Not everybody will get what Africa Unplugged does, said drummer, front man and founder Atiba Rorie.
“People are sometimes a bit shocked,” he said. “It’s not what you expect even with African music, but once you catch the vibe, it’s a party.”
Rorie and the three-piece version of Africa Unplugged — a guitar, a bass and traditional West African drums — will bring that party tonight to The Empty Glass in Charleston.
Formed in 2011, Rorie said the sound of the Greensboro, North Carolina-based band gets its foundation from the influence of celebrated Nigerian percussionist and social activist Babatunde Olantunji.
“He recorded ‘Drums of Passion’ in the late 1950s,” Rorie explained. “That album influenced a lot of jazz musicians. Miles Davis listened to him and played with him.”
In 1991, Olantunji won a Best World Music Grammy Award as part of Micky Hart’s Planet Drum project.
“That was my introduction to the music and culture,” Rorie said.
But he added that he was also a product of his parents’ listening habits and a product of being raised in the south.
“Plus, I have that classical music degree from UNC-Greensboro,” the drummer added.
Rorie said he thinks of himself as a kind of musical folklorist. He loves modern music, but he enjoys taking it apart and trying to follow it back to its roots.
“That’s what interests me,” he said.
Africa Unplugged is a fusion band. Rorie and company fuse soul, blues and reggae with traditional drums.
“It’s what the blues would have sounded like if Africa musicians had been able to keep their history,” he said.
Writing music for Africa Unplugged, however, is not as simple as taking out the drum kit and plugging in the Djembe as a replacement. Rorie said his entire approach is to see songs from a West African perspective.
“In West African traditions, you have ensembles with nothing but drums,” he said. “You have five or six musicians all playing drums together and they include the melodies in that.”
Rorie said he looks at the other instruments in the band as being other drums.
“My job is to stack all those things together,” he said.
Writing doesn’t always come easily to him.
“It’s like with any other writer, I guess. Sometimes the muse is with you and you just go. Other times, it’s ‘let me get a cup of coffee and try again,’ it’s ‘let me go for a walk and try again,’” he said.
But he’s always thinking about new music. The band is slowly working toward a record, which Rorie thought would come out sometime in 2020. They have material, he said, but the trouble is in the recording.
Africa Unplugged is a live performance band.
“We have to figure out how to capture the energy we have in a recording,” he said. “The crowd is part of it. There are no spectators at the show. There’s participation. We’re all together in the moment.”
He was sure they’d get it. Africa Unplugged had a lot to share.
“African music is to help people heal. It’s to help people grieve,” Rorie said. “But at the end of the day, it’s music to bring people together and be happy.”