Okay, so today I am going to tell you about three young Brooklynites playing pop music that draws heavily from Ghanaian highlife and Congolese soukouss and I’m going to ask you not to sneer. I mean, let’s all put aside our kneejerk Vampire Weekend Paul Simon reflexes and think about this for a second. Why do we feel like we’re supposed to look down on such things? Usually it is a question of authenticity, connected to some imagined exploitation or imperialistic colonization of styles of music and musicians from the third world. First of all, let me just throw some wrenches into this authenticity thing. I mean, it’s almost too easy. The idea that there is some racially pure music out there is just ridiculous, and the idea that it would be somehow more real (what does that even mean?) or automatically better than any of the countless hybrids we have is just kind of stupid. Highlife itself was already a fusion of Western and African music back in the 1930s when it emerged. According to afropop.org, it was a blend of Trinidadian calypso, military brass band music, Cuban son and older African song forms with the addition of American swing music a decade later during WWII. Do you have an urge to go back to Ghana 1941 and sneer at them for defiling their culture with swing music? See how silly this all is? Highlife was never anything but a hybrid, one piece of dialogue in the eternal conversation of culture. I may be out on a limb here but I’d say there is something way more imperialistically iffy and patronizing about wanting to quarantine various foreign musics in order to preserve them like museum pieces (read: kill them) than there is about oh, I dunno, going to Ghana and learning how to play some of their music and then letting it into your own, which is what the King Expressers have done. Culture is only alive when it is changing and growing, kids.
Now, I just wasted your time, because the second you hear this music, you are not going to give a rat’s ass about authenticity. You are going to be too busy chairdancing in front of your laptop. The King Expressers are primarily guitarist Mikey Hart, bassist Nikhil P. Yerawadekar, and drummer Rich Levinson, though on these recordings they are joined by an enormous horn section (nine pieces!) and two backup vocalists (Hart and Yerawadekar share primary vocal duties). Their music is often sort of like a sped-up version of soukouss, as they say, and it has the chiming, polyphonic guitars that American rock bands tend to lift from Afropop, but really it is a soup of all sorts of influences. There is, for example, that snare hit about a minute into A-side “Passed Ascension Parish” that suddenly echoes expansively, nodding at the entire genre of dub reggae in about one second. Or the asymmetry and freedom of form in both songs, resulting in time shifts, feel shifts, key shifts, etc. There are even clear rock cousins, like Islands, who you almost expect to hear crooning “swans, swans, swans,” over the bass and guitar drone after the introduction to “The Real True Story.”
“Passed Ascension Parish” (which appears to be a Hurricane Katrina themed love song, and is in any case the happiest sounding Katrina-related song I have ever heard) kicks off with the kind of liquid, sunny guitars that we know and love from our previous Afropop experiences, lifted recently to great effect by scads of rock bands (Dirty Projectors, Islands, Vampire Weekend, a million more). You can instantly hear how accomplished the musicians are here. As a band, when you have musicians who can play anything they want without batting an eye, doors just open in every direction. The vocals aren’t showy, but they lock perfectly in tune and time and the band kicks right along underneath, answering occasionally with a little bass or guitar burst. The kind of relaxed momentum the King Expressers display here is the opposite of the frantic trampling of punk rock (which I also enjoy): it’s the assured drive of people who are in total control. This relaxed tightness is the exact thing that makes you want to dance. When the choral vocals come in, though the words are about rain, the music is pure sun, so warm and light and easy. This is the other beautiful thing about technique, it lets you make hard things sound easy. Halfway through, the song revs up and leaps into a speedy soukouss feel (sounds like reggaeton to me, but I’m pretty green when it comes to this stuff) and the different melodies that just keep pouring out of the keyboards, guitars, horns and voices are almost overwhelming. It’s a euphoric moment that lasts for three whole minutes, all the way to the last horn and voice swell. Like I said, pure sun.
If “Passed Ascension Parish” is drinking a beer on the porch, B-side “The Real True Story” is going out to a house party later. More upbeat and quickfooted, “The Real True Story” starts with a nursery-rhyme simple melody (note the way Levinson plays the melody on the drums the first time through before busting into a skittery solo on the second repeat) and then builds all the way up through the bouncing verse melody into a fantastic horn breakdown with a wooly, howling baritone sax solo and some punchy brass fanfares. Dig the madly leaping bass or the way that all the instruments unite to play the little descending line in the middle of each chorus. Listening to the lyrics, which are pretty straight-forward love lyrics, show us how fully assimilated the King Expressers influences are. They aren’t making music that is self-consciously foreign, they are making the music that comes naturally to them, about their lives. There’s nothing put on or gimmicky about it. It’s just amazing pop music that holds up perfectly to repeated listens (I’m going on number ten here and I’m still bobbing my head just the way I was on number one).
On both tracks, keep an eye out for the subtlety of the arrangements, which hold your hand all the way through each song so perfectly you’d never even notice. New instruments are constantly emerging to reinforce the feeling of progress, to keep any section from simply being a repeat of something earlier. The overlapping melodies at the end of “Passed Ascension Parish” or the synthy keyboard in the second verse of “The Real True Story” or the alto sax that jumps in for the last, what, two bars of the final chorus on the latter are perfect examples of how these guys are never going to let their listeners get bored. Sadly, these two songs comprise all the recordings to emerge from the Expressers’ loft in Brooklyn so far, but we can all hope there’s more coming soon, and in the meantime we can stop our hiding our taste for rock bands with Afropop influences and start laughing off the authenticity police. Or at the very least handing them a beer and telling them to dance.
(Full Disclosure: Graceland is one of the author’s favorite albums of all time, and when he was five years old he used to yell “Gwaceland!” until his mom put it on the turntable so he could toddle around the room to it. He has never been to Ghana.)