The 12-piece Brooklyn Afrobeat band Zongo Junction plays hard-hitting West African funk inspired by grooves emanating from Nigeria, Ghana, and Benin, but the group’s roots extend directly to Berkeley. Founded by drummer Charles Ferguson after a six-month sojourn in Ghana, the band features several of his fellow Berkeley High jazz band buddies, including keyboardist Eli Sundelson and bassist Noah Garabedian.
A California tour brings Zongo Junction to Berkeley on Saturday for a gig at Ashkenaz (see them in action in video above).
“I think the biggest influence that the BHS jazz program had on us and the band’s sound was the diversity of music we would play,” Ferguson said. “Charles Hamilton, the band director, opened a lot of us up to a ton of different styles of music, as did a bunch of other guys in the area we all took lessons with (like Josh Jones, Peter Apfelbaum, Wil Blades). We would go to these high school jazz festivals where other bands were just playing boring straight ahead jazz tunes. We would play Tower of Power, Duke Ellington and Mongo Santamaria all in the same set.”
Part of a burgeoning Afrobeat scene in New York, Zongo Junction has distinguished itself with thick, bottom-heavy horn arrangements and a commitment to the politically charged vision of Afrobeat progenitor Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the late Nigerian fireband whose music and outsized persona has infused Broadway with some welcome funk. It’s a sign of the times that the band’s 2011 debut release, “Thieves!” serves equally well as an homage to Fela’s incendiary denunciations of Nigeria’s kleptocracy and an indictment of Wall Street malfeasance. Long-time Fela collaborator Leon Kaleta Ligan-Majek contributes vocals on five original songs, establishing a direct link to Afrobeat’s source.
Traveling around the West Coast with Zongo Junction is Turkuaz, another funk-driven band from Brooklyn. Inspired more by R&B than Afrobeat, the nine-piece combo puts as much emphasis on vocals as riffing horns. Founded in Boston in the winter of 2007 by a passel of Berklee students, Turkuaz relocated to Brooklyn before the end of the year. Like Zongo Junction, Turkuaz has earned an avid fanbase with electrifying performances.
The Bay Area scene is well represented by Antioquia, a quintet that draws inspiration of Afro-Colombian roots matriarch Toto La Momposina as much as Fela. Featuring Rachel Anthony-Levine on vocals and keyboards, Adley Penner on guitar and Colombian gaita, bassist Paul Martin, percussionist Craig Miller, and guitarist Tomas Salcedo, Antioquia applies a pan-American perspective to Afro-Latin grooves. They also wield an absurdist sense of humor. The band’s last album “My Piano Ate the Front Page of the San Francisco Chronicle,” is as full of mischievous musical mayhem as the title promises.
Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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