Toronto is rich with musical and artistic talent from all cultures and disciplines. But it hasn’t seen a new Afrobeat band on the scene for some time.
Last fall, Nigerian Foly Kolade chose Toronto as the place to relaunch his Asiko Afrobeat Ensemble. Kolade ran the project (under the name Asiko) in Brooklyn for five years before dissolving it in 2008. Newly reconstituted in Toronto, Asiko now includes drummer Raphael Roter, known to the local Brazilian music scene for his involvement in groups like Maracatu Nunca Antes and Samba Elégua.
Kolade is slowly unfurling the band’s repertoire. “He knows all of the parts, he knows how it should sound,” says Roter. “He’s been running this thing for nine years! I think he has quite a large backlog of tunes that we’ll bring back to life … he’s just waiting until we’re cooking before he writes new tunes.”
Kolade brings more than a wealth of songs to share with bandmates and fans; he also brings stories of speaking truth to power.
His story as a musician begins with playing talking drum and congas at his aunt’s art centre in Osogbo, Nigeria in the early ’90s. He soon joined a friend’s highlife group, performed for government dignitaries, and in 1993 made his first trip to the US.
An artist in batik, tie-dye and rice paper painting, Kolade traveled around Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, giving workshops through college arts programs. When he wasn’t back in Nigeria, he lived in Brooklyn, finally settling there in 1998. He played with Afro-funk pioneer Wunmi for several years, including a memorial concert at SOB’s where he shared the stage with George Benson and Roy Ayers, Wunmi’s godfather.
In 2003, Kolade formed Asiko in Brooklyn — the group’s first show was on October 20, 2003 — and the band performed around the US. Duke Amayo of Antibalas and Fu-Arkestra sometimes sat in.
The band performed at university and even high school functions. Once, Kolade recounts, they got a room full of walker-bound 80-year-old women to get up and dance.
As Roter mentions, the band’s impressive repertoire of original Afrobeat tunes may be new to Toronto, but was already refined by Kolade’s Brooklyn project. “We’re really lucky,” says Roter of he and his bandmates, a cross-section of Cuban, reggae, R&B and groove players from various Toronto scenes. “Foly came from NYC with everything.”
Kolade’s music is informed by struggle. While in New York, he played the launch party of African television station AIT. The day before the gig, organizers who’d heard his lyrics about corruption in African politics asked him to change the words, as the Nigerian president would be in attendance. Kolade refused, and still took the stage the next day, with Wunmi and Asiko backing him up.
“The song was called Oun Ti E Je, which means ‘what goes into you is what you throw out.’
“It’s a proverb in Yoruba that about [wrongdoings] … it’s about people elected into government and [how] they are stealing money,” he says.
“The system in Africa is, when [someone] becomes president, they can act how they want because don’t need votes, they can just can rig an election.”
When he started singing the controversial lyrics, “the woman came running: ‘stop!’ … Right in front of me, ‘stop!’ So we stopped and left the stage. A lot of my guys are American, had never witnessed this situation before, and were wondering what was going on. Some were afraid — they could see that some in the hall were Nigerian secret service.”
Asiko gigged for years, playing “every music scene in NYC.” They recorded an album in 2007. The following year, Kolade returned to Nigeria on family business and stayed there for a few years. Asiko was dissolved.
He divided his time between the cities of Lagos and Ibadan, and continued performing. But with police monitoring and harassing him, he began playing less often. Eventually he was forced into hiding. He made the decision to leave Nigeria and start over in Canada.
Musician friends had recommended Toronto. Kolade arrived in November 2011 and soon put out a call on Craigslist in an effort to reform Asiko.
(Asiko translates from Yoruba as “time, an appointed moment, connoting fate; example: your time has come.” Asiko is also the name of an African music style originating from Nigeria.)
Kolade auditioned a number of musicians before settling on the current roster. Drummer Raphael Roter was excited to get the call. “I thought upon listening to the tunes that I’d have the music in the bag in no time, but then as I prepared I realized that there was so much going on in the music.”
The first rehearsals “were terrifying and I constantly felt like I wasn’t getting it … but I suppose Foly liked something he heard, so I made the cut. I’ve been working on this material for a little while now, but I feel I still have a way to go before it’ll sound like I want.”
After two Toronto shows, Asiko has begun to gel, says Roter. The most recent, in July at the now-closed Trane Studio, was where the group began to find their sound and get more comfortable playing together.
On his role in the group’s Afrobeat sound and playing the rhythms that drive it all, Roter says: “Perhaps I have something about my sense of time and groove that’s different. I’m a listener and don’t take an ‘I’m the drummer, everyone follow me’ approach so much.
“I listen to lots of Afrobeat, some soukous and highlife. I try to give the music the kind of energy that I hear in these old recordings. But we also try to pull stuff in from reggae and R&B too. Each of these present their own challenges I guess.
“Above all this though I think there’s the main task of drumming in a way that every dance band drummer has to live up to: They have to drive the party, they have to inflect their playing in a way that makes moving feel great … and of course you need to have fun.”
Asiko Afrobeat Ensemble performs on Saturday, October 20 at The Great Hall as part of the Uma Nota Festival of Tropical Expressions – Flagship Event – World Funk showcase.