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Berkeley's ALBINO! took Afrobeat's message of standing up to injustice and ran with it -- straight into a wall

Wednesday, Aug 24 2005
Afrobeat has its origins in conflict. Using his thrilling musical hybrid of American soul, James Brown-style big-band funk, jazz, and the traditional West African pop genre Highlife to address and resist everything from colonialism to military violence, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who created the genre in the 1970s, became the voice for the poor, the oppressed, and the politically active across his native Nigeria, Africa, and the world. Kuti became such a dangerously powerful icon that at one point the Nigerian military junta sent 1,000 soldiers to attack his compound/studio.

Stateside, Afrobeat has become something of a sacred cow for (mostly white) boys in college jazz bands and the jam band scene. In the political climate of recent years, the genre's history of searing social criticism and its massive, irresistibly danceable sound have revived interest in Afrobeat among activists and music hipsters. Afrobeat's reputation for inciting unrest has usually been taken up by a band, which works, as a united front, against injustice.

But what if the injustices being perpetrated come from within the band itself?

Such was the case for Berkeley band ALBINO! Today, ALBINO! is a 14-piece collective that is, according to Robbie Kowal of Sunset Promotions, which frequently books the act around the Bay Area, "at the top of the heap" of local Afrobeat orchestras. But just a few months ago the group was a backbiting, infighting mess that resembled the contestants on Survivor more than a collective of political firebrands. In place of idealism, anarchy, and resistance were accusations, gossip, and squabbles over money that threatened to destroy the band. Probably not exactly what Fela had in mind when he said, "Music is the weapon of the future."

Even ALBINO!'s parentage is hotly contested by its various baby-daddies. The idea for the group originated in 2003 with vocalist Mark Edwards and guitarist Bruce Buchanan, neither of whom calls himself a member anymore. Later in 2003, both San Francisco tenor saxophonist Nathan Endsley and Nigerian-born, Bay Area-based drummer/singer Geoffrey Omadhebo came onboard.

According to Endsley, the band's current spokesman, "Initially, it was me, Mark, and Bruce. Bruce really wanted Geoffrey to be the drummer ... [But Geoffrey] wanted to front the band. And there was this tension between that and Mark, who was also going to front the band." Omadhebo, who has suggested that the band's feelings toward him were perhaps motivated by racism, tells a different story: "Nathan was not originally a member of ALBINO! He was called in ... I brought Afrobeat to the band and they [didn't] know anything about Afrobeat."

Around the same time, the band got involved with Christian Weyers, a manager who became interested in ALBINO! when it began playing -- and selling out -- shows. Weyers used his connections to get the band some very choice gigs, including national festivals like Colorado's Ned Fest. Wherever it played, ALBINO! generated big crowds and an enthusiastic buzz. Internally, however, it was generating problems.

Because of Weyers' industry know-how, the band had put him in charge of nearly every detail, from booking to managing the mailing list to finances. But, according to Endsley, Weyers' iron hand began to squeeze the life out of other areas of the band, as well. "The communal atmosphere had kind of been undermined by our manager letting it be known that there were certain people in the band he didn't think should be there," says Endsley. (Christian Weyers could not be reached for comment.)

Buchanan says that Weyers eventually "forc[ed] Mark out as frontman and replac[ed] him with Geoffrey because he didn't think he could sell an Afrobeat band without a Nigerian up front." Buchanan and Endsley say that Omadhebo sided with Weyers, working with him to push people out, and that the two of them began jockeying for complete and total domination of the band.

It was over this issue of ownership that ALBINO! really started to implode. Endsley says, "I get a call from some of the other band members and they're like, 'Nathan, did you know that Geoffrey is trying to start another band and he's told us that essentially this band is breaking up?'"

After the band returned from a tour in November of 2004, Omadhebo and Weyers attempted to woo several ALBINO! members to come play in another Afrobeat band they were starting, Fulanis. Omadhebo says that he was open with ALBINO! about his new project, but, according to Endsley, Omadhebo denied the new band's existence when asked about it at the time. Convinced that Omadhebo and Weyers were trying to steal ALBINO! (along with its gigs, reputation, and fan base), Endsley and Buchanan quickly trademarked the name.

Oddly enough, during this time the musicians continued to play together as ALBINO! because of the undeniable chemistry they still had at their shows. "It was almost kind of like your girlfriend or your boyfriend that you don't get along with anymore but you have great sex," laughs Endsley. "We didn't want to lose that!" They were also afraid that they wouldn't be able to make it on their own, so they kept working with Weyers, as well.

Omadhebo remembers this period differently. "Nobody was tied to a particular band. While they would play in ALBINO!, they would keep playing in other bands.... When I was gonna start another band, at least I let them know.... But they went behind me and trademarked ALBINO! without my knowledge." Omadhebo claims that he has receipts showing he owns 80 percent of the band. Buchanan, who got fed up and left the band in the midst of all this upheaval, says that there was never any kind of business agreement.

Omadhebo, another former ALBINO! member Friday Jumbo (a Nigerian musician who played congas with Fela Kuti's Africa 70), and Weyers officially resigned in January of this year to concentrate on Fulanis. Endsley and the remaining members reformed ALBINO! as a collective and recruited Kokou Soglo Katamani, a singer and drummer from Ghana and Togo, to replace Omadhebo. On June 25, the new crew played its first show in San Francisco since all the dirty drama went down, selling out the Elbo Room.

Although his company lost money on gigs cancelled by the troubled band, Robbie Kowal remains diplomatic about ALBINO! "You had a really good band and good management and they decided to part ways ... and it went terribly ... [but] I think ALBINO! today seems far more united in vision and it comes through in their shows."

Listen to the music, and it's not hard to see how and why the band managed to survive the carnage. ALBINO!'s sound incorporates the exhilarating messiness of traditional Afrobeat -- mercilessly acute horns piled on top of slapping, thwacking guitars heaped onto undulating drums, with virtuosic jazz soloing thrown into the mess as well. Songs like "Soldier Don't Speak" take a great big bite out of current events like the Abu Ghraib scandal, sinking the teeth of the band's entire horn section into the devious ways in which our government keeps its troops mean and mum. "Our vision ... [is] to try to point out some of the things that are going on in the world and especially in [America], to bring people in with the energy of our show ... to get them dancing but to connect with them at that level," says Endsley.

Fela would very well be rolling in his grave if he heard about the snarky catfights undertaken by those who have taken up his revolutionary mantle. Let's face it: The kind of conflict ALBINO! has been engaged in is a far cry from insurgent political struggle or, well, getting your house burned down by the army. But the new, improved, and (so far, anyway) drama-free ALBINO! seems ready to retract the claws, put an end to the hissing and the pissing, and get back to what Afrobeat is supposed to be about -- white guys jamming to HOT African music! Er, I mean -- searing political commentary, fierce music, and dancing your ass off.

About The Author

Rachel Devitt


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