They haven't got a commune yet or anything like that, but if the Richmond Afrobeat Movement ever stabilizes its membership, it might want to start looking for a big place somewhere. Preferably with a lot of floor space, for dancing.
Richmond Afrobeat Movement is the local incarnation of a culture of music born of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian composer who bridged jazz, funk and African dance music to create brassy, tribal dance music. Kuti's messages were often strongly political and always involved a band that with its many musicians and dancers (about 28 of whom Kuti married in one sweep) was its own community.
In two years the 11-member Richmond Afrobeat has, according to sax player and "original" member Roberto Curtis, turned over about 40 members. Now it's not a function of the music being impossible or the goals intolerable, only that it's unlike a jazz quartet or a garage rock three-piece in a lot of fundamental ways.
For one, Richmond Afrobeat subscribes to that mysterious dogma of feeling the music. It's dance music after all, and relatively simple -- bassist John Paul Cheski repeats just three notes on one 16-minute song but when 11 people are working on their simple bits, you get a real, ahem, movement. But it's not something you practice for. There's not really any documentation of this community.
"Nothing is written out in advance," says Curtis. "Everything has to be taught through repetition." The 40 prospective members must come in and be introduced by a band member, get the feel for the thing, before taking the leap with the whole. That's a lot of trust required on both sides.
"It requires you to give up a little bit of yourself," Cheski says. "It's not about ego."
"I'd say the egos usually work themselves out of the band," says Curtis. He says it is essential in a band this size to avoid factions forming, a coup of trumpeters.
It is, adds Cheski, "to some degree, a functioning democracy."
The goals of the group were at one time to spread the word about Afrobeat music, but as it's become more well-known, Richmond Afrobeat has begun to put its own spin, its own voice, on the genre.
"It is about bringing music to people," Cheski says. "It's also about putting on a great live performance." And while that means shows at Bogart's or The Camel, it also means playing benefit shows or the Richmond Vegetarian Festival. There's an aspect of "community engagement," Cheski says. "We do have something to give."
The trick now is to keep all those pieces moving together, which works well when they're onstage, bobbing and turning in the magical union of the songs but gets tricky when trying to get together to record, practice and sometimes play gigs. If they're missing a sax player or drummer, the shape of the sound shifts around it. The band adapts. It's a lot like jazz, only with more involvement from the feet.
And while it's a remarkable set of balances Richmond Afrobeat maintains, the members insist it's not meant to break new ground.
"We're not really striving to be aesthetic pioneers like those [jazz] bands," says Cheski.
"It's dance music," says Curtis.
"Yeah, it's dance music, man," Cheski says, and grins.