Like the current incarnations of the Glenn Miller Orchestra or the Mingus Big Band, L’Orchestre Afrisa is a ghost group.
The departed musical genius whose legacy the group celebrates is anything but a household name in the United States. But Tabu Ley Rochereau was a giant of African music. Saxophonist Modero Mekanisi, who’s bringing the band to the Folk Festival, is Tabu Ley’s handpicked successor.
The band’s name is a portmanteau of Africa and Editions Isa, Ley’s record label. It was the last of a series of bands led by the Congolese singer and composer.
“He was the most prolific songwriter, not only in the Congo but Africa,” Mekanisi says of Ley. “He was a star figure touring the world. They were the first African band to play the Olympia in Paris. And the whole group came to Montreal for the 1967 World’s Fair.”
Mekanisi joined the band in the early 1970s, he says: “I came in as a musician. Because I could speak English, he asked me to be the public relations person.”
Two years later he became the musical director. The band’s history covered a turbulent political era in African history during which the socially engaged Ley was alternately lauded and banned. It was a brilliant run, and shortly before Ley died in late 2013, he asked Mekanisi to keep the music alive.
The band’s sound resonates with African-influenced music bouncing back from the New World.
“Some of the older players were inspired by traditional folk and Latin American music, especially rumba,” Mekanisi says. “But some of the younger people learned in school. The accents are mostly rumba, but the drums and horns have a lot of blue notes from jazz.”
“We also got a lot of influence from [Nigerian] highlife music, and South African styles,” he says. “We took music from everywhere, but most African music is the Congolese music.”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is potentially the richest country on the continent but the people are poor, according to Mekanisi. The past half century after independence has been marked by troubles, dictatorship, civil war, and incursions and spillovers from nearby conflicts. It’s an irony that enchanting things often spring from disrupted soil.
Now based in Seattle, Mekanisi has taken root in his new home. “America is the No. 1 place where music from overseas is accepted and appreciated,” he says. “American people love something new.”
Mekanisi promises to give Richmond audiences something new to love.
“The music is not only beautiful but intense. It has the tropical rhythm from the olden time. Every song means something. But when people come they will not only listen. We will invite them to dance.”
And he promises: “They will dance without being invited.”