Adelaide's The Shaolin Afronauts have been going from strength to strength with their 70s inspired Afrobeat. Performing as part of Sessions, a musical showcase presented by the Adelaide Festival Centre next January, alongside artists including Casey Donovan, Fefe, Asa and more, the band are being primed to kick off 2012 on a great note.
I chat with the band's musical director, bassist and composer, Ross McHenry to find out about how 2011 has treated the band.
How would you say 2011’s treated The Shaolin Afronauts?
It’s been an amazing year on a number of levels. I can’t believe the album has been received so well.
Flight of the Ancients did extremely well for a debut, much less an Australian album breaking out in the UK as well, so congratulations on that. Were you guys ever expecting it to meet with the critical acclaim that it did?
Definitely not, we obviously believe in what we are doing but we didn’t expect the album to be received as positively as it has. It’s been a very nice surprise!
I’ve seen a few of shows in Adelaide and was just blown away by the creativeness behind each performance. Is it fair to say that your music is just as much about honouring the traditions of Afrobeat artists as it is about twisting up and fusing these music sensibilities with your own? It is a genre, I guess, that we don’t see too much of a following/strong scene for down this way…
Well thankyou for your kind words! Yes that’s true, we do try to honour the musical visionaries who’ve preceded us both sonically and musically but we aren’t trying to be revivalist. You’re right in suggesting that our music draws on many genres for inspiration. Obviously the primary influence is Fela, but when I’m writing I’m just as inspired by David Axelrod, or Madlib or Sun Ra and I think you can hear that in our performances. I think that’s also why the record has been so well received; I mean if you just want to listen to straight afrobeat, you’d listen to Fela and not the Shaolin Afronauts.
In terms of the musical representation for Afrobeat in Adelaide, you’d be right in saying there isn’t much of a scene for it. My generation is lucky as it’s the first who’ve grown up with the Internet from a very young age. The internet brings communities together with a common interest and allows us all equal access to whatever wonderful music is being created worldwide, allowing us to soak up other active music scenes which don’t necessarily exist within our own geographic environment. The other key factor in our sound is hip-hop. Hip hop has revitalised and re-introduced a generation of new listeners to the sounds of jazz, soul, afrobeat, Latin and a myriad of other styles of music. I think hip-hop has given my generation a framework to understand the connections, both historically and musically, between styles of music. So even though Adelaide does not have a strong Afrobeat scene, more people are open to this style of music because of it’s connection to other genre’s which are better represented here.
I read that you’re off to LA at the end of the year to do some work with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Can you tell me a bit about how this opportunity came about?
I first became aware of what Miguel Atwood-Ferguson was doing about 18 months ago whilst I was a participant at the Red Bull Music Academy in London. Flying Lotus told me to check out him out and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. He’s changed the way I think about large ensemble music and has partially inspired the large ensemble performance of the Shaolin Afronauts next year. I hit him up online about the prospect of a mentorship and luckily enough for me he was into it. SA artists are lucky enough to have access to some of the best art’s funding opportunities in the world and if it weren’t for CARCLEW youth arts, this project wouldn’t have happened. My advice to all young artists is to check out the funding opportunities that exist through Carclew as well as other arts funding bodies and get involved! They really can help you to make your dreams a reality.
This concept of an 18-piece Afrobeat ensemble is something amazing to be visualised and imagined – how does one come up with this idea and figure out how to put it together?
I force myself to make things happen, I booked the gig, booked the musicians, and booked the studio time before I had written anything. I need to make myself do things that are bigger and better than what I’ve done previously. I figure out how to do it once I’ve forced myself commit to a project. It can be stressful but it’s the best way to make sure I keep progressing as an artist. I also have absolute faith in the brilliant musicians I have the pleasure of working with, I know they can help me realise any musical concept I come up with.
I guess, for an Adelaide band, The Shaolin Afronauts are boundary-pushers in terms of traversing musical genres and tapping into some really interesting and different sounds. What first caught your interest in this sort of music?
I was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of different style of music as a child. Festivals like Womadelaide are major events for my entire family and I attribute my love of a lot of different genres to early experiences like that. I believe that we don’t choose the music we love, rather that it chooses us. I’ve loved this type of music my whole life, I can’t explain why, I’m just drawn to it.
I know that the local scene here is small in the sense that everybody is bound to know somebody else. What was it like finding people with the similar interest in getting into this sort of music to perform/write with?
As you may know the core of the band was formed with members of The Transatlantics. We are all into a lot of the same stuff and we’ve been playing together for a long time now. Honestly, it’s the greatest pleasure of my life playing music with these wonderful people. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
How much fun is it to actually get stuck into the music when you’re performing live, as opposed to recording? There’s such a multi-layered aspect to it that I would imagine would be somewhat intoxicating to get into live.
I love both recording and playing live equally. They are both magical in completely different ways. The live performances are extended and certainly have an intoxicating affect on both the mind and body. It’s an amazing place to be, onstage surrounded by brilliant musicians playing music, Sun Ra once called it a joyful noise, I like that.
So, when the band takes part in Sessions at the end of January next year, the main plan is to bring back the final product of your work in the US back to a local audience?
Well it’s hard to say what the product of the US jaunt will be, I can’t really say for sure until I’ve done it, it could have nothing to do with this project, it could be a part of every composition. That’s definitely the plan at this stage though. It’ll be great to have a true compositional master cast his eye over my work, intimidating in many ways, but exciting!
I have also read that hopefully the sounds to be performed during this gig in January will be transferred onto the band’s second album. Is there going to be a definite move towards a bigger range of soundscapes on the next record that you’re imagining, or a similar form of evolution/expansion?
Yes definitely, it will still be rooted in afrobeat but there will be a much larger emphasis on more elaborate sounds and compositions. It won’t be a move away from the sound of the first record but it’ll be a definite evolution! I can’t give too much away though, you’ll have to come and see the show for yourself.
The Shaolin Afronauts will perform as part of the Adelaide Festival Centre's Sessions line up, on the 21st of January. For more information, visit www.adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au.