Shaolin Afronauts – Flight of the Ancients

Beyond continents

I didn’t really like my last full time job. Or rather – I could have liked it, but my boss wasn’t making things easy, to put it mildly. So the twenty to thirty minutes of driving home every day turned into my time to leave the unhappiness of the day behind and start the positive part of the day.

On my ride home I would switch on the car radio and listen to the big national classic radio station here in Switzerland, SRF2. During the evening hours they do a lot more than just play classical music. They have really interesting news features and – more importantly – they have this great one hour show that they must have conceived only for me as they play all the stuff that you would never hear on regular daytime radio. Hard to put a tag on it but it describes a large and generously eclectic circle around Jazz.

As I spent two and a half years at that company, this particular show pointed me towards plenty of stuff that I probably would not have found otherwise. One fine evening when I was just a few minutes away from home they played this really fascinating thing – unannounced as it was faded in right at the end of another track. I turned up the volume a little more and I wondered. What is this? Just a few weeks earlier I had seen Mulatu Astatke, playing together with the Heliocentrics. That was my closest guess.

The track was still playing when I turned into the garage. I parked the car and kept listening. Swiss radio stations are like everything else in Switzerland – extremely reliable. There was no way the radio host would not identify the track afterwards. Sure enough, he did. And sure enough as well, I had never heard the name. Shaolin Afronauts. It was the closing track of this album, “The Scarab”. Loved it from the first moment and I still do.

As much as the name of the band, the images on the cover of this album and the music they play may suggest that they are from somewhere in Africa – they’re not. Far from it actually as the band hails from Australia. Adelaide, to be precise. They’re a dozen people who all share a deep love and respect for African music, Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat especially, but they definitely don’t limit themselves to it, calling their style “Interstellar Futurist Afro-Soul”. And yes, Ethiopian influences are part of the mix as well – at least, I wasn’t off by half a continent.

One thing that I need to say even before getting into the album in more detail is the way this funky dozen sounds on this album. It’s so full of life and love that you can’t not love it too – the band sounds as if every song has been recorded live in their best of moods and with the effortlessness of an exceptionally good day.

The reason for this is as simple as admirable: band leader Ross McHenry had insisted on recording on tape instead of doing it digitally in order to capture as much of the band’s live spirit as possible. In an interview for an Australian website called The Barefoot Review he explained: “Tape limited the ability to edit, and forced me to make production decisions in the moment. Nothing can be fixed later and sounds are permanent. You’ve really got to consider exactly what you want to hear in the room while it’s being recorded, and this forces you to consider sound much more deeply.”

The album doesn’t just sound as if it was played live – it more or less was, as a consequence. And when you listen to it you clearly understand that this is the way this kind of music needs to be recorded. Maybe there are some mistakes made here and there (not that I would detect them), but they can’t be corrected, they’re on tape, and that’s just fine – you get the full passion and focus of every band member in return. You can hear it on every track.

At the same time most of what you get to hear has an amazing looseness to it. The longest track of the album “Shira” sounds like it was recorded live at a concert at its wildest and most joyous moment. At the end of it you almost expect to hear the frenetic cheers of an audience. It’s a wonderfully energetic and lively jam with plenty of solos that illustrates best what McHenry means when he says that the band wanted to create something a bit looser and more interpretative, less arranged.

They really don’t hold back on anything. Three guitarists – and you don’t question that at all, they are always there, each playing their own role, two of them supporting the funky African rhythms and the third one adding solos whenever the horns are taking a break. Three saxophones, a trumpet and an occasional bass clarinet. Four percussionists and a drummer. May sound outrageous, but it’s completely sensible if you listen to it.

But it’s not just about what’s there – it’s also about what’s not there. Vocals. No one is singing on this album, it’s purely instrumental. That may not be significant in most cases but it’s worth mentioning here as the Shaolin Afronauts are more or less a spin-off of another Adelaide band called The Transatlantics, a really good Funk and Soul band that featured several talented singers.

The guys in the band celebrated their love for African rhythms in an instrumental setup warming up for The Transatlantics, found out that this worked really well and then started to upgrade it to a full fledged project of its own – the Shaolin Afronauts.

One of the best things about “Flight Of The Ancients” is that the Shaolin Afronauts are not on a mission. This is simply what they love, no more no less. No one is out to be somehow true to some specific roots or traditions. If this is really authentic in any way then it’s authentic in its own way. Which is quite an accomplishment – Australians playing Afrobeat and still being true to themselves.

It works so well because they come up with really infectious rhythms, super funky riffs and very catchy melodies. Nicely tight instrumentation, clever arrangements, soulful solos – it’s impossible to object to anything these guys do on this album. Whether it’s funky pieces like the title track and “Journey Through Time” or slow jams like the wonderfully winding and dramatic finale of “The Scarab”, every song on this album is enjoyable in its own way.

I find it really hard to pick favorites. Of course the “Scarab” will always be special, but I also really like what the Afronauts are doing on “Rise With The Blind”, a really cool mix of all the elements that add up to what they call Interstellar Futurist Afro-Soul: a good dose of Jazz, intricate rhythms, a great guitar theme and a dash of Blaxploitation.

Even the more light-footed tracks like “Shaolin Theme” with its easy swing and friendly mood will have you picture yourself during a concert, the perfect piece to slip into the setlist when you want to give the audience half a breather but still keep them swinging. Gleeful stuff that will make people smile inadvertently.

And then it’s back to the heart of Africa, over to the East, to “Kilimanjaro”, one of the funkiest and danciest numbers on “Flight Of The Ancients”. If you don’t learn how to dance to African music listening to this track, you might just never learn it. But chances are that it will come naturally. After all – this is where we all come from, it’s the cradle of mankind, it’s in all of us. During the break in the middle of the song it’s as if you listen to the music of a far-away ancestor of James Brown. It’s that funky, yes.

Some day I need to thank the guys at SRF radio for introducing me to this super funky band. And if you live in Australia, please do me a favor and look for Shaolin Afronauts concerts. They are still out there doing their thing and since I live at the other end of the world you’ll have to go there instead of me. Send me a mail and tell me how it was. I bet you’ll love it.

Release for review:

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