Jaiyede Afro, the new album from Nigerian Afro-soul legend Orlando Julius and U.K. groove outfit the Heliocentrics, out now on Strut Records, has an intentionally retro sound. From simple, hard-hitting arrangements and musical performances that channel the loose, flowing grooves of OJ's Afro Sounders, to a rough-around-the-edges analog production style familiar to enthusiasts of old-school African recordings, to the cover artwork--this is a work of loving nostalgia for a funkier time. The album highlights the Afrobeat and Afro-funk styles that OJ developed in the 1970s, leaving out the sunny highlife of OJ's youth and the Afro-disco of the '80s (Don't know who Orlando Julius is? Haven't checked out his music? Then our RESPECT post covering his career is for YOU!). For example, compare OJ's '73 version of "Buje Buje," recorded with his second band, the Afro Sounders at Ginger Baker's ARC studios in Lagos:
....With the latest version, recorded in the Heliocentric's analog studios in London:
In terms of arrangement and performance, the similarities outweigh the differences, though the over-saturated, super-stereo qualities of the original have a warmth that is less evident on the Heliocentrics' version, which sounds more like a live recording of a tight band playing a festival stage. However, OJ's soaring tenor solo and the subtle keyboard textures add a unique touch to the 2014 version. Before we proceed, let it not go unsaid: Orlando Julius still has tons of musical energy and, if this record is any indication, he shows no signs of slowing down. He plays a number of adventurous, energetic solos and sings every song with characteristic freshness.
Some of the tunes on Jaiyede Afro, including the title track and "Omo Oba Blues" (which features some nice Yoruba dundun drumming) are based on traditional songs which OJ learned in school or heard his mother sing with women's groups. Other tracks are tunes that OJ composed in the '70s and '80s but never released, including "Be Counted" and "Love Thy Neighbor." As you might guess from the titles, the lyrics on the album are primarily about morality and political engagement. Then there is the version of the James Brown/Fred Wesley instrumental "In the Middle," which is an extremely faithful rendition, with only the highlighted percussion, the specific drumming style and the distinctive horn solos moving things in an Afrobeat/Afro-funk direction.
The two most psychedelic and adventurous tunes on the album began in the Heliocentrics' camp: "Sangodele" is a call-and-response jaunt around a riff composed by bassist Jake Ferguson, while the closing tune, "Alafia," was composed by the Heliocentric's Nigerian guitarist Adrian Owusu and features his fuzzed-out guitar work and OJ's blasting tenor. According to drummer/engineer/producer Malcolm Catto, "The track represents a more psychedelic Afro sound and we always wanted to take Orlando into this territory since he didn’t really go there back in the day. Originally we wanted this to be the album he would have made if he had taken acid in 1969! It’s great that he was totally up for experimenting and trying out new things.” Despite this, the overwhelming feeling of this record is one of fidelity to a specific period of OJ's legacy.
While the band executes the 1970s Afro-funk style tremendously well, with special attention to the swing of the rhythm section and the layering of the horns, this focus is still a bit disappointing, precisely we know just how creative and edgy the Heliocentrics can be. This U.K.-based collective, led by funky drummer Malcolm Catto and bassist Jake Ferguson, has put out two solo albums, Out There (2007) and 13 Degrees of Reality (2013), both exploring an eclectic crate-digger aesthetic, replete with break-beat drumming, esoteric samples, and psychedelic guitars and keyboards. These albums are reminiscent of the more experimental work of Medeski Martin and Wood and DJ Logic, though the Heliocentrics arguably take this aesthetic further than their American counterparts. They also have a unique history of exciting collaborations with legendary artists including DJ Shadow, multi-instrumentalist and ethnomusicologist Dr. Lloyd Miller, and most relevant to our focus, Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke. With Mulatu, they put out an intriguing album, Inspiration Information 3 on Strut Records in 2009. That record included Ethio-funk tunes, such as "Esketa Dance" but also break-beat psych attacks--"Addis Black Widow" and "An Epic Story"--that marked this as an important, even groundbreaking, experimental collaboration.
In a way, for all its pleasures, Jaiyede Afro plays it a bit too safe: The Heliocentrics paid homage to a living legend and made a thoroughly funky Orlando Julius record that could have come out in 1976 (had OJ stayed in Nigeria instead of relocating to the U.S.) The fact that this album came out in 2014 is both impressive and a bit disappointing, showcasing laudable stylistic fidelity but also presenting a missed opportunity for a more challenging musical meeting.