You've probably heard of Afrobeat by now, but what's Afrofunk? The answer, provided by Victor Sila, is astounding in its simplicity: "Afrobeat with more funk."
Sila, an expatriate Kenyan-turned-Haight-Street resident who fronts the SF-based AfroFunk Experience, describes his music as a "more feverish," less homogenous version of Afrobeat, fused with a variety of other influences. Requisite Fela-esque grooves are blended with West African highlife, Zairean zouk, elements of hip-hop and reggae, and "straight-up funk, like the Meters," Sila explains. Where Fela and his band Africa 70's epic Nigeria-meets-James-Brown throwdowns generally took a long time to build momentum, the AFE attains critical mass in a relatively short time, tending toward the six- or seven-minute mark (about the length of your average Africa 70 intro).
Similarly, the sometimes-meandering alto sax solos favored by Mr. Anikulapo-Kuti are replaced by sharp, punchy stabs from Sila's horn section of David Boyce and Mike Pitre, while Ghanaian master drummer Elvis Nensah adds evocative djembe playing and guitarist David James vacillates between Isaac Hayes-like chicken-scratch riffs and King Sunny Ade juju runs. Bassist Wendell Rand, guitarist Ken House, and drummer Tai Kenning round out the band; Sila, meanwhile, sings in three languages: English, Swahili, and his traditional tribal tongue, Kamba.
Sila began his musical career singing what he calls "Catholic rock 'n' roll" songs in church as a young boy growing up in Nairobi, Kenya's capital. The priests noticed that Sila's original, Jesus-affirming tunes made younger folks more attentive during sermons, and more apt to absorb the day's lesson -- so he was encouraged by the church's chaplain to continue down a musical path. Fifteen years ago, he emigrated to Washington, DC, with hopes of making it big as an R&B singer. Although Sila was supposed to be attending school -- "People sold cows to send me to college," he notes -- he used what was supposed to be his tuition money to finance a demo tape. But he soon found out that his African accent worked against him in an industry then fixated on a narrow-minded and highly commercialized sound personified by Babyface. Discouraged and depressed after receiving rejection letters from "every single record label," he recalls, "I wanted to give up altogether."
Instead, seven years ago, Sila moved to San Francisco. Dispensing with his Jheri curl and growing dreads instead, he eventually realized that by attempting to mimic American-style R&B, he wasn't being true to himself. "When I moved to SF, I discovered who I really was," he remembers. "I became self-actualized." He started to write music which, while not 100 percent traditional, contained much more overt African influences. "Embracing who I was made me a much happier person. My life changed." Instead of trying to be something he could never be, he started to accept the fact that he was an African man with many diverse influences -- everyone from Led Zeppelin and the Beatles to Baaba Maal and Thomas Mapfumo. What he learned from all this is that "as Africans, we cannot lose what makes us African."
A little more than a year ago, Sila -- who supports himself by doing freelance graphic design work -- formed the AfroFunk Experience, assembling a talented group of musicians who'd played in such acts as Spearhead, the Broun Fellinis, and Boomshaka. Since then, the group has performed to ecstatic, sold-out crowds at venues like the Elbo Room and the Independent, in the process charging to the forefront of the local worldbeat scene, which for the past few years has been more Latinized than Africanized.
Sila hopes to change all that, or at least inject a much-needed dose of feel-good vibes into the Bay Area's musical climate. "When we do shows, it's really passionate," he says, a claim backed up by the band's only CD to date, a raucous live recording from an Independent show. When you come to one of Sila's concerts -- or one of his legendary house parties, for that matter -- you can leave your "sandbags of problems at the door," he adds. And if AFE can make a funky, danceable tune out of the grave situation in Sudan, just imagine what Sila and his band of Afro-funkateers can do for your worries, fears, and anxieties, which are surely minor in comparison. We got mothers crying, we got fathers crying, we got children dying ... you're my brother, you're my sister, we're all the same, he proclaims on "Peace Please," which defuses genocide while igniting dancefloors.
Although Sila characterizes AFE as "a very successful venture," he has a wider vision than just achieving personal gratification: "I want to do this bigger," he says solemnly. Recognizing that his "mission in life is to create change," he has embarked on an ambitious yet risky venture: headlining a pair of back-to-back benefit shows -- collectively known as the First Annual AfroFunk Festival -- to raise money for Save the Children Sudan's Emergency Response Fund. Held at the Elbo Room over two successive nights, the event features the AFE headlining, along with Afro Beat Down (a Fela tribute band from Nigeria), Senegalese guitarist and radio DJ Henri-Pierre Koubaka, and DJ Jeremiah (straight outta Liberia).
Although Sila has packed the house at every Elbo Room show he's done so far, doing so for two nights in a row will provide a crucial litmus test for his magnetic charisma and the AFE's drawing power. If everything goes well, the AfroFunk Fest may well signal the beginning of a local world beat renaissance -- two decades after the mid-'80s heyday of Mapenzi, the Caribbean All-Stars, Zulu Spear, the Looters, and the Freaky Executives, who spearheaded a nationally recognized yet ultimately short-lived era of polyrhythmic diversity. But reigniting that scene is a secondary goal -- as its mastermind insists, "AfroFunk Fest is really about raising money for the kids."
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