DAVID GREENE, host:
Now, here's something that I promise will get you up off your tush to dance.
(Soundbite of song "Struggle" by Chopteeth)
GREENE: That's the music of Chopteeth, a Washington, D.C.-based Afro-funk band whose 14 members hail from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Romania, Illinois and Alabama. The song is called "Struggle," and it's from Chopteeth's self-titled debut CD.
Now, Chopteeth means just what it sounds like, eating one's own teeth - not that there's anyone who would be crazy enough to try to do that. But band member Michael Shereikis says that the name reflects the band's spirit, especially when they are performing live. And Michael plays guitar; he writes music for Chopteeth; and he joins us here in the studios. Hi, Michael.
Mr. MICHAEL SHEREIKIS (Guitarist, Chopteeth): Hello.
GREENE: And Robert Fox is also here, bass player, founding member. And welcome to you.
Mr. ROBERT FOX (Bass Player, Chopteeth): Thank you for having us, David.
GREENE: OK. So the first question has to be, explain to us where the name Chopteeth came from, and how in the world it reflects your spirit.
Mr. SHEREIKIS: Chopteeth comes from one song by Fela Kuti. It's called "Jehin, Jehin," which means chopteeth. It translates rough - loosely as that. And it, you know, as you say, means somebody who eats their own teeth, somebody who's foolish enough to attempt something like starting a 14-piece Afro-funk band. If you're at a live show, we keep coming at you from different places. We'll play like Fela, and then - from Senegal, or Kastor Bela(ph) from Senegal, and then we'll go to Ghana and then Kenya. And then we'll play an original, and then we'll throw in, you know, a Jamaican ska tune. Occasionally, we'll even have a James Brown song where our keyboardist, Brian, sings. And there's something coming. There's always something coming for you.
GREENE: So Robert, you founded the band. What exactly did you have in mind at the time?
Mr. FOX: You know, the way it got started was actually, sort of a personal story. A close friend of mine was killed in a car accident, and I came back from his funeral, which was a very painful experience, and I realized that, you know, people always say, what would you do if you got hit by a truck? My friend actually was hit by a truck, and so I put some thought into, what am I missing in my life? And I realized, very fortunately, you know, I had a great family and a rewarding career. But I realized I couldn't live with myself unless I played bass in an Afro-beat band. And I'd played guitar for 25 or 30 years, and I'd been a record collector, had been a DJ for a while, you know, radio station stuff. So I was deeply obsessed with music, but I'd never played the bass before. So before I changed my mind, I went down to the music store and walked in, told the guy, sell me a bass, sell me an amp before I leave here today.
GREENE: How long ago was your friend's - was your friend's accident?
Mr. FOX: Almost seven years ago now.
GREENE: I mean, do you feel like this has healed in the way that you expected?
Mr. FOX: Healed - you know, I don't know that I would say that. I mean, it's still a painful memory. You know, his name was Zack Auckin(ph). We dedicated the album to him. But it certainly makes me feel like it's something that Zack would've really appreciated and would have, you know, wanted to do and be a part of, so…
GREENE: Well, let's listen to some of the music that he might have appreciated. This is the song "Upendo."
(Soundbite of song "Upendo")
GREENE: OK. So I understand "Upendo" means love. Is that Swahili?
Mr. FOX: Yes, Swahili. That accordion you hear on there is a particular favorite aspect of that song just because, you know, that really brings that kind of really old, almost colonial-era kind of sound. You know, that sweet sort of street corner accordion sound is really a nice touch.
GREENE: So it's accordion, yeah. I wanted to ask about that. You guys are known for big band, but that didn't seem like big, big horns there. That felt like - what were we listening to?
Mr. SHEREIKIS: It's still the same five-piece section, but it's - you know, they can play nice. Those horns can play nice sometimes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GREENE: Not always, but they try sometimes.
Mr. FOX: No, sometimes they're nasty. (Laughing) But, yes. So it's the same sound, you know, how you arrange them, and sometimes you separate the section that, you know, so it's not such a powerful, unified attack. I mean, that was suppose to be an uplifting kind of, you know - those pulled notes are South African kind of style. You stretch the note out.
(Soundbite of song "Upendo")
Mr. FOX: You know, there's different aspects of that that kind of come from different regions of that song.
GREENE: But it's not just South African. There's Kenyan and some other East African rhythms in there as well. I guess I'm wondering, do musicians from different parts of, you know, such a giant continent - I mean, how did they feel about, you know, a band being here and trying to kind of blend from different places?
Mr. SHEREIKIS: I think, you know, we don't - I wouldn't say that we blend in any sense willy nilly. It's, you know, all those aspects of "Upendo" are regionally consistent. In fact, generally, you know, we write in a vein so that people can find themselves inside the music. We're not trying to impress anybody or be purists about anything, you know. So far, every musician, every African musician we've played with has given us the thumbs up.
GREENE: Can you guys talk a little bit about the process of composing African music? I mean, you know, rhythm section, is there a repeating element to it, then where do you go from there?
Mr. SHEREIKIS: I mean, I only know how we do it. So I'm sure it's done differently in different places. But yeah, it usually starts - the process usually begins with a bass line or a guitar line. And then, you know, then the process after that in building the rhythm section generally is finding where the spaces are in that line and filling the space, but not gratuitously, trying to find something that locks in nicely and makes - and kind of answers the other line. And then once you've woven all those things together, there's the horn line over the top of that and the vocals and the interaction between those. And that seems to be pretty much the way it gets built up.
Mr. FOX: Actually, I think Michael is being more modest than is really the case, because Michael writes - wrote almost all the songs on the CD and, you know, most of our material. And some of them, I think, as he was saying, he'll come to the group where he's got the bass line, he's got the idea of the song sort of worked out, but then we all sort of chip in our own ideas and work together. But there's quite a few other ones where he reveals himself to be the mad scientist of Afro-beat that he is.
You know, some people have perfect pitch; Michael has perfect rhythm in a very unusual way. So he'll be introducing a new song to the band, and he's playing one drum line on one foot and another drum line on the other foot. And then with the guitar, he's thumbing the bass line and then playing the melody with his fingers while he sings the horn lines to the horn section, and teaches the rest of the band how to play the song. And it's a strange thing to see, and it can be difficult to keep up with sometimes, but it's really a real inspiration for us and - so that's true.
GREENE: So is there a song where the nasty horns really come out? I mean, when you got the serious big band sound?
Mr. SHEREIKIS: On the album, maybe "No Condition Is Permanent" is pretty head-on. "Fogo Fogo," "Eyi Su Ngaangaa" - probably that'd be the one.
Mr. FOX: Yeah, yeah.
GREENE: And that's - that's one of the cover songs that you guys end with on the CD?
Mr. SHEREIKIS: Yeah. It's a hybrid. It's an old song by the Sweet Talks from Ghana from 19- like, '72 or '74. They used to play in the port town of Tema, east of Akra. And they would play for sailors in the sailors' pub. I just like to imagine that when I'm playing the song. And it means you cry like a baby, and I added a little French rap on there for good measure
GREENE: All right. Nasty horns with French rap. Let's go out on a little of that.
(Soundbite of song "Eyi Su Ngaangaa")
GREENE: The band you're hearing is Chopteeth, and we've been joined in the studio by Michael Shereikis and Robert Fox, two of the band's 14 members. Thank you guys so much for speaking with us.
Mr. SHEREIKIS: Thanks.
Mr. FOX: Thanks for having us.
GREENE: I think we're going to be dancing out of the studio.
GREENE: For more Chopteeth, go to our Web site, nprmusic.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Liane Hansen will be back next week.
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