March 2007

Mr. Something Something with Ikwunga the Afrobeat Poet
March 10, 2007 Trane Studio Toronto
Live and sweet in Toronto, Afrobeat for our time and place
by Sebastian Cook with photos by Stripped Media
The Invitation — to start the show it most certainly was, in grand and funky Afrobeat style. A slow and mysterious drum and bass rhythm buildup had the vibe of a nighttime approach to an African village. Sumptuous and tight horns wove their way into the mix. Enter the lead vocalist, reminiscent of Sting if he gave up tantra for mokassa, followed by a beautifully welcoming Afro-Latin guitar run. And then finally, the village elder began to speak. There are very, very few bands out there — if any in these parts — that know how to take the stage quite like Mr. Something Something.

And so began the second evening of a two-night recording session at Trane for these Toronto-based 2007 Best World Music Album (for their second full-length The Edge) Juno Award nominees, with their special guest Ikwunga the Afrobeat Poet. A native of “The Garden City” Port Harcourt, Nigeria and currently living in Baltimore, Maryland; Ikwunga had originally discovered Mr. Something Something online and reached out in advance of a conference he was attending several years ago here in Toronto. Now, he was in town for their first true recording collaboration. With his deep and mellifluous bass, Ikwunga combines the timeless African storytelling and potent political protest traditions of Fela Kuti and other Afrobeat bandleaders, with the reggae-influenced stylings of Caribbean poets such as Mutaburuka. As a tandem, Ikwunga and Mr. Something Something lead singer Johan Hultqvist had a 'high-low' dynamic that was unlike Afrobeat vocalizing I have yet heard.

The band welcomed their friend with “Abankwa”, an African march type of beat where horns and bass traded off in a call-and-response. This was illustrative of one dynamic that sets Mr. Something Something apart from other Afrocentric ensembles — the unique exchange between rhythm and melody where the instrumentalists seem almost interchangeable between the two. While powerfully and undeniably rhythmic, drummer Larry Graves’ crackling, rolling beats on his stripped-down kit also contribute to the melody. “Right here at the face of ancestral spirit”, boomed Ikwunga, with Hultqvist’s soulful harmonies perfectly bridging his measured pauses. It was the power of exhortation and gentle persuasion fused as one, i.e. “A man who is not afraid to cry…” A blazing baritone sax run from Perry White (from the Shuffle Demons and 2007 National Jazz Award nominee for Best Saxophonist) brought this one out all the more. Between the relatively new addition of Perry White and the diverse chops of tenor man and flute player John MacLean, Mr. Something Something’s horn section was in full effect. Shortly after the memorable line “Peace of mind... is facing extinction”, Ikwunga let out a growling, guttural roar that created a surge in intensity unlike anything I had previously heard in the friendly if typically 'listening-room' confines of the Trane.

Johan Hultqvist

Perry White & John MacLean
The lead-in to “You Are Beautiful” featured Hultqvist enlightening the room about self-destructing Terminator seeds that threaten indigenous food supplies and thus create agricultural slavery, to a slinky, James Brown inspired rhythmic line. It takes courage to even broach the subject that slavery is about more than merely human bondage, much less try to pull it off through dance and song. But Mr. Something Something pulls it off, further evidence of why their particularly primal style of musical activism is resonating with so many people. These guys don’t patronize you with trendy “let’s change the world” platitudes; they understand the issues on deeper levels and they don’t pull any punches. Fan favourite “The Wanting” brought the first set to a smouldering close, with a pulsating drum roll funk rhythm from Graves at the heart. Sometimes when you feel the need to drum along, it’s nice to have a pen and notepad.
During the intermission, we heard an assortment of floor-rocking cuts from West Africa that kept the room moving much more so than it usually does when players are breaking at the Trane. The windows were steamed to the point you couldn’t see in from the street. This being the third straight night of great made-in-Canada Afrobeat in the Trane, it was a sweat most welcomed by all of us who spend a lot of time there.

Hultqvist segued into the second set by informing the crowd that the rhythm section was dissatisfied with their first set. The first song, “DNDABP” (Dat Niger Delta Afro Beat Poem) enlightened on the human rights tragedies of the oil industry in the Niger Delta with an infectious Afro-calypso feel, the Ikwunga/Hultqvist duo again shining with their poetry-and-soul, bass-and-tenor complements. “Africa, Africa, Africa”, chanted the elder, along with some uncannily realistic tropical birdcalls.

A tribal, almost gospel-jazzy interlude led into “The Beginner’s Luck”. Driven by a potent Ghanaian hand drumming backbone from Graves, the funky groove just filled up the room. The call-clap-response with the crowd was immediate and instinctive, with MacLean and White gradually increasing their intensity to a full-throttle wall of horns.

“Di Bombs” was the classic Afrobeat barnburner of the night, with the lyric “Bombs are made in London but the bombing is for Freetown / the bombing na for Asmara” that indeed had the atmosphere of The Clash circa 1980. References to sugarcane and “Life is sweet in Toronto” brought it back to a gentler place. A shuffling drum & bass beat; some unplugged, away-from-the-mic vocals from Hultqvist and several delicious horn breakdowns wrapped up the set with a perfect sense of occasion and style. “Deep Sleep” brought the night to a close with a slow, Randy Weston kind of jazzy burn, with Ikwunga’s chant of “The music has mellowed day by day” easing the crowd back down from its primal state. Therein lies the essence of Mr. Something Something, not merely a great band but an important one; their power to bring the crowd to a place of total abandon yet still make messages that demand to be heard resonate in their minds.

This album is going to be groundbreaking when it drops, and any DJs out there reading this who want an advance tip on something that will heat up any dance floor should especially take note. And it’s not a stretch at all to think that Fela himself just might groove out to Mr. Something Something on his celestial iPod.

The band
Larry Graves – drums, percussion (bandleader)
John MacLean – tenor sax, voice, flute (musical director)
Johan Hultqvist – lead vocals, shaker
Perry White – baritone sax, flute
Paul MacDougall – guitar
Liam Smith – bass

Ikwunga the Afrobeat Poet – vocals, spoken word
Janine Stoll – backing vocals
Jennifer Dallas – dance

We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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