Architecture – and, on a larger scale, urban planning – creates the framework through which we move, the passive structures that guide our active being. Art and mathematics coalesce into the single idea that design enriches our lives. Music works similarly, with technique and emotion working in concert to create something that means a great deal to us as human beings. Music requires design as well as feeling if it’s going to affect the listener in any meaningful way.
Emefe, a ten-piece group from Brooklyn, plays a style of Afrobeat that employs the chaos and rawness of emotion as well as the design of pop sensibility. Emefe released their first full-length album, Good Future, last year, a nine-song collection ripe with energy from the laid-back stomp of the intro track “Stutter” to the electric rhythms and breakneck pace of the conclusion “Birthday Man.” While influenced by the original Afrobeat traditions of Fela Kuti, who drew heavily from his native West African rhythms and instrumentation, the album sounds particularly urban, as if the polyrhythms and layers of voices are their own imaginary city.
Miles Arntzen, Emefe’s drummer, discovered Afrobeat after beginning jazz school at NYU in 2009.”Fela’s music took over my life and all my brain space,” he told me in an interview. “I was enthralled by the music, and I wanted to start making some of my own.”
That year, Arntzen began playing drums for Antibalas, a highly successful Afrobeat collective that picked up where Kuti left off after his death in 1997. After immersing himself in their style of Afrobeat, he wanted to make his own sound. He threw together a group of local New York friends and new NYU classmates, and after three weeks of rehearsal, they booked their first gig.
They took the name Emefe as the spoken acronym of M.F.A., or “Music Frees All,” a mission statement of sorts for the band. “I found peace through the music,” Arntzen said of discovering Afrobeat. “I had an emotional connection to the music that I had never experienced before. I wanted to share that with everyone.”
Afrobeat can feel like an experiment to listen to — not just experimental in style, but literally an experiment in sounds and rhythms. Antibalas, who play a more traditional form of Afrobeat — “Fela’s music,” as Arntzen calls it — often will strip songs into layers, whether of instruments or of melodies and countermelodies, in a type of productive deconstruction.
Emefe takes a different approach, one that creates a related yet distinct sound. Emefe delivers a unity of purpose within their music, with a horn section that tends to work as a whole rather than individuals and a tight rhythm section that echoes the funk of James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone that Arntzen grew up with.
Arntzen attributes these differences to his focus on songwriting and arrangements – the architecture of the music. “Pop music definitely instilled a sense of start-to-finish for me,” he said. “It moves from verse to chorus to verse to chorus to bridge to chorus and out, and that’s a formula that works every time and it feels really good.”
Pop music also plays to a listener’s emotions, and he’s quick to note that the emotion that Afrobeat taps is not limited to that style of music. The funk of Mokaad (whose Gabriel Garzon-Montano appears as a guest vocalist on two tracks of Good Future) and the songwriting of Elizabeth and the Catapult, two fellow New York artists with ties to Emefe, tap into the same emotional freedom that music offers, he says.
Arntzen returns to the Bottletree on January 24th, this time with Emefe on their tour of the South. He took notes while touring with Antibalas during the fall, listing the Bottletree as one of the best stops on the tour. At the Bottletree, he says, “they make an effort to make you feel at home and that makes the whole experience better. It makes the music better. And it definitely helps with this music to be close together with other people.”
Sharing the stage will be Birmingham’s own St. Paul and the Broken Bones, fresh off a December tour. Their Southern soul style perfectly matches Emefe’s emotion and ruckus, so show up ready to dance. Their debut EP, produced by Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and Belle Adair, kicks down the door with its unyielding vocals and horn lines. It’s a special meeting of two bands with fresh debut releases and a plan to make you shake what you’ve got.
The Bottletree is located at 3719 3rd Avenue S. St. Paul and the Broken Bones go on at 9 p.m. on Thursday, January 24, followed by Emefe. Tickets are $10. Ages 18+. For more information, call (205) 533-6288 or visit thebottletree.com.