Aug. 08--It's always fun to make a new musical discovery, to stumble across something that yanks you out of your rhythmic routine.
That happened to me recently when an acquaintance suggested a group with a rather anonymous name: Just a Band.
That they're from a place outside of most Americans' musical frame of reference -- Nairobi, Kenya -- but don't play what's come to be known as "world music" made them even more intriguing. And what I soon discovered from their three albums and three EPs/maxi-singles that are readily available on iTunes, bandcamp.com and through online services like Spotify, is an outfit that juggles the contemporary and the traditional with such genre-smashing dexterity and giddy aplomb that it deserves much wider exposure.
Mixing up electronic dance music, pop, rock, and hip-hop with touches of Africana, it's what you might get if Outkast, Daft Punk, Cut Copy, Gorillaz and Bruno Mars relocated to Mount Kilimanjaro. Calling itself "Africa's Super-Nerdy Electronic Music/Art Collective," Just a Band simultaneously furthers the tradition of Africa as a place of musical creativity while upending accepted notions of just what African music is.
Others are beginning to catch on.
In June, Just a Band performed at the TEDGlobal (Technology Energy Design) conference in Edinburgh, a place to celebrate new ideas and novel ways of looking at things. Last month, it played Switzerland's huge Paleo festival, sharing the bill with Sigur Ros, Neil Young, Phoenix, and Arctic Monkeys, among many others. Last year, it played SXSW in Austin.
Recently, the group paired with Atlanta rapper Go Dreamer (who worked with Outkast's Big Boi on his last album) for the track Digitize Me (Conventional Oven), available on Soundcloud..
Visual and viral
Just a Band's interests aren't just musical. In 2011, New York's Rush Galleries presented the group's video exhibit, "Kudishnyao," which showcased its endeavors in photography, animation and visuals. Its 2009 video for the track Ha-He, which humorously traffics in blaxploitation cliches featuring a character named Makmende, became known as the first Kenyan viral video.
There were even stories about the Ha-He phenomenon on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal but it's not the only one worthy of notice. Its other eye-catching videos -- ranging from the sweet yet sad If I Could to the shimmeringly exuberant Forever People (Do It So Delicious) and the socially aware Usinibore -- ingeniously use visuals to tell Just a Band's stories on what are probably $5 budgets.
But it's in the music, sung in a mix of English, Swahili, and tribal languages, where Just a Band is at its most convincing. The group's third and most recent full-length CD, Sorry for the Delay, defies expectations at every turn -- whether it's the sweeping melancholy of Probably for Lovers, the Afro chill-out meets rock 'n' roll power of Matatizo, the soaring dreaminess of Looking for Home, or the Justice-like electro bliss of S-W-E-E-T.
Originally made up of three guys -- Bill "Blinky" Sellanga, Dan Muli, Jim Chuchu, (fourth member Mbithi Masya joined more recently) -- who came together at Kenyatta University in the early 2000s, the group showed it could compete with its global counterparts with its debut album, Scratch to Reveal, in 2008. Tracks like the club-ready Oh Ndio, the Afro-electro Maro Pa More, the Kraftwerk-inspired Do You Mind?, the melodic house Lights Music Stars, and the lush ballad Bye Bye (reminiscent of the work of English producer/composer Craig Armstrong) are immediately impressive.
With its second release, 82, in 2009, Just a Band upped the ante with a collection that felt more loose-limbed and engaging, whether in the jazzy opener Huff + Puff or the celebratory yet easygoing dance track Forever People (Do It So Delicious).
But it's with Sorry for the Delay that Just a Band really comes into its own. Vibrant with both pop uplift and get-down grooves, the new CD perfects the promise of both Scratch to Reveal and 82. It belongs on the shelf right next to those by the group's self-admitted influences (Sly and the Family Stone, Daft Punk, Jamiroquai) as well as the likes of Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, Lupe Fiasco, and Kanye West.
More than that, Just a Band proves that geography is not musical destiny. And that there's a new generation of African musicians who have grown up feasting on a diet of both traditional and Western rhythms. They deserve a seat at the grown-ups table.
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