Last weekend’s packed First Avenue main-room set and the hipster-thronged Red Stag Block Party in northeast Minneapolis were among their favorite shows so far. However, the most telling performance for the 10 members of Black Market Brass in their unusually busy summer actually might have been last month’s more milquetoast gig at Log Jam in Stillwater.
“Seeing a bunch of teenagers and other Stillwater people getting down to our kind of music was kind of mind-blowing,” guitarist Hans Kruger said, admitting it took the band a few songs to win the crowd over.
Continued baritone sax player Cole Pulice, “Some shows, the people don’t really know what to make of us at first. But they see us having a blast on stage, and I think that tells them we’re all in this together to have a good time.”
The Stillwater story hints at how an instrumental Afrobeat band somehow became a go-to favorite for the summer party scene in Minnesota — a group whose music is based around the psychedelic-sounding, rhythmically complex, relatively obscure jazz/funk/fusion sounds of late Nigerian revolutionary Fela Kuti and the rest of his Afrobeat music movement.
Among the other outdoor fests that Black Market Brass has played this year were the Roots, Rock & Deep Blues Festival, the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Art-a-Whirl at Bauhaus and the Coup d’état Block Party. The band has one more next weekend, the Borough Block Party outside Borough restaurant in Minneapolis’ North Loop on Sunday (scheduled set time: 1 p.m.).
Quipped the group’s other guitarist, Mitch Sigurdson, “We just show up to every block party and ask if we’re playing.”
Also the guitarist in the popular soul-rock sextet Black Diet, Sigurdson posted a Craigslist ad three years ago that became the big bang for BMB, asking if any other Twin Cities musicians were interested in forming an Afrobeat-flavored band. “There were DJ nights and radios shows, but you couldn’t really go hear this stuff played live anywhere in town,” he recalled.
How a bunch of white, twenty- and thirty-something rock, jazz and soul musicians in Minnesota got into Afrobeat music in the first place is another surprise worth explaining.
Some of them discovered it through modern Afrobeat acts such as the Antibalas Orchestra and Budos Band. Some were simply vinyl collectors who fell in love with the ’70s-era worldbeat records reissued by Minneapolis label Secret Stash Records, which will also release Black Market Brass’ debut album next spring.
The most well-versed among them was probably percussionist David Tullis, an African studies major at Carleton College who traveled to Nigeria on a fellowship-type excursion to study drumming. He can go on long tangents about the music’s complex polyrhythms and other challenging elements.
“It’s hard for a lot of musicians to find their place in this music because there’s so much going on; everything is right there,” said Tullis, who is also the drummer in Black Diet.
Some of the first rehearsals for the bands were spent simply trying to work out musical charts from Kuti’s music for guideposts. “And then we still had to go through the long process of learning our own style and way of playing it,” Sigurdson remembered.
A true group effort
As scholarly as the band members can get about this music — “We really nerd out a lot in rehearsals,” Kruger admitted — they also make it clear they’re in BMB primarily because it’s fun music to play. Many of the songs in the band’s growing bin of original tunes, including “Snake Oil Man” and “Half a Cig,” follow the same repetitive groove for six minutes or more but pick up steam via the feisty, fiery horn parts.
Pulice, who also performs with vintage soul greats Sonny Knight & the Lakers, said Afrobeat “doesn’t follow a normal western music narrative. It’s not broken up into sections, or into solos, like jazz is.
“Good Afrobeat music is not about individual players. It’s about what we can do together, and finding that sort of magical, hypnotic zone as one unit.”
“Hypnotic” could perhaps be taken as code for the heavy marijuana use associated with Afrobeat and reggae music. The band doesn’t deny that there’s an herbal undercurrent to the music, but Tullis pointed out, “There are several people in the band who don’t touch the stuff, and they do just fine.
“Really, it’s about doing whatever you have to do to get in that uninhibited state where you freely dance to the music and just absorb it fully. Plenty of people can do that stone-cold sober.”
Let’s hope that was true of those teens in Stillwater.