I first got exposed to African music probably through my sister when she came back from Peace Corps service in Gabon. She brought back a bunch of cassettes. I was intrigued, but, truthfully, it felt repetitive, and I didn’t really get it. In the early ’90s, I also went and did Peace Corps service in the Central African Republic with my wife. They had these lovely little clubs where people would dance, and the band was there nailing it, playing wonderful music, but it wasn’t like a show. The scene was about the dance floor and the interaction there. Instead of
just understanding it, I felt it. Why do we have music? It’s to sort of hold it down for the dancers. Your job is to get it right. To put a little energy and playfulness into it and keep the dance floor hot. That’s what I understood seeing it live.
It’s inclusive. Anyone can join in. It’s powerful to play it. Even though you are playing the same lick, you get into a groove. You’ve got guitars and a bass and drums and percussion, and they’re all laying a fine netting of music on top of which the horns and vocals and soloists can do their thing. Fela [Kuti], James Brown, Chuck Brown, this African music that we play — the way it’s constructed and presented is all coming from the same place.
Not too many people that look like me are playing this music, and I try to get it right. When we first started, there was a lot of hand-wringing about skin color: Who’s playing it, and is it authentic? There are often African folks who come to the shows. You can tell in the beginning some are skeptical when we come out. But I relish that. That dissonance always dissipates because we take our time to try and do the music right. The people that are looking at you sideways in the beginning are dancing in the end. I get people coming up to me afterward, speaking in various languages that I don’t speak because they just assume that I speak them. And that’s a lovely conversation starter.
When we first started Chopteeth, we had a wonderful [Nigerian] singer. We ended up parting ways right before we were to do a very big opening spot at the Black Cat. He left the band, and we were like, “We’re going to have to cancel.” And so I just took it. I said, “I’ll do it. I’ll learn three or four of the songs, and I’ll just go do it, and hopefully we won’t fall on our face.” So we went out and did that show. The air conditioning was broke, and it was August. It was 100 degrees on the dance floor, and it was packed in the house. And it was magical. I thought me going up there and trying to front this Afrofunk band, people were going to fold their arms and look at it funny. But it worked. And then we realized: Onward. Forward. We can do this.