Written By Jordan Reisman
Photo Courtesy of Walko.
As the founder of afrobeat music, Fela Kuti inspired countless musicians both in the decades he was active and those following his death. Of the perhaps millions captivated by his spirit and energy, the thirteen or so musicians of the Nantes, France based group Walko have joined in on the call-and-response vocals and loud grunts of “Huh!”
Their newest self-titled EP is a testament to how pervasive afrobeat music is in 2013, and how its rhythms still get stuck under your skin. One point about afrobeat is that the music requires a high level of proficiency and discipline, with multi-dimensional rhythms that are so rooted in African culture that adopting it in your own country is no easy task.
Walko’s origin story came from a pilgrimage to the African homeland of afrobeat. BTR had a chance to speak with the bassist of Walko, Phil Groove.
“We had a friend, Greg, playing percussion and he had been to Africa. So when he came back he brought us some kind of sound from Africa like afrobeat and we loved that style so we started to listen to more and more Fela and things like that,” says Walko bassist, Phil Groove. “We tried to make our own composition and then it started. We could see that afrobeat there were many, many musicians playing in the band. We started with five: drummer, bass, keyboardist, guitarist, percussionist and then we met other friends playing music and we grew like that, adding more and more musicians. We now have 13-14 musicians and it went like that. This is our Walko birth.”
One would think that finding musicians to play a relatively unknown style of music in France would be difficult, but Walko found themselves part of a Nantes musical community where instrumentalists roamed freely from one band to the next, often taking friends with them. When you’re dealing with such a rotating circus of musicians, egos have no room to flourish, forcing a band to just take what it can get.
“It wasn’t hard to find members because there are many musicians here playing in the same space. In fact we have something called Trempolino where we met many friends playing in other bands. It was really easy because when we added another guitarist, he came with a percussionist and a keyboardist,” says Groove. “The first keyboardist was leaving us so it was really good for us to keep on playing afro.”
While finding the members may have been an easy task for Walko, finding success in a culture that’s less inclined to catch on to afrobeat has been difficult, also in part due to the amount of members that the music requires. It all goes back to the “bottom line,” giving the 13-14 members the harsh realization that they still have to work within the music industry.
“It [afrobeat] is not so developed in France. It’s kind of underground because there are many people in the bands, it is very numerous. Here it is hard to get gigs with many people in the band.”
When asked what the most popular style of music in France was, Walko replied, “ROCK.”
Just like here in the good ol’ U.S. of A, making ends meet by playing music is not a career laden with good fortune. The members of Walko split their time with either day jobs or other bands. Like numerous socially conscious European countries, the French government does offer provisions for musicians but with a strange catch.
“In France, you are either in show business or doing ‘general work’, and it is hard to mix the two. The government gives artists money when they play a certain number of gigs a year,” says Groove. “If you have another job, they take away what you would’ve gained. Sometimes it can be hard because you expect more but you get less.”
That certain number of gigs yearly is 43, for some reason. The cost to run a venue in Nantes is very pricey so not many clubs are willing to pay a band that has so many members. Groove sadly reports that in the past year Walko has played less and less shows because of how much of an expensive liability they are to venues.
Though they have no plans to tour internationally or really leave France just yet, they have built up a local following in their hometown of Nantes. They have lived in the area for quite awhile and Groove says that more and more people are coming out to their shows. The desire to tour is there but first Walko must get over what they see as their biggest hurdle. Whether or not their sheer size is really holding them back is rather unclear, but the EP brings to life a genre that remains mostly foreign to where they call home.
Afrobeat is a largely political music, though the context is lost on most American listeners in the 21st Century. Walko recognizes this but politics are not so much part of their musical agenda. However, their music does have dashes of social commentary though, most notably in the song “Cool Speed.”
“That song is about the fact of life’s duality, things going too slow or too fast. It’s about when you can’t catch moments because you are not in the right time or the right place,” explains Groove.
One member of the band, however, is quite political. Of the three primary songwriters, this unnamed member tends to focus his muses on the abuse of power in production and how we as a people should really be trying to get what we need, and not just what we want.
As Groove puts it, “We don’t need more, we just need what we need and that’s all.”
To get what you really need out of Walko, buy their EP here.