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In this glitchy, twitchy era of blurred micro-genres, it takes some real hoodoo to keep a crowd gyrating to the same groove for three and a half hours. But by the time the Fu-Arkist-Ra wrapped up their set at 92Y Tribeca a few weeks back, any semblance of a tyrannically periodic time flow had already been thwarted by more natural rhythms. Bandleader Amayo extended a hand to his 13 performers and, with a fifth-century cheironomer's twist of the wrist, extracted pitches, moods, tempos, and hours of fatigue. The musicians formed a crescent around center-stage, where dancers flailed like B-girls emulating a Maoli war chant. Most imposing was the tremendous Chinese lion mask suspended above the piano, that much more out of place thanks to Amayo's Afrocentrist lyrics ("Dumping on Mother Africa is like dumping in my mother's womb!") and the fact that the ensemble was playing Afrobeat, a genre that has never much bothered with the Eastern corners of the world.
The Fu-Arkist-Ra are the invention of Abraham "Duke" Amayo, best known as chanteur and composer for Antibalas, Brooklyn's premier Afrobeat ensemble. This side project's name is a rough amalgam of fu (from "kung fu," meaning "to strive for excellence") and arkestra, the variant spelling of "orchestra" coined by avant-jazz avatar Sun Ra. Born into Britain's community of diasporic Nigerians, Amayo represents a rugged mash-up of disparate societies. He speaks like a relocated David Carradine, quick to compare martial arts exhibitions with African dance ceremonies, Chinese guardian lions with Yoruba deities. His interest in China stems somewhat from the superpower's financial ties to Nigeria (including an enormous chopstick-manufacturing operation), but mostly from a romanticized association with martial arts.
He cites two early memories that have clearly shaped him: a trip to the Afro-Spot (the Lagos nightclub where legendary bandleader Fela Kuti originally distilled funk, highlife, and traditional griot music into Afrobeat) and the emergence of kung fu in '70s pop culture. Over 30-plus years of training, Amayo has become a sifu, a master of martial arts and movement, which he associates with dance and claims as high art. His purpose now, he explains, is to "walk through the universe looking for disciples."
Asian overtones in Afro-American music have greater precedent than the faux-Shaolin lore of cheap martial arts flicks, though Amayo and Wu-Tang have both managed to coerce that source material into something surprisingly compelling. Consider Duke Ellington's 1971 project The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, his deepest foray into exoticism, which begins with a spoken-word Marshall McLuhan paraphrase: "The whole world is going Oriental. No one will be able to retain his or her identity, not even the Orientals." Even now, this echoes what many Americans believe to be true—namely, that we'll all be speaking Mandarin by 2020. But as Voice critic Gary Giddins insisted in 1976, the composition, though rich in Eastern motifs, isn't at all meant to concede cultural supremacy to Big Red, but rather to suggest that these "Negro" rhythms really aren't too far removed from China's traditional music. Ellington uses his remarkable abilities to dispel any lazy presumptions about genre and race.
Amayo carries on that mission. In 2000, saxophonist/arranger Martín Perna and Daptone Records founder Gabrielle Roth stumbled upon his Williamsburg kung fu studio, affectionately named the Afro-Spot, where they took in a fashion show he'd choreographed to Nigerian percussion. Invited to sit in with Antibalas on congas, Amayo lent a heft of authenticity to the young band; from the onset, they have unambiguously presented themselves as disciples of Fela, modeling their lineup and repertoire after his own outfit, Africa 70. After almost a decade of transcontinental touring and guest spots with two of Kuti's sons (Seun and Femi) and celebrated Africa 70 drummer Tony Allen, the group is settling into a regular gig as house band for the bio-musical Fela!, a brief Off-Broadway hit set to begin its Broadway run in October.
The Fu-Arkist-Ra aren't quite as entrenched as Antibalas, and that's the thrill of it. Traditionally, Afrobeat melodies are driven by a ballsy brass section—Antibalas's horns are in demand by artists ranging from Paul Simon to TV on the Radio. But this project instead relies on the interplay between cello, flute, organ, and vocals. Fela thrived on machismo and themes of insurgency, but Amayo's subdued arrangements breathe something more sacramental. His performances are salutation ceremonies for benevolent presences, centering on a revision of the Chinese lion dance, which now summons the Yoruba river spirit Aganju. The group has emerged this year with their most ambitious work to date: the seven-part SUNCITY series, a year-spanning set of new musical and dance compositions set to culminate with a spectacular Fu-Year celebration on February 14, 2010 (the Chinese New Year).
The 92Y Tribeca performance was the third and most recent installment. Entitled "Orisha Boot Camp at Dusk," it featured Amayo re-enacting his rite of passage into adulthood: "A ritualistic martial arts sparring to strengthen young warriors," he explained to me before the performance. "There's never any fights in the neighborhood. This is the only place disputes are settled." Onstage, he marked the boundaries: "No fighting outside the ring," he declared, pointing to center-stage, where the dancers had just been dangling. The duel played out round by round, Amayo's lyrics accounting for each blow like a radio sportscast. And while the details were often unintelligible, the swellings and ebbs were clear—it was a long match, and Amayo lost.
This was all apparently based on real, long-past events from Amayo's childhood experiences in Ghana. "I cried my way home," he told me, laughing. "My grandmother chased me back out, and I had to review myself. . . . It's all about being strong and steadfast." Still, the way he glides about the stage, eagerly jabbing at his phantom opponent and taking imaginary blows to the face, audiences can't know whether he is playing the role of a scrappy, displaced adolescent or a desperately overmatched sifu. So long as every head in the club is feeling it, what's the difference? But alas, those heads numbered a mere 50, outnumbering the orchestra only about 4-to-1. Amayo has tapped into something healthy and uncompromisingly positive, but the frustrating truth is that the Fu-Arkist-Ra are, at least for the moment, too far out there for most. Perhaps it's best that today's music-industrial complex expects this kind of thing to be languishing in dank bars and baby performing-arts centers, where it has instead been flourishing, uncompromised, for those who may so happen to stumble upon it.