Healing Grooves

The deep Afrobeat of Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band is coming from West Africa to the Get Tight Lounge next week.

As Western popular music has deep African roots, modern African music is intertwined with its branching evolutions – the blues, jazz, hip-hop and rock. Electric guitars blend with traditional instruments over an intuitively danceable, hypnotically polyrhythmic beat.

Richmond audiences can dip into modern African music in the dance tent at the Folk Festival every year, but full immersion with a first-rate band like Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band inside of an intimate local club is vanishingly rare.

“They’re just phenomenal live,” says tour manager and free-range ethnomusicologist Hisham Mayet, co-owner of the excellent Sublime Frequencies label. “Nobody sounds like them right now. This is deep Afrobeat, and American audiences haven’t seen or heard it in this raw kind of rock presentation.”

He notes that the group has played at prestigious venues such as the Kennedy Center and some big folk and world music festivals. But generally speaking, he booked this tour at rock clubs. “I want people to experience this band as the music, not as some shiny exotic object from West Africa that you watch crossed-legged and stroking your chin. I want people to get down.”

Mayet’s “seething passion for music, travel photography and field recording” led to an unconventional career as film documentarian and founder of a legendary, alt-world music label. He first heard a demo of Baba Commandant’s music nine years ago on a trip to Burkina Faso, a landlocked shard of post-colonial Africa embraced by the Black and white branches of the Volta River between the Bight of Benin and Mali. While it looks like an afterthought on Western maps, it is larger than the United Kingdom and far more diverse, with over three dozen languages and as many ethnic groups. Baba Commandant reminded him of one of the iconoclastic icons of youthful record collectors of the ’70s … Captain Beefheart.

“To quote a phrase: ‘All of my favorite singers can’t sing,'” Mayet jokes. “He had this super-gruff, almost Beefheart, blues-like delivery that was coarse and old and wise. A prevailing trend in African music was autotune and this was the opposite. Not to mention the phenomenal band playing an updated take on an Afrobeat style that I was already very into. And that first album had this amazing horn section that would go into free jazz territory that really rang my bell.” Over the years, the group has released three albums on Sublime Frequencies and toured Europe. But this is their first time in the U.S.

“I stripped the band down to a quartet for the tour [Mamadou Sanou, a.k.a. Boba Commandant, on traditional West African ngoni, backed by a guitar/bass/drums power trio] and it seems even more powerful, concise, and tightly wound, with totally dynamic twists and turns. At the end of the day, it is just propulsive, killer rock music.”

The blend of languages – some French, but mostly lyrics from the band’s polyglot homeland, with a bit of English picked up on tour – are no barrier to enjoyment. “I treat vocals as another instrument. Baba Commandant will give a little blurb about what the song is about, but this is not a lecture. You dance, you sweat, you get into a groove.”

This is a traveling mission of sonic enlightenment. “I have been in underground music for 35 years,” Mayet explains. “When I was younger, I thought to be cool you had to be mysterious. Now I’m just trying to get out this band to as many ears as possible. Not to sound corny, but music is supposed to heal. It’s supposed to inspire. It is supposed to light you up. It’s bleak out there. These days we are all dancing around the void. This band is coming all the way from West Africa.

“It’s a medicine show, man, and we’re dispensing medicine every night.”

Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band play the Get Tight Lounge on Wednesday, May 24th at 8 p.m. Tickets are $24.25. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and at 8 p.m. Area Woman will be spinning vinyl. At 9 p.m. the band Knifing Around plays and at 10 p.m., Baba Commandant goes on. Tickets are available here.

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