Written By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Kalakuta Millionaires.
Kalakuta is a Latin-influenced afrobeat band from Brighton, UK, a city 55 miles away from London (on our measuring system). While most focus on the distinctive styles coming out of London, Brighton has a more underdog appeal. BTR had a chance to speak with the band’s vocalist/lead conga player, Cicely Taylor, about where they’re from, English traditions and the meaning behind “millionaires.”
About Brighton, Taylor says, “One of the lovely things about living here is that all of the musicians come together, there’s a really big creative community. If you live in London it takes a long time to get across and it’s a lot of money to hire rehearsal spaces. So it’s a bit easier to kind of connect with other musicians and artists in Brighton. It’s got a real reputation for being very artsy.”
The project traces back to early 2008 when Taylor was jamming with the bass player of Brighton funk band, Baby Charles. Given that Brighton is somewhat of a musical oasis, they would integrate an eclectic mix of musicians into their jam sessions, with numbers up to 18 at times. This group of ragtag Brits linked up with the singer Siggi Mwasote, who had been in a choir with Taylor, a half-Kenyan/half-Tanzanian vocalist who’s native tongue is Swahili.
Though the group’s name does sound like some sort of African rap collective, the literal translation of kalakuta in Swahili means “rascally”. Taylor explains the juxtaposition of Kalakuta and Millionaires, as one would never expect any person behaving in a rascally way to be a millionaire, But maybe things are different in England.
“The word Kalakuta Millionaires is about rascally rich,” says Taylor. “It’s kind of this idea of looking at colonialism and attitudes, and kind of how we all felt about music as well, being a little bit out of the box. We had a wealth of different styles and influences, so being a little bit creative and mischievous around our approach.”
Don’t be fooled though, Kalakuta Millionaires are not of the 1 percent. Taylor says, “We’re definitely not rich. Not with the way we get paid.”
She doesn’t even express much interest in actually becoming a real millionaire from music. Taylor confessed that even when the band was playing well-paid gigs at their start, she donated a lot of it to charity. However, she said they have played the weddings of a few unnamed wealthy afrobeat appreciators.
England’s currency might be more substantial than the dollar but she says that it’s a hard time to be a musician in England right now.
“The music scene in England is a lot of…people touring from America won’t even come to England because it’s just so badly paid. It’s alright in Europe, like in France and stuff, you get really well treated, the wages are good. But in Britain at the moment, it’s a tricky time. But hey, we’re definitely not doing it for the money!”
The ethos of Kalakuta Millionaires is very un-millionaire. They don’t do it for the money and when they get some, they give it away. Behind the Union Jack is a long history of classism as well, with musicians carving out a place for themselves. Taylor says they are “Below peasants. But we work just as hard as peasants.”
Kalakuta Millionaires are part of a British consciousness of bringing afrobeat-influenced music to the world, which makes it a worldwide movement. Zehile the music is historically Afrocentric, there are a multitude of cultures and flavors chiming and a globalizing the genre. Taylor says though that she puts less emphasis on the style or genre they’re a part of and more on the people creating it.
“I think for me, the concept of creativity overrides any concept of style or genre. It’s about being creative and it’s about making music that’s from the group, and as a message as well.”
The subject of race and music came up and manifested in an unexpected way. Kalakuta pays respects to those who influenced them but believe strongly that music is a free enterprise and is allowed to be played by whomever. There was no sense of “white guilt” in Taylor’s tone.
“As a female percussionist, I’ve had black Cuban men coming up to me and properly laying into me because I’m stealing their culture. Actually what I’ve taken over the last twenty years is studying percussion,” she says. “I’ve studied with people from Ghana, Brazil, Cuba. I’ve created my own style of playing congas and I invent my own rhythms all of the time. I take them as an inspiration for composing a lot of the tunes I write for Kalakuta Millionaires. For me, I don’t want to be held back by a notion of tradition or a notion of fixedness. I believe that’s contrary to the idea of creativity.”
Specifically speaking from a female perspective, Kalakuta touches on issues that are not covered by most afrobeat bands such as homophobia and more culturally specific subjects like female genital mutilation.
“Being a woman and making a living as a musician is a tricky thing to do because you are juggling if you have a child and things like that. That does pose some issues really, a number of us have children. Having strong female icons for our children is really important to us.”
The band’s forthcoming self-titled album includes a song called “Feel Free”, which really accurately describes Kalakuta’s outlook, and only a member of the band could truly explain it.
“It’s just the concept of people walking around life and feeling like they’re limiting themselves in their minds. You know, ‘Oh, I can’t do this because I haven’t got enough money, or I can’t do this because I haven’t got the qualifications. Even in terms of writing music, you kind of feel like you need a music degree to be able to write music, which I don’t have. It’s about that concept of actually allowing yourself to be that free and to do whatever you want to do, to feel open to the world I suppose.”
To open up into the Kalakuta world, click here to check out their music
Also, listen to the interview and music of the band here on Discovery Corner on BTR.