Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band
Toss down the bones. The result seems random, but read the pattern and you’ll discern the shape of things, the present and what’s to come.
DC’s African funk powerhouse Chopteeth takes disparate elements, throws down, and sees plenty to hope for, to fight for, to dance for. On their latest album Bone Reader (release date: September 15, 2017), the twelve-piece grooves through original tunes, expanding the band’s songwriting forces for a tighter, more creative sound.
Inspired by Twi proverbs and Ivorian pop, by the life and struggles of Freddie Gray and Edward Snowden, Chopteeth’s songs tell tales, call out injustice, and celebrate the DC music scene, where African sounds, hip hop, and funk naturally cross-pollinate. The album taps the Mayor of DC Hip Hop, Head-Roc (“DC Vote”) and DC-based MC Flex (“Cop Show”) to add another layer to the party and the message.
“You’re dancing, so let’s engage on another, more challenging level as well,” explains Chopteeth co-founder and guitarist Michael Shereikis. “You may be having a good time, but you’re also hearing and considering an issue that has a resonance for you. That’s how many of us approach songwriting for this band.”
Chopteeth’s songs evolve from ideas worked out by a single member, into elegant horn lines, complex West African rhythms, and social statements. Sometimes they get banged out in the basement, the way bassist and co-founder Robert Fox wrote the Afrobeat-grooving “Snowden” and “Rambeau,” a shout out to Marvel’s black female superhero who got her powers from New Orleans music.
Sometimes, they are a group affair. Percussionist David McDavitt brought in a Ghanaian adinkra symbol of a two-headed crocodile that sparked “Funtumfunafu,” thanks to Twi proverbs researched by Shereikis and to horn lines plotted on the piano then sent to horn section arranger and trumpet player Cheryl Terwillinger. Drummer Mahiri Keita showed the group the powerful balanta rhythm he had learned from his Ghanaian teacher, the seed that sprouted into “Warriors.”
“Lanta are warriors from Guinea Bissau and Gambia, and balanta is a popular dance. But no one’s put it into a contemporary funk context,” recounts Keita. “The breakdown goes with the warrior dance. I wanted to see if the band could play it. And they could! I laid the foundation on the drum, and the band built from there.”
“Cop Show” has light origins, but ended up making a serious statement. The groove and horn lines the band worked out sounded eerily like a cop show theme from the 70s, so much so the group scoured videos, just to make sure they weren’t accidently quoting. They invited Flex to rap over the top, right as Baltimore was reeling from Freddie Gray’s death. The funk groove became vital commentary.
The ability to shift registers, to talk openly and write together comes from being a stable band for more than a decade. “We’ve been through enough together to reach that comfort level,” reflects Fox. “We’ve played so many venues, and we’ve gotten the business side of things to a stable point. That lets us focus on the music, to be vulnerable enough to compose as a group.”
“Chopteeth is a great example of stone soup,” notes trumpet player Justine Miller, who’s “So You Say” stands up for defiant, skeptical souls everywhere. “Everyone brings something that adds the right flavor. Everyone’s contributing to the mix.” It’s a mix that has allowed the band to open for a broad array of acts, from Parliament/Funkadelic to the Nevilles to Derek Trucks.
The mix is very DC. Though big, the city is compact enough to make even a large band viable and fun. And despite its reputation as a buttoned-up, hard-charging political town, it has another, wildly diverse side. “DC is chock-a-block with African talent. So many musicians come through who played with people like Femi Kuti or Orlando Julius, say, and just stick around. The guitarists and horn players are ten deep,” says Shereikis. “We don’t think of the monuments or the government office buildings. We think of the crazy mix of people the cosmopolitan vibe. There’s a real sense of community among African musicians here. There’s a lot of energy building, which is fun to be a part of and see coalescing over the years.”
“Nothing is like DC,” laughs Keita, a longtime resident and music educator. “You have an open spirit, a community here that’s open to all walks of life. When people say I play in an African funk band, they aren’t expecting a band full of white Americans who play African music at a high level. They look at me from the audience and say WHAT? I tell this story, because it shows you: you can’t judge a book by its cover here. That’s the way DC is.”