Channeling Fela

Motet founder Dave Watts talks Afrobeat

Courtesy of Dave Watts

Motet founder and drummer Dave Watts had just wrapped up rehearsal when we caught him last week, sounding a bit drained. And for good reason: his day job franchise The Motet had finished a swing through Texas and, connected by a two-plane redeye to Utah, a ski town gig at Park City barely a day later, just in time to get home and throw together a rehearsal for his upcoming multi-band mashup spectacular Felabration.

Watts is long associated with these one-off (sometimes two or three-off — this is the third time he’s staged this gig) extravaganzas at home, sometimes with Motet, sometimes with fragments of Motet and other cats, but Felabration may be his crowning overachievement, folding no fewer than 15 players from his own band, Euforquesta and Atomga onto the Fox Theatre stage for a deep dive into the heady miasma of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. The brass section alone makes up almost half of that — a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that everyone will fit up there if no one exhales.

But seriously, how do you actually put together a 15-piece band?

“Ha! Well, it helps that people love Fela’s music so much that they don’t care that they’re not getting paid,” Watts joked. “Basically it’s a miracle that we can find the time to make this shit happen.”

Watts, who’s been a devotee of Fela (and Fela’s legendary drummer, Tony Allen) since his days at Berklee College of Music in the late 1980s, is hardly a newcomer to Afrobeat; the Motet may have assumed the mantle of straight-up funk band in the last couple of years, but the outfit’s mid-career days were deeply invested in both Afrobeat and Afro-Cuban funk, so this gig represents a sort of return to an earlier time in Watt’s Colorado career.

“Yeah, we worked up some of the arrangements that Motet did about 10 years ago, some of the cross-pollination of electronics, Afrobeat and disco that we were doing, so this is kind of a chance to go back and revisit some of those arrangements.”

Fela Kuti, the legendary Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, who died from AIDS-related complications in the late ’90s, casts a uniquely long shadow across the development of African popular music and the pitiless recent history of oil-soaked Nigerian politics. He assembled and disassembled bands according to his whims and inspirations. And he frequently used his gigs as platforms for political and social causes, often laced with a kind of appeal to spirituality and social activism that wobbled between coherent and disjointed, populist and deeply personal.

In some respects, Fela is Nigeria’s Sun Ra, Bob Marley and Miles Davis kind of rolled into one.

But the music — skittering and lengthy compositions built around polyrhythmic beats, laced together with repeated and intertwining guitar lines and punctuated by dry, staccato brass figures — is at once engaging and dislocating, a kind of half-time mediation, usually served up in lengthy compositions of 15- or 20-minute helpings.

And at the basis of all his best work, generally thought to be from the mid to late ’70s, lies Fela’s longtime drummer, Tony Allen, the greatest drummer that non-drumming Westerners have never heard of. (Allen is still recording in Europe, at age 74.) Fela once said, “Without Tony, there is no Afrobeat.”

We asked Watts what the key was to understanding Allen.

“Ugh,” Watts reacted, dwarfed by Allen’s repute. “I don’t know yet. I haven’t figured that out yet, and really, it’s not like I’m performing this music to try to play like Tony, because he is such his own thing. For me, I’m just bringing my own funk vibe into this music and doing my own thing. He’s got such his own bag and his own feel that comes from his jazz side; he plays like a percussionist instead of a kit drummer.”

Along those lines, Watts is careful to draw a distinction between celebrating Fela’s gig and reproducing it; it’s not as if many in attendance at the Fox gig can draw on personal experience from the Lagos club scene of the mid- 1970s, anyway.

“I’ve seen a decent amount of Afrobeat and Fela cover bands, and honestly I get bored of it after a while, to a certain degree, when it’s just one thing. So for me, yeah, I like to mix it up. I love the tune, that’s the key thing. I love the songs and I love the parts and the grooves, but I don’t want to be doing these 20-minute things just because I’m the drummer, y’know? … I want to give everyone a chance to solo and showcase the melodies.”

ON THE BILL: Felabration, featuring members of The Motet,Euforquestra and Atomga. Doors at 8:30 p.m., show at 9p.m. Friday, April 10, The Fox Theatre. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 720-447-0095. All ages. $12.50 in advance. $15 day of show.

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