The Afromotive is a quickly rising ten-piece band out of Asheville North Carolina. Their music is funky and energetic, danceable and deeply infused with traditional West African rhythms. The band is currently enjoying the release of their debut album Scare Tactics, recorded and produced by WCU music school alumni Jacob Keller. The Afromotive actively tours live around the US, and our surrounding area of Western North Carolina. The Afromotive will be appearing in downtown Asheville’s annual Bele Chere festival, scheduled for the last weekend in July.
Interview with Ryan Reardon, bass player and songwriter from The Afromotive
JT: Who, or what, is your biggest influence or source of inspiration when you are writing songs?
RR: My inspiration is lead by something I want to hear: what isn’t around, what hasn’t been made that I can create and expand on. In a Tom Robbins book, there was an artist character, a painter, but it’s the same concept for a musician; she wanted to create something that doesn’t already exist, that she doesn’t know already exists, but she wants it to – she wants it to be alive. For me, its like that. There’s a lot of inspiration in past musicians as well; one influence of mine is Fela Kuti, who founded afro beat music. I like to take the roots, the tradition, in these West African Rythms, a main influence of mine, loving that music and loving those rythms, and seeing people’s reactions to them, enjoying my reaction to them – and also creating something new while still staying rooted in the knowledge of a past tradition.
JT: Tell me a story about traveling on the road with the band. There are ten members in your band, as well as dancers, so I would imagine the bus trips are interesting.
RR: Yes, yes they are. We fluctuate a lot with the dancers, bringing them only to bigger shows when its more feasible. I remember one time when we were stuck in traffic on interstate forty coming back to Asheville, it was just dead stopped traffic for a couple hours. It was hot, we didn’t have any AC on the bus at the time, we were in the middle of the highway. We were all just sweaty, shirtless on the bus, so we ended up getting out and walking around on the highway, hangin’ out on the street, giving out CD samplers to people of our music. We were going up to peoples cars, meeting them, reaching people. They were playing our music, and one woman gave us cookies. Someone brought out a drum, and we were playing it in the middle of the highway. When the traffic started to move a little bit, we just followed it, walking next to the bus. For a while we were sitting on top of the bus. It was a fun experience. We were playing music, people were enjoying it, it was very cool. We were connecting with people. One of the shows that stands out to me was when we went down to New Orleans to play at Tipatina’s the Thanksgiving after Katrina, so about a year after Katrina. We volunteered, the whole band, to help rebuild homes. At that time they weren’t quite at the rebuilding process, they were just assessing the situation, cleaning up. We opened for the Rebirth Brass Band at Tina’s. It was interesting to know all the history of that place. Just being there, and knowing about the musicians that had been there in the past, but also just being in New Orleans and being with people that had gone through the disaster with Katrina. Meeting people who were there, that thanked us for being there and helping out, and they really enjoyed our music. They were very appreciative. We saw a house that had been moved by the storm and was on top of a car. There were cement steps, that used to belong to a house, but the house was no longer there. We went to an elementary school, and the kids’ desks were still there with their pencils and everything, even though it was probably a danger zone and we weren’t supposed to go inside. JT: The lyrics in your debut album, Scare Tactics, are overtly political. Are they about the Ivory coast, given the political situation, and the fact that Kevin Meyame, the singer, is from there, or are they about America, or are they describing a kind of general plague about politics and leadership?
RR: Yes. They are not directly about the Ivory Coast or about the United States. Corruption is corruption and lies are lies, whether it happens here or there. The Ivory Coast is a lot better now, but before Kevin came here there was a lot of fighting where he lived, in The Ivory Coast, and was left there to escape the fighting. There were still a lot of rebels coming in, so there is a lot there about living in a war-torn country. A lot of people in foreign countries, like in Africa, see America as a land of opportunity, and there are a lot of them, but America definitely isn’t what it should be. There is a lot going on here too, covertly: misallocation of funds, etc. Things are a lot more covered up here, whereas there, it was all out in the open. I think Kevin combines both experiences of the countries he has been living in; both the conflict in The Ivory Coast, and the condition of the United States. They also describe social interactions, how we treat one another, how we act, in response to political situations. Peoples actions and social interactions often come from the state of the country they live in.
JT: I cannot help but notice that your music is quite energetic and has a very positive feel about it, yet the lyrics describe rather dark sociopolitical observations. Can you tell me about the way the music and the lyrics interact?
RR: You want people to like your music, to have fun, but you also want something to be good at a deeper layer, something personal. Whether its dark, happy, or accusatory, whatever it is, you still want people to want to listen. I would rather people come to the show, dance and have a great time, but still listen and know about something else that’s going on that they may even be able to relate to. You should the able to put this music in at a dance party, and have fun, but still get a little something extra, something personal to you. A lot of the lyrics are based on very personal experiences. The song “Yako”, which means “I’m sorry I can’t help you” is based on an African proverb, and also on Kevin’s experience. For example, if you try to help someone because you care about them, and they later accuse you of poisoning their food, you can no longer help them. What you’re giving them, they aren’t capable of receiving.
JT: Do you ever think about the meaning of the songs while you’re playing, and possibly see that as a way of overcoming the darker subjects of them?
