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It’s no longer daring to make Afrobeat—not since Fela! won multiple Tonys. But there’s not really a glut of throwback West African get-downs, either, so a band like D.C.’s Funk Ark can go about its business without seeming like a bunch of bandwagoneers. The sound still has plenty of life, and its precise combination of horns, keyboards, guitar, and polyrhythmic percussion is a lot harder to deliver than, say, classic ska. With that in mind, The Funk Ark does get the basics right; the group’s debut album, From the Rooftops, is definitely diligent.
It also can be a bit dry, too, as if the band drew a hard line between making the people’s funk and making anything that sounds like rebel music. On one hand, From the Rooftops parties relatively hard. (“Funky DC” might be the most thorough DMV neighborhood-shout-out song ever—Anacostia’s Big Chair even gets a mention from guest rapperAsheru.) But on the other hand, many songs put a sunny face on a style that originally arrived with a furrowed brow. Opener “A Blade Won’t Cut Another Blade” is basically an upbeat, let’s-start-the-show number despite its edgy title and its muscular sax solo, and moodier compositions such as “Diaspora” and “Power Struggle” seem to get more arid with each listen.
Other bands that venture into the same note-perfect Afrobeat territory—Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra and The Budos Band, for starters—at least try to express the idea that the music historically has a political component. That commitment to respecting the genre’s bite helps hide the fact that it also requires a ton of technique to play. But even if The Funk Ark is more about craft for craft’s sake, it does do one thing extremely well: Tracks such as “Carretera Libre,” “Horchata,” and “El Beasto” offer seamless arrangements of elements from all corners of the transatlantic musical vocabulary. It’s fun to pick out what’s “African,” what’s “American,” and what’s “Latin” in those songs and then listen as the styles cross and blend. (Bandleader Will Rast, known for working as a session keyboardist in myriad genres, helped Martín Perna of Antibalas and Adrian Quesada of the Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma on Taurus, the latest release of their side project Ocote Soul Sounds.)
The hybridization might be best in one of the songs tucked away in the second half of the album: “Pavement,” which has some of the this-is-our-music attitude that was so prevalent in the Fania label’s old-school Latin jazz. Rast’s keyboard runs are trippy and confident, and the song is far more introspective and far less breezy than its surroundings, suggesting that The Funk Ark has the capability to dig deeper. Maybe the Caribbean is the place to do it.