Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective – Roots Before Branches (2012)

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photo: Marisol Diaz

When Henry Cole sought to find a singular style of music that would appeal to the diverse tastes of his local Old St. Juan music scene, his search was over when he discovered the pioneering Afrobeat sounds of Fela Kuti. “When I heard Fela, I was like, ‘Wow, this is it!’ He had tradition, he had the rock vibe, he had solos, and a really intense energy. The songs were relatively simple and you didn’t need a big rehearsal,” enthused the Puerto Rican drummer and bandleader. As Afrobeat draws much of its rhythmic qualities from the Puerto Rican Bomba, Cole was able to master the music without having to adjust his style.

Afrobeat didn’t become the entirely of Cole’s music, but it’s most certainly its kernel. On that bedrock he piled on the dense jungle funk of Get Up With It-era Miles Davis, the Chicano soul fusion of War, the 50s and 60s jazz of New York, and the more contemporary sounds of indie rock…and more. Even rap is represented here, sort of: the socially conscious spoken word poetry that appears on “A La Luz,” “Año 2010/El Mar Sereno” and “Trabájala” are uttered in Spanish instead of pidgin English or some West African dialect. Much of Cole’s audience might not understand what’s being said, but it matters little, because the grooves he and his band created are universally understood and can move the soul of feet of people from any ethnicity.

The Collective includes a cast too large to completely list here, but it includes some heavy hitters from both the New York and Puerto Rican scenes: like Miguel Zenón, Grammy winner Dávid Sánchez, John Ellis and Adam Rogers.

Much of the record feels like a non-stop groove, but moving from one mood to another. There’s the poetry recital over the solo jazzy tenor sax on “Ano 2010,” the Jeff Beck styled blues fusion of “Una Para Isabel,” the organ-propelled hard funk that is “Solo Dos Veces,” the chamber music that adorns “Uncovered Fear” and songs that bring rock, Afrobeat and jazz together seamlessly in equal doses, as on “Trabajala.” “Comienzo” (Youtube above) even brings in the influence of Puerto Rico’s Jamaican neighbor over which a jazz fusion synth noodles around. Until the last track, where he takes a song-long “Solo,” Cole leads from behind, instigating these contagious, organic rhythms.

Because Cole does such a bang-up job blending Afrobeat with other strands of music, he broadens the appeal but doesn’t dilute it. Afrobeat might be a music he’s has only recently stumbled upon, but it sounds to me he’s got it nailed down even as he molded it into his own characteristic.

Roots Before Branches goes on sale March 13. Visit Henry Cole’s MySpace page.

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