Eufórquestra melds musical melting pots
July 19, 2006
On their new CD, Iowa City septet Eufórquestra is, by all appearances, an Afrobeat band, playing the style of music – a mix of Nigerian chants and American jazz and funk – popularized by the late Fela Kuti. That perception goes all the way to the album’s title, “Explorations in Afrobeat.” If Eufórquestra is a fusion of styles, it is only slightly so, as “Explorations in Afrobeat” mixes Afro-Cuban rhythms into the mix as well. Certainly there are no bluegrass or jam-band strains seeping into the sound.In this case, however, one CD doesn’t reveal the full picture. Eufórquestra’s next CD may very well be a funk album; after that, a reggae record is not unlikely. And consider that, often, the opening act for a Eufórquestra show is the Eufórquestra String Band, a bluegrass group comprising the same members that make up Eufórquestra itself.It is no extraordinary thing these days for a band to mix a range of diverse – sometimes even radically opposing – styles. San Francisco’s New Monsoon, for instance, features mandolins and banjos, Indian tablas and African congas, sometimes all in the same song. In the Grateful Dead, one can hear the influences of bluegrass, jazz and blues. There are groups that have blended bluegrass and brass-band sounds, hip-hop and folk.But Eufórquestra is after something else in their multicultural vision. “Explorations in Afrobeat” is, essentially, an Afrobeat album. When they play as the string band, they play bluegrass, using mandolin and banjo. When they get around to a reggae album, chances are good it will sound like an unadulterated reggae recording.”One of the distinctive features of our band is we’re really into learning styles and traditions, really learning them,” said percussionist and singer Matt Grundstad, who joined the founding core of Eufórquestra two years ago at the University of Iowa. (Guitarist Mike Tallman, keyboardist Eric Quiner and drummer Josten Foley, friends from high school, had started playing together five years earlier in Des Moines.) “If we’re going to play a style of music, we want to learn how to really do it, rather than play a watered-down, jam-band version, an Americanized version of it. “We all had different things we could bring to the table. I’m into Afro-Cuban music, and I’ve been to Cuba twice. It made a good environment for us all to learn from each other. That allows us to play a lot of different kinds of gigs, in a lot of different environments. Sometimes it’s an educational show; sometimes, it’s just for dancing.”
Given the setting, the performance at the Carbondale Mountain Fair, Friday, July 27, at 7 p.m. in Carbondale’s Sopris Park, figures to be heavy on the dancing side. Still, dancer/listeners may get an education in musical traditions. A Eufórquestra show typically features a variety of styles, including Afro-Cuban, bluegrass and Afrobeat.The band’s first CD, “The Adventures of Glen Devey” – named after the town in Colorado’s Poudre Canyon – was structured much like a Eufórquestra concert. Grundstad calls the album a “sample platter,” with each song sporting a different style.”Explorations in Afrobeat” was a different kind of effort. “This second album, we wanted to put a frame around our picture,” said the 26-year-old Grundstad. “Instead of scratching the surface of a whole lot of things, we wanted to really get into one thing. We decided to do Afrobeat because that’s what we were into at the time. We had a lot of ideas flowing, and that’s what we were comfortable with.”The next album will have a different frame around our picture. And that frame may not even be one genre. Eventually, all the albums together will add up to who we are.”With the release of “Explorations in Afrobeat,” the question the members of Eufórquestra are most often asked is, how did a bunch of white Midwesterners come to play African music? (All the players in Eufórquestra are white, and all but one are Iowa natives.) Grundstad says the question stems from two misunderstandings. One is that Iowa is not quite as white bread as many imagine; the college town of Iowa City, in particular, is quite diverse. Grundstad himself was turned onto Latin jazz by his first drum teacher. Secondly, much of what people think of us African music is actually a mix of styles, stemming from Europe, the Caribbean and even the States. So when Eufórquestra plays Afrobeat or Afro-Cuban, it isn’t borrowing pure African strains of music.”We’re taking two different melting pots and putting them together in our own melting pot,” said Grundstad. “To me, it makes perfect sense that a bunch of guys from Iowa are taking a bunch of different cultures and putting them together.”There is a question here of identity. What happens when a fan of “Explorations in Afrobeat” shows up for a show, and is first hit with the Eufórquestra String Band, playing the songs of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs? Grundstad isn’t worried. He figures that if the band can earn listeners’ attention with one style, they’re likely to hang on for the sharp turns.”We can capture people with the Afrobeat,” he said. “Then we can throw a curveball at them.
“I never knew I liked bluegrass till I started hanging out with these guys.”****Eufórquestra is a microcosm of the Mountain Fair musical lineup, which is always aimed toward the eclectic.Saturday, July 29, begins with local singer-songwriter Frank Martin, who earned third place last month at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s Troubadour Contest, and ends with the funky New Orleans rock of Juice. In between is the jazzgrass of Colorado icon Pete Wernick and his latest project, Flexiglass; melodic rock by the Nadas; and the reggae-tinged trance rock of SeePeopleS.Sunday, July 30, opens with KC Johnson’s Earthbeat Choir, followed by a gospel set by local duo Jan Garrett and JD Martin. From there, it goes into jazz by Chris Bank’s Jazz Camp, cutting-edge acoustic sounds by Crooked Still, soulful rock by Boulder’s Wendy Woo & the Woo Crew, Latin rock by New Mexico’s Nosotros, and finally, funk from 8trac.****For several years, including three summers as a violin student at the Aspen Music School, Bobby Yang dwelled in the classical music realm. But in his days as a full-time Aspenite, Yang made it clear that he preferred the rock club to the concert hall, showing a knack for getting loud and aggressive on his instrument in a way that wouldn’t go over in Harris Hall – or Benedict Music Tent, for that matter.On his recent CD, “No. 1 Tribute,” Yang seems determined to prove his rock ‘n’ roll bona fides. Yang still plays violin, and on the album, his violin is acoustic, without the electronics, amplifiers, pedals and effects he has sometimes sported in the past. But “No. 1 Tribute” opens with the rock staple, Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” and runs through more rock anthems: “Tell Me Something Good,” “Roxanne,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and, most emphatically, “I Love Rock N Roll.” Apart from the instrumentation, which includes upright bass, there is very little that is crossover about the album. Yang simply rocks out.Yang returns to Aspen Thursday, July 27, playing a gig at Belly Up with his band, the Unrivaled Players.
****Belly Up is keeping local music fans on their toes. Fans of Gov’t Mule who didn’t act fast were shut out; tickets for the Sept. 3 date by the Southern jam band sold out in a day.So it’s a good idea to check the club’s website vigilantly. Last week, seemingly out of nowhere, Dwight Yoakam, the torchbearer for gritty, old-school country music, was added. Yoakam will play Aug. 16, with alt-country/bluegrass band the Texas Sapphires opening. Just as I recovered my footing from that fairly momentous announcement, Belly Up’s website revealed that Kris Kristofferson had been added to the calendar, with an Aug. 21 show. Between those two, the club – and the Aspen Writers’ Foundation – managed to sneak Aimee Mann in for an Aug. 4 appearance in the Writers’ Foundation’s new Lyrically Speaking series.Recall that the August lineup already included B.B. King (Aug. 12), Joe Cocker (Aug. 13), Dickey Betts (Aug. 27), two nights of Galactic (Aug. 22-23), Tricky (Aug. 10), Jerry Douglas (Aug. 26), Cracker (Aug. 25) and the Radiators (Aug. 31), and you’ve got the most remarkable musical month in Aspen. Ever.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org