As the horn section blared out melodies over dense layers of percussion, the keyboardist for West African big band Chopteeth, Bill Dempsey, found a small place between the noise for an organ solo. The band headlined the Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo Park on Saturday night, and Dempsey was able to fulfill one of his dreams.
“I’ve been listening to this style of music for a long time; I’ve always dreamed of finding others to play it with. In Milwaukee, I thought it would never happen; in DC it did,” said Dempsey. “It’s a tribute to DC that you can find Ghanaian musicians, Nigerian musicians, and American musicians, all coming together.”
Chopteeth was the brain child of singer/guitarist Michael Shereikis and bassist Robert Fox. Inspired by New York based band Antibalas; Fox asked Shereikis if he would be interested in starting an African big band. Shereikis, who was exposed to African music when he lived in the Ivory Coast as a member of the Peace Corps, agreed, and Chopteeth was born.
Chopteeth got its unusual name from the Fela Kuti song “Jehin, Jehin.” The name reflects the bands free wheeling style and pays tribute to Kuti, one of their biggest influences. Kuti’s music is a mix of traditional West African styles, such as Nigerian Yoruba and Ghanaian highlife, and American jazz and funk music. Moreover, many, of Kuti’s lyrics, feature social commentary, a custom that Chopteeth continues.
“It’s a very crucial part of the music. If politics aren’t important to you, don’t play this style,” replied Fox when asked about political influences on their music.
The music featured a heavy use of ostinatos, which are musical phrases that repeat many times throughout a piece. The repetition created a relentless driving groove that kept people dancing all night. The band was a change of pace for the Spanish Ballroom, which usually hosts swing dances on Saturdays.
“The swing band asked to play outside today. That gave us a good chance to branch out from the traditional dance styles that we usually have,” said events manager Reuven Eitan.
Chopteeth performed several original songs from their upcoming album, set for release in November. The songs, such as “Questions of our Day” showcased upbeat instrumentals with socially conscious lyrics.
To pay tribute to the historic 1930s era venue, Chopteeth performed several Latin songs. The transition between two genres didn’t come as a shock to the crowd, however, as the arpeggiated guitar lines common to West African music are also found in Latin music.
“People play their simple role, they keep their cycles going with small embellishments,” said bandleader and guitarist Michael Shereikis.
The 12-member band featured a 5-piece horn section, hand percussionist, timbales, drum set, keyboards, two guitars, and bass.
“I just got over an eight-year relationship, so drumming is my therapy,” said percussionist Malari Moore.