Tonight at AllWays Lounge, the Brooklyn-based Afro-pop band King Expressers play only their second show outside New York, having conquered their first “touring” show this past Saturday night at the Circle Bar, opening for Alexis Marceaux and Brass Bed.
The band are no strangers to New Orleans, however. Lead singer and guitarist Mikey “Freedom” Hart grew up here and in Lake Charles, and has been living in New Orleans for the past few months, gigging with singer Meschiya Lake and others. Drummer “Sticky” Ricky Levinson has also been living in New Orleans, playing with trad-jazz modernists the Loose Marbles. To round out their musical pedigree, the third member of the trio, bassist Nikhil Yerawadekar, has frequently fills in the guitar role in the afrobeat revivalist band Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. When at home in New York, the trio fills out their sound with anywhere from 3-5 horn players. At their show this past Saturday they were joined by Panorama Jazz Band’s Aurora Nealand on saxophone and Charlie Halloran on trombone, who will both be part of the band again tonight.
The King Expressers bright, poppy, and very danceable sound is influenced most by two West African guitar-based genres: palm-wine and highlife music (Hart makes the analogy that palm-wine is to highlife as traditional New Orleans jazz is to modern brass bands. These aren’t just some punks with a couple of Starbucks compilations though; both Hart and Levinson spent almost a year living in Ghana, and for part of that time Hart stayed in the home of one of Ghana’s most renowned folk musicians, Koo Nimo. Besides deepening their technical knowledge (and cassette tape collections), the two also internalized important lessons of music’s everyday role in West African life, something they find obviously similar to life in New Orleans.
In addition to their recent time with local jazz musicians, Hart also points to other New Orleans influences in their songs and arrangements, from Louis Armstrong, (both directly and via Armstrong’s own influence on Ghanaian Highlife) to lost funk 45s, to brass bands and even Magnolia Shorty’s “Smoking Gun.”
Says Hart, “If there’s anything I could say about how we approach our music the most important thing is just about creating a good atmosphere to interact with the audience.”
There’s another young African-influenced band coming through town soon, but tonight’s a chance to hear something closer to the real deal, while still avoiding the pitfalls of overly zealous reverence. The show starts at AllWays Lounge at 10 p.m. with openers Tubadooba (made up of members of various local bands). If you’re at all interested in African music it’s well worth checking out.
Listen to the King Expressers’ “Passed Ascension Parish”: