Last Night: Baba Ken and the Afro-Groove Connexion at Elbo Room

Categories: Last Night
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Baba Ken
Baba Ken and the Afro-Groove Connexion
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Elbo Room

Better than:
Sitting around wondering what happened to the weekend.

"We aim for a good party tonight. Is anybody going to work tomorrow? Nooooo." Such was the devilish proclamation made with a perma-grin by local Afro-funk band leader Baba Ken around 11 p.m. last night. For those who silently answered yes to his question, though, the agreed answer was the same as it was for those who had the luxury of sleeping in this morning: get up from the candle-lit tables, find some room on the crowded dance floor, and move yourself to the band's jazzy, improvisational grooves.

Regardless of whether the start of a new work week gets you down, Baba Ken is a man practiced at the art of lifting spirits. He's a smiley, genial maestro of West African Highlife and Afro-groove who settled in the Bay Area after playing bass with King Sunny Ade's African Beats. Last night he opened the set with a promise: "We're going to try, as much as we can, to connect the mind, body, and soul." And with nine other players backing that contract, Baba Ken and the Afro-Groove Connexion made good on their word.

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The band was as big a physical presence as it was a sonic one. Ten men crowded the stage- nearly half of them comprising the horn section, alongside guitarists (including Nigeria's Soji Odukogbe, who played with the late Fela Kuti) percussionists, and an organ player. They varied in dress from the colorfully-attired gentlemen in flamboyant yellows, golds, and greens to a saxophonist in a t-shirt and bowler hat, to more casually dressed dudes. They all took turns jamming on solos that stretched out the length of these funk- and jazz-infused Afro-beat tunes, each one a bright burst of instrumentation.

The audience didn't take long to react. One couple in particular snaked their way close to the stage, their hips and shoulders caught in serpentine reflections of one another. Other folks bounced and bobbed with a partner or solo under the beaming watch of Baba himself.

This was a late crowd in for the long haul. At 9 p.m., the place was empty. Two hours later, people are so animated we could've all pretended it was a Saturday night. In between, two opening acts rewarded early birds with unusual mixtures of instruments. The first paired a live drummer with a DJ sampling horns and beats from a turntable. The second kept the drummer behind the kit but added two men with African instruments that I couldn't pretend to know the name of (someone with a better knowledge of this stuff than me would have to tell you what they were called.)
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They were fun instruments to watch being played, as the musicians slapped the giant gourd-like base with the sides of their palms like percussive instruments, plucked them like a bass or a harp, and, at one point, the guy on the left even played the strings with his teeth--all while singing African songs that came with the occasional English explanation for an intro ("this one is about traveling.")

Overall, Baba Ken was right--it was easy to forget that there was any work on the horizon with musicians of this caliber feeding the crowd's need for a little fun and funk early in the week.

It was also plain to see why the Elbo Room granted the Afro-Groove Connexion a residency that lasts until December. Apparently, after watching the reaction Baba Ken and company earned in one performance at the venue, the powers that be offered the band the last Tuesday night slot of every month for the rest of the year. I'd highly recommend dropping by--and setting the alarm late the following Wednesday.

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