With groups like White Ford Bronco and The Legwarmers, there’s no shortage of cover bands in the D.C. area. But while most of them are concerned with mining ’80s and ’90s nostalgia for Gen X-ers and millennials, there’s not a whole bunch devoted to reviving danceable ’60s and ’70s African highlife and rumba tunes. Enter Highlife Stars.
Led by Eme Awa, vocalist and percussionist from the Afro-beat/reggae duo Eme & Heteru, along with Chopteeth vocalist/guitarist Michael Shereikis, the local band breathe new life into ’60s and ’70s African highlife and rumba tunes. The local ensemble also includes The Meditations‘ lead guitarist Gregory “Tanash” Tanyi; Jabali Afrika‘s Ary Zogdoule (vocals, bass), who plays with Jabali Afrika and recently toured with Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars; and Emmanuel Adamah (vocals, drums), who plays with a variety of groups and recently toured with Nigerian highlife star Orlando Julius. Over email, Washington City Paper recently spoke with Shereikis about the origins of the group, their respective backgrounds, and plans for the future.
Washington City Paper: Where are the band members from or where have they spent time?
Michael Shereikis: I spent time in Republique Centrafricaine with Peace Corps and then in Cote d’Ivoire for a couple years doing dissertation research on the music industry in Abidjan. I know Eme grew up and went to school in Nigeria, but also has ties to Benin and lived in California for a while. Tanash is originally from Cameroon right near the border with Nigeria, and he spent many years as a top-gun guitarist in Abidjan during its musical heyday. Ary is also from Cameroon, but spent years in Belgium touring with some of the top Algerian Rai acts, as well as working the cabaret circuit. Emmanuel is from Ghana, but I know less about his past than the others having only met him in the past year.
WCP: How did you and Eme meet and how did this project come together?
MS: Eme and I met at his old rehearsal space in Silver Spring about ten years ago. All local and touring African groups eventually found their way to Eme and his brother’s place to rehearse. I ended up there as part of the band Elikeh. Chopteeth was just starting and Eme agreed to try us out for awhile to see where it might lead. He was also leading an earlier band of his called Union Street (with Ary on bass). Eme singing with the band was a huge part of what launched Chopteeth so quickly into something viable and paved the way for the band’s success on the local scene. But it was never his primary project so we ended up parting ways after a couple years. We reconnected in the summer of 2014 to organize a concert in celebration of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art’s 50th anniversary. We organized, rehearsed and managed 30-plus of the best musicians on the D.C. scene for a three-hour concert on the National Mall. Nothing like that had been attempted before, and it got the juices flowing to see what came next.
Eme and I have since continued working with Smithsonian to put together storytelling and music events, and this summer were awarded a songwriting grant by the Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council. That album is due next summer. Wanting to combine all these efforts into a fun side-project that can play in smaller situations than our larger bands, we called in Tanash, Ary, and Emmanuel. A gig at the AFL-CIO headquarters was our first outing. This will be our second.
WCP: Who are some of the artists you will be covering?
MS: We’re starting out with some lovely old chestnuts from the highlife and rumba canon, with a few more recent hits tossed in. We’ll play covers by Jean Bosco Mwenda, Prince Nico Mbarga, Rex Lawson, Bobby Benson, Sam Mwangana, Joseph Kabasele, Magic System, Alpha Blondy, Flavour, and others.
WCP: Any new songs?
MS: Eme and I have written maybe a dozen songs over the past year, working toward that Montgomery County AHC album, and are planning to try at least one of them on the 18th. It’s a track entitled “Semez” that speaks to the importance of valuing any spark of creativity you feel, and sowing its seed. “Semez” means “sow it” in French.
WCP: Future plans for this project?
MS: Apparently we need to book a larger venue! The response has been wonderful, and we can’t thank the Tree House Concerts folks enough for setting this up. In addition to tightening and expanding our cover repertoire, this group is getting into composing new material that grooves within the funky highlife vibe we’re setting. We’ll keep rehearsing and recording in my studio, and see where that leads, but we’re all friends and we all respect one another, so our only hurdle is time.
The DC Stars play a sold-out show tonight at Takoma Park VFW Post 350, 6420 Orchard Ave., Takoma Park. 7 p.m.