RR: Yea. There is a song, “Wake up”, that is a powerful song, a little slower, a little different. Kevin really makes you understand what he’s singing about, whether or not he’s singing in your language, whether he is singing in Baoule, or French, or English, it’s the performance and his intention that comes through. If someone is a strong enough performer, and a strong enough artist, their intention comes across without explanation. Maybe our intentions are not necessarily to overcome the meaning in the lyrics, but react to the things that are being sung about. If we are singing about something that is not uplifting, it is about overcoming it, not wallowing in the potential depression of the message. Its like the blues. You’re singing the blues to get rid of what you want to overcome. When you realize a problem, you have to figure out what to do about it.
JT: Your music is obviously based in instrumentals. How do you, then, assign the role of the vocalist? Are the vocals to be used as another instrument, or are they also meant to act as a story telling device – a means of lingual communication?
RR: Both. Its not one or the other; roles change places. It can be purely instrumental, the vocals can be a part of the music alone. There is always an interaction. Sometimes the vocals are triumphant and the music supports them.
JT: What is it like to play with so many other musicians at once?
RR: It requires patience and understanding, especially in your role in the band, in the groove, and in the song, and being outside of yourself. It requires listening to yourself and everyone else around you. Sometimes, I’ll try to put myself in the shoes of the guitarist, for instance, and see what he’s feeling. There are so many parts in the music, it has to be very specific, each part should be cohesive to an overall whole. It could be very easy to over-play in our style of music, and you have to keep yourself grounded. All of us are creating this sound, which is a whole entity in its self, so you have to be a part of that and not try too much to stand out. That would create chaos. When you solo, there is so much going on that you have to listen to and play over. Solos are very interesting, because there are so many instruments to interact with. As a bass player, I try to create a strong foundation for that to happen.
JT: I heard that Jeff Coffin, the saxophone player from Bela Fleck and the Fleck Tones, played on stage with the band at AmJam. What was your experience of this?
RR: I wish he could have been up there for the whole set. He was a great player, and had this amazing presence on stage. He had really had his own sound as a sax player and as a musician in general. He just happens to play the sax. He’s got it. He likes our music, listens to it. A talented musician like that can just step in and play after listening to the album, as if he’d been playing with us for months; understands what’s going on no matter the style, or what kind of groove is going on. He learned one song backstage before the show. We are hoping to do more with him in the future.
JT: This year, The Afromotive is slated to play at Bonnaroo. Are you excited? Do you feel like this will open up new doors and create opportunities for the band?
RR: Oh, yea. Getting fifty-thousand people at your fingertips is a great opportunity. Its like you’re going to this big city, and every person in the city has come there to hear music. It’s a good feeling to be a part of that.
JT: I read in your bio that you went to Ghana to study Gyil and Xylophone with Bernard Woma. Do you have something to say about your experience of the cultural music in Ghana, and does your band aspire to eventually tour and travel in Africa, considering that a couple of your band members are from there?
RR: I would love to tour there with the band, but travel is insanely expensive. Prices for air travel are going up. We had hoped to go this year, but plans are taking a little longer than expected. We look forward to it in the future. My studies with Woma opened doors for my musical playing – the unique sounds, rhythms, the way music is put together there. They learn and play very differently than we do in the West. That experience was the start of my desire to form this band, using this kind of music. The music there was very powerful. People were so warm, friendly and thankful that I was learning their music. It was an all-encompassing process for them. They made the drums by hand, and everything involved in the process, including the dresses the dancers wore, and then played and danced using everything they had created.
JT: The Afromotive’s debut album Scare Tactics just came out. Do you feel like it is being well received? Does the band plan on putting out a new album in the near future, and if so, what will it be about?
RR: Yea, I think it has been well received. People like Jeff Coffin and Keller Williams have mentioned it. It means a lot when these people like it. My grandmother loves the album as well, and that means something to me. No plans yet for the new album, we are still feeling it out. The problem is that people aren’t buying CDs anymore. Its forcing musicians and the music industry to think outside the box. Its something that we always try to do anyways, as musicians. The problem comes with trying to get the music out there. Shows really help with that.
JT: Have you been thinking of any interesting ways of accomplishing a more creative way for getting your music out?
RR: Yes, actually, we have a membership with Disc Revolt, which is basically a way of getting your music out via the internet. It seems everyone gets their music online now. We give out cards, you can download the songs from online, put songs on your website so more of your friends can hear them, or put them on your ipod. Actually, Bonnaroo gives out sample cards as well, in collaboration with itunes. There is a song of ours on the sample card this year, which is really cool. Festivals are a great way to get the music out there. At festivals we give out free CDs, especially with new recordings, including live tracks. The production side of the CD is expensive. Nine Inch Nails didn’t even put out any CDs; their new album is being bought entirely online. I personally am a bit of a dinosaur. I appreciate the physicality of an object; the album artwork and all of the credits that you get when you purchase a CD. I like to read the lyrics, see who recorded and produced the album, etc. I still buy CDs. If you do want to sell a package like this, it should be very creative, interesting for people, and green – maybe with a DVD, some special artwork. People appreciate when things are green, packaged with recycled materials. Also, being on the road really helps with getting our music out there, because you meet all sorts of people, young and old, and connect with them. There really is a disconnect with the digital world, a lack of personal contact, of contact from musician to artist, even to neighbor. There is a niche of people that appreciate the opposite trend of the digital, and will buy the actual physical version of our music. People will come around, trends are always subject to peaks and valleys, ebbs and flows. It makes a difference when you can relate to people. The more digital and disconnected things become, there are going to be more people inclined to resist that.