Public Opinion Afro Orchestra are a Melbourne big band Afrobeat Orchestra who blend African influenced funk with jazz and more contemporary styles like hip hop, even including turntables in their arsenal. They’ve just released their debut LP Do Anything Go Anywhere which they are launching at the Prince of Wales in Melbourne on the 13th of March, though before that they are performing at Womadelaide between the 5th and 8th of March in Adelaide. Bob Baker Fish spoke with turntablist and band director Ethan Hill.
Bob: How long have you guys been playing together for?
Ethan: We’ve been playing together for 2 years now. There were just the three of us who are the band directors, myself Zvi and Tristan. I was in New York and I saw some Afrobeat bands there and I always wanted to do an Afrobeat band so I came back and talked with B and Tristan and we said okay cool we’re gonna do it and called up everyone we could think of who would be good and put the band together from there.
Bob: That sounds way too easy. Getting people together to play Afrobeat in Melbourne wasn’t too difficult?
Ethan: It wasn’t too hard. Getting 20 people together to set up in the same place at the same time was a big challenge. Getting people to say they wanted to play music was easy enough.
Bob: So how many people are actually in the band?
Ethan: It’s between 16 and 20. It’s a bit of a rotating cast.
Bob: Is that because of the problems getting all the people together?
Ethan: Yeah and its also what the situation calls for. If we can manage to pay a few extra percussionists and get the extra vocalists and dancers down we like to do that,
Bob: Is it pretty difficult to manage a big band?
Ethan: It’s hard to manage that many people to do anything really. Let alone musicians to get them to come to rehearsal you know. It’s not that bad, of course we have logistical problems but we tend to get around that. Once we’re all on the same page and we get going it’s definitely worth it then.
Bob: When you first started were you thinking that you wanted to sound a little like Fela Kuti or were you thinking that you wanted you wanted to add something different?
Ethan: Well the music is 30 or 40 years old. So you can’t say I want to sound the way it was in the 70’s. It doesn’t really make sense. But we definitely took plenty of inspiration from Fela and I guess added more modern elements. I guess the obvious one is the hip hop, instead of just having singers we also have hip hop mcs like 1/6 and some guys we recorded in Africa and Kuukua does some MCing. I do some DJ scratching as well. Some of those things add extra elements and we also take quite a different approach to the music.
Bob: I was going to say that I don’t remember scratching when Fela played.
Ethan: Yeah that’s right. I don’t think everyone really thought about it back then.
Bob: I was listening to your PBSFM show The Breakdown and you had an interview that you did with Femi Kuti.
Ethan: Yeah that’s right. We went over there, a year ago now we were in Nigeria. We all went to South Africa and Nigeria on our little musical pilgrimage. I suppose if you’re going to play some Afrobeat you got to go to the the source. So we went to Nigeria, to the African Shrine which is the nightclub/ venue that Fela set up in the 70’s and his son Femi is still running it to this day. And he still plays there on thursdays and sundays, the rehearsal on thursdays and the show on sundays. So we went down thursday as guests of Yeni Kuti who is one of Fela’s daughters. We went and met Femi and Tristan and Zvi were lucky enough to jam on stage with him on the sunday at the actual show which was amazing. We were chatting to them afterwards and they were really hospitable, they invited us back to the house the next day for a BBQ, so we ended up going to a Kuti family BBQ. So I sat down with Femi and did that interview. Though I don’t call it an interview it was more ask him a question and he’ll just talk for 30 mins on whatever he decides to talk about. It was a pretty funny experience running around with all Fela Kuti’s grandchildren. It was great.
Bob: So you and the other guys went over to Africa part pilgrimage, part seeing if people wanted to record with you?
Ethan: It was just a music journey. We wanted to go see some music check out some music, see what sort of bands you can hear today in Lagos as well as see who we could find who would record with us. We started in South Africa and recorded with the poet MC Tumi who V had met earlier, because Zvi is originally from south Africa and he’s an incredible MC when I first heard him I was blown away. I was amazed. We recorded with him in Johannesburg. And through some contacts we’d made in South Africa when we were in Nigeria we were able to hook up with Modenine and Terry Tha Rapman and a few others so we recorded them for the album as well. So we’ve got some guest vocals from some Nigerians and South Africans.
Bob: So you have similar approach to Femi, having people sit in and play with you when they’re around?
Ethan: Exactly. We take inspiration from a lot of people. We’re a big band, we like to play with as many people as possible. We are a band where everyone comes from such different backgrounds and tastes in music, so it’s always great to throw in another different voice in there as well.
Bob: So how did you go about recording?
Ethan: We recorded some stuff earlier before we went to Africa. Then we went over there and did some recordings there and then came back and finished it off in australia, It’s a transcontinental album.
Bob: So how do you go about writing material? Does someone just bring in an idea and show it to others?
Ethan: That’s pretty much it. Generally speaking someone will come in with an idea and either bring it to the whole group or take it to a couple of others and say ‘hey I got this idea what do you reckon?’ Zvi and Tristan tend to be the main songwriters at the moment but Jules our drummer came up with part of one of the songs and Tristan wrote the horn lines, and then we take it from there, work the idea up a bit and then take it to the rest of the band and really build it up from there.
Bob: Is there much jamming or improvisation?
Ethan: There’s always got to be an element of jamming in African music because a lot of the songs are 10 or 12 minutes. By the very nature of it they have to be jammy because no one can really remember 10 minutes. That’s kind of the way with Afrobeat music. It’s like ‘who wants to have a solo?’ And we throw to a trombone solo and then take it easy and see where it goes from there.
Bob: What have the responses been like to you guys playing live?
Ethan: They’ve always been fantastic. Some of the first gigs we played people were like ‘what the hell is this?’ It was not something they’d seen. After a while everyone’s always got into it. Afrobeat’s just that kind of music, it just creeps up on you and after a while you find yourself dancing without even realising it.
Bob: It’s really quite interesting music, it has this amazing groove and uplifting feel, yet the content is intensely political, so it’s always had this double edge to it.
Ethan: It’s always been part of it. We call it message music. It’s part of the reason we decided to use hip hop MC’s because hip hop MC’s have something similar to Fela, that anti authority, it’s sort of the arena you find those sort of messages these days. Femi Kuti was incredibly political when we were at the Shrine. He’d stop shows or have the band come down midway so he could have a talk to the crowd and have a big political rant.
Bob: Was there any trepidation of taking on this style of music because I’m guessing it’s not your cultural style.
Ethan: I think music may come from a certain culture but music is an ever evolving idea. Our band we have a lot of members where that is part of their culture and some members where it isn’t and to a certain degree hadn’t really heard the music before starting to play in the band. I think music’s music, race, creed, country, culture, it sort of transcends all of that.