Layer after layer of percussion is added before everything climaxes somewhere around the 10-minute mark. Background keyboard flourishes and impassioned vocal cries are sprinkled throughout, but the true highlights of the number are in the band’s fluid displays of group dynamics.
Like many of the best musical collectives, Shokazoba is at times less a band than a forum for each individual player’s improvisation around a shared thought or idea. Songs may meander and occasionally even stumble, but when everyone involved contributes to the shared mood on stage, the power created can equal something distinctly special.
“This is far and away the most amount of fun we have had in any band or any musical situation,” says Rheinheimer. “We are confident we can make a positive impact energetically, politically, intellectually and spiritually on our local community and as far as we’re allowed to travel.”