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Chasing the beat 

Afromotive's African travelogue runs deep

It's all about the beat. Primal, horn-heavy, with a percussive punch that blends old school funk with tribal rhythms, the pulsating African rhythms of Afrobeat have crossed cultures and continents to carve out a groove that has touched the backbone of generations of funk lovers. Made popular through the music of Fela Kuti, the sounds of West Africa now resonate through the mountains of North Carolina courtesy of Asheville's The Afromotive.

West African music had come into the mountain community in the late '90s with the formation of the percussion and dance ensemble Common Ground. A trio from that group later founded the instrumental ensemble Toubab Krewe incorporating elements of Ethiopian and American music into West African rhythms.

Afromotive founder, bassist Ryan Reardon, had visited Ghana and studied the djembe, a West African hand drum, and the xylophone--like gyil. The Buffalo, N.Y., native, who moved to Asheville in '04 because of its eclectic musical scene, was first exposed to Afrobeat when he heard the Brooklyn based-outfit Antibalas perform.

"I immediately got into Fela after that," Reardon says of the Nigerian-born Afrobeat pioneer who was beaten and jailed for his anti-government songs. "It grabbed me, the strength of the message behind the music, his whole life experience, for him to go through all that and still be creative and stick to his guns. And, it's really addicting music."

Reardon wanted to remain true to the spirit of the music while pushing its boundaries with his locally recruited bandmates, who were well-versed in jazz, funk and reggae. "We really wanted to learn traditional Afrobeat, get that groundwork first before branching off into an uncharted course," Reardon says by phone from his Asheville home. "We're expanding on it now, taking those traditional West African rhythms, the stuff that Fela was inspired by, as our foundation and building our music around those."

There's plenty going on with The Afromotive lineup that includes two saxes, a trumpet, guitar, organ, bass and a variety of percussion and dancers, as well. Then there's the lyrics. On the band's latest, Scare Tactics, Meyyame drew from his first hand experiences of war in the Ivory Coast for cuts like "One Way Go": "We learn from past mistake," he croons. "You been beat us/ you been kill us/ how hard dey push us/ we no go."

"The rebels uprising and fighting, and people killed on the side of the streets, he's definitely scarred by that," Reardon says. But rather than taking the approach of directly blaming leaders, the band focuses on how it affects the people and what can be done to overcome that. "We know this is going on," he says. "Rather than complain about it, let's organize somehow and take it to the next level."

The Afromotive sound has changed somewhat since the release of the album. Lead singer Meyame has gone back to Africa. The vocals are now what Reardon describes as a shout chorus consisting of himself, saxophonist Ryan Knowles and djembe player Adama Dembele. "It's like call-and-response singing, between horns and the vocals," Reardon says.

As important as the message is, it's still the beat that moves people. The Afromotive's sound appeals to a wide range of generations. "We've had all sorts of people dancing from old women to break dancers to ballerinas," Reardon says. "Really, when we were down in Florida, we had this ballerina in front."

For a generation who never saw or heard Fela or James Brown, those funky, throbbing rhythms delivered by a nine-piece band pounding your eardrums and disturbing your backbone are a revelation. "A lot of times we see people hearing that music for the first time, wide-eyed, blown away by what's going on," Reardon says. "It's like, wow! There's a lot of people up there with a huge sound that I'm dancing to and I don't even realize it."

The Afromotive play the Double Door Inn on July 19 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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