by BOB DORAN
WHEN ALBINO! TAKES THE STAGE YOU'LL KNOW IT. The 14-piece Afrobeat ensemble from the Bay Area throws out a mighty sound with a four-man horn section wailing in front of a full-on electric band, guitars, organ, percussionists, dancers, all in a groove inspired by the late great godfather of Nigerian Afrobeat, Fela Kuti.
Through the miracle of modern phone technology, a call from Albino! guitarist Bruce Buchanan in Berkeley also connected me with Geoffrey Omadhebo, the group's percussionist/vocalist, who was in Manteca near Tracy.
"We're co-founders," Buchanan explained. "We run the band together; Geoffrey is a drummer, and a singer, and a songwriter, and I am guitar player and other stuff, and also a songwriter. Geoffrey, myself and another guy Nathan [Endsley, sax/flute from Hamsa Lila] are the creative core."
Among those enlisted for the project: another Nigerian native, percussionist Friday Jumbo, once a conga player in Fela's group, Africa 70; Mark Edwards from Garaj Mahal; bassist Keith MacArthur, formerly of Spearhead and Motherbug; and drummer Jan Jackson, another Motherbug alum.
Buchanan, who is 39, came to Berkeley from Washington, D.C., around 1985 and found work in a series of funk, blues and rock bands. Around the same time Omadhebo, now 52, showed up from Nigeria with a band called the Nigerian All-Stars, brought over by another Nigerian musician during the Bay Area's mid-'80s boom in world beat music.
"We came here on a contract with O.J. Ekemode," he recalled, "but the contract didn't work out; it was all void. Then some of us decided to stay behind and give America our flavor. I co-founded a band called Kotoja. We recorded an album [for Putumayo]. Then I started [another African band] Wazobia at that point, and Bruce came in. We played together [in that band] for about three years."
"That's where I learned most of what I know about Afrobeat," Buchanan interjected. "And I've been hooked ever since."
Buchanan grew up playing rock and blues. As with many American teens, his guitar heroes included Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. "Earth, Wind and Fire, Motown and James Brown were also influences. Some of my first music memories were playing along with James Brown records. And I'm not unusual in that respect; I think a lot of white American guitar players have a similar history."
Omadhebo learned drums at school then started making his way playing music. "The first band I was involved with was called the Millipedes. We played Beatles covers, Rolling Stones, all that. We rocked. We were discovered by the national TV in Lagos. That was in the late '60s. That was really good. After that I played in a band called Wrinker Experience, that was a mix of blues and high life. We made a very good hit, called `Fuel for Love.' Then I started playing funk in a band called Action, that was straight funk."
On the side he would jam at a club in Lagos called Can Can. "Fela would come on a Saturday night and we would all jam together. I played the drums, Fela played keyboards. Different musicians from all over would come there. It was big fun."
Like Fela's music, the sound was a mix of African rhythms and big band American funk. The music was flowing both ways.
"You know James Brown was exposed to Africa, too," Omadhebo explained. "He was one of the great musicians who traveled [to Africa]. So we had a mixture of everything. They tried to learn from Africa and we tried to learn a little bit of what they were doing, too. So it went from this to that, from that to this, from this to that. It was the same with Wazobia; it was a good funk band.
"As far as Albino! we play Afrobeat; but we are not like a cover band. There are some flavors in Afrobeat that I do not find interesting and I think those should be remodeled. That's what Albino is doing -- we are refining Afrobeat."
You might be wondering, what exactly is Afrobeat? "Basically the form was defined by Fela Kuti, but there a lot of other less well known Afrobeat bands in Nigeria in the '70s when the genre really came of age," said Buchanan.
What Fela did was take the guitar heavy Nigerian-style high life and add horns, lots of horns, infusing elements of funk and jazz.
"The thought is that Afrobeat is high life, but modernized with a mixture of jazz," said Omadhebo. "That's how Afrobeat started. If you are a good jazz horn player, you fit into Afrobeat. A good jazz pianist fits into Afrobeat."
"Ultimately we see ourselves as standing on the shoulders of giants and extending the tradition," added Buchanan. "It's a fine line to walk, trying to be this one thing, but grow it as well."
The name Albino!? "It's basically a play on the fact that we're mostly white cats playing African music," said Buchanan. "It was thrown out there as a joke, and it stuck. I'd say it's important not to take yourself too seriously. You have to acknowledge the obvious, but when we get up there, we play for keeps."
As our conversation drew to a close Geoffrey turned the tables, saying, "If I may ask a question? You say you listened to some of our music. How did you like it?"
"I liked it a lot," I responded honestly. "And I'm looking forward to hearing the band live."
"Beautiful. This is what we're trying to send out to the people. You love the music and everybody is happy. I think everybody will love it too. And then we will be good messengers."
Albino! makes its Humboldt County debut Friday, March 12, at Six Rivers Old Town, showtime 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. The band is also booked for the Sustainable Arts and Music Festival coming to HSU on April 24. For more on Albino, go to www.albinoband.com.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.