Karl Hector and the Malcouns: Rush Hour
From Sahara Swing (Now Again, 2008)
Stones Throw subsidiary Now Again is out to prove that it’s not just a reissue label trying to dig up yesteryear’s lost gems; it’s also out to prove there are still some dope sounds being constructed today. After last year’s Heliocentrics release featuring living legend Malcolm Catto bringing together a group to record a trippy freeform jazz/funk odyssey for a sound appropriately entitled “Out There,” the label follows it up with an album of jams rooted in afrobeat rhythms with funk undertones.
Former Poets Of Rhythm guitarist and producer J. Whitefield funks out with Malcouns founders Thomas Myland and Zdenko Curlija along with Karl Hector and a host of others. The results may not have you doing the worm at the discothèque, but don’t underestimate this music’s headnod factor.
Clocking in at just over 45 minutes, the mostly instrumental disc grooves through world rhythms and nu-funk simmered with a dash of tasty rhythmic seasoning. Throughout the set, intermissions lead us from one course to the next. “Rush Hour,” which leans less on afrobeat and more toward traditional funk, hits you with a swirling organ, steady bass, and tight snares. One section even sounds like killer bees swarming!
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Whitefield about the project which hits record racks on July 8. Following the Stones Throw/Now Again tradition, when purchased from select retailers the album comes with a limited edition Stones Throw 45 featuring non-album tracks.
EL: How did you hook up with the Malcouns?
JW: I met Thomas, their keyboard player, in a teahouse in Izmir, Turkey, while travelling with a theatre group. We were discovering similar musical interests, and a year later he was invited for the first Discern/Define recording sessions back in ‘97 and is playing with the Poets live band and on many of our recording projects since then.
EL: I like the cover artwork. It looks like some kind of African tribal necklace. What was its inspiration?
JW: It is a tribal necklace, but to get specifics as to where exactly it’s from and stuff, you´d have to ask Matt Boyd who did the design… probably the album title gave the overall inspiration as well as the overall musical content plus a love for homemade style cover artwork.
EL: We got a taste of the marriage of funk and afrobeat in “Weiya” from the “In The Raw” LP on Soul Fire. Talk about how that came about and why you wanted to work with afrobeat rhythms more. Did Bo Baral (Poets of Rhythm singer and frequent collaborator) growing up in Africa lead you down that path?
JW: The departure from straight American funk happened already in the mid 90s some years before the Whitefield Brothers sessions with our Pan-Atlantics project. Basically it grew out of interest for more syncopation and polyrhythms. The strong 2 and 4 that dominates contemporary western music doesn’t give enough freedom for rhythmic experiments, and the mothership for all the side projects we are doing is still the Poets of RHYTHM which always demands a strong focus on rhythmic developments.
EL: Is the group doing any promotional spots or shows for the Sahara Swing album?
JW: The live band is ready to hit the stage. We played a couple of shows already with great response, and basically we´re waiting for the album to be released and tour it later this year
EL: Can you talk about some of the influences for the album? There’s definitely a Fela Kuti feel on several songs.
JW: Fela definitely has a strong presence in African music, but for us, if at all, his early 70´s work, like Shenshema for example, is more relevant to our stuff as the classic later period where he really developed his formula of afrobeat which is rather epic in form. For this album we mostly tried to transport Mr. Hector’s influences, which are more based in Morocco, Ghana, Mali, and Ethiopia and span from western crossover to the more traditional folkloristic stuff as well.
EL: Over the past few years, Chief Xcel from Blackalicious did a mixtape of Fela songs; other hip hop and R&B acts contributed to a Fela Kuti tribute CD in the Red Hot series; Youssou N’Dour got some attention from the hip hop crowd when he did some work with Wyclef Jean and Canibus toward the end of the 90s. Even today, artists like the Daktaris and Antibalas are getting press. Do you see African music building some steam?
JW: I guess that started with Fela´s death in ´97. All the reissues and tributes got labels and record nerds interested in African music and explore the other west African countries for hidden musical treasures. They turned up loads of amazing stuff and otherwise we maybe would have never heard of people like Poly Rythmo, Ebo Taylor, El Rego and the many more obscure artists that never made a name outside of Africa.
EL: Much of today’s current music is made using preprogrammed sounds, synthesizers, and artists collaborating while never being in studio at the same time. Can you talk about how using real instruments and being able to vibe off one another in the studio helps to create a mood for you and your band mates when creating music?
JW: If you regard music and creating music as a form of communication you have to recognise there are very few people who are able to communicate with machines and put soul into them. That’s why we prefer being with musicians in a room and get inspired by each other; that way you can come to results where you sometimes play above what you know, which can happen with machines only if there are errors because they are too predictable – if that makes any sense. I never managed to tell a drum machine to play free.
EL: Have you been working on other projects since we last heard from the Poets of Rhythm and the Whitefield Brothers in 2002?
JW: Most of the studio time was spent on Karl Hector and Whitefield Brothers sessions. Also we’ve been on tour quite a lot and just did some 45s like New Process and Polyversal Souls or the stuff with Bajka and some compilation contributions.
EL: With this project being released on Now Again and the upcoming reissue of the “In The Raw” LP with them as well, do you have any other future projects in the works through them?
JW: After the “In The Raw” reissue, there will be a new Whitefield Brothers album which is even more based around Ethiopian themes and going from there in some Oriental and Asian territories as well. It will also have some vocal guest appearances.