Warsaw Afrobeat Orchestra ‘Wendelu’ (Ubiquity) 3/5

warsaw-afrobeat-orchestraSeun Kuti, one of the sons of the late and great Fela Kuti recently said, “There are hundreds of bands playing afrobeat around the world, from Australia to Israel to the US. What began with my father has become a global movement.” The ten piece Polish group Warsaw Afrobeat Orchestra (W.A.O) are a prime example of that newer, almost global afrobeat sound, as they encompass a very broad range of different elements with their music.
For an afrobeat band only formed at the end of 2012, they have obviously attracted attention as Wëndelu is released on the eclectic American label, Ubiquity Records and produced by ‘Bosq’ from the ‘Whiskey Barons’.
Wëndelu is their first full length album which is a fusion of folk, funk, reggae and rock, amongst others, and loosely fits under the ever vague umbrella of ‘world music’. For me, the simplest way to describe them is that if afrobeat and dub have ever had babies, then this is one of them, and they brought it into the world kicking and screaming, relatively loudly.
This album may divide opinion about what makes modern afrobeat. For strict afrobeat fans, this could be a funny one, as it is not afrobeat through and through. I personally found it to be an enjoyable album, and if afrobeat is such a hybrid genre in its very origin, then this is a natural path for W.A.O to take.
What is admirable about this album is that they are not afraid of their own original sound, and do not hesitate in their delivery of it. Many bands have tried to replicate the sounds of Fela Kuti, whereas these guys have given a respectful nod, but have not held back in putting their own stamp on the genre, possibly diluting its powerful sound and message, or enriching it? That one’s up for debate!
Either way I don’t think this is an issue that would have arisen if they had not included a genre in their name, although you could argue again, that afrobeat isn’t just a sound, but a socially conscious attitude that is conveyed in their message.
They introduce themselves with the opening track “Stop”, and there is no denying their love for afrobeat, with the Fela-esque rambling organ played by Jan Jędrzejczyk backed by Igor Chołda on percussion, then followed by the three horns laying on the melody thick, setting a dark and sultry scene.
The next track, “Signs”, combines a busy horn and guitar fuelled riff that is cooled into a smooth dub terrain, due to the persistently fluid and hypnotic tone that bass player Jakub Bruszewski delivers.
The most striking quality of this album are the vocals. Comprising of three lead vocalists, Iza Byra, Magdalena Kuś and Anna Piotrowska, they casually mix an almost african style of chanting, combined with call and response and repetitive phrases with predominantly european folky harmonies. What struck me whilst listening to “No Such Thing” is the bizarre resemblance they have to eighties girl group vocals. These individually soft tones when layered together give a strong, yet airy resonance which compliments their music and aids their overall inventive style.
“Which Direction” is the rockier tune on the album that is introduced with a continuous, almost prog rock style melody played in unison by all instruments. This gives way to another bass dominated reggae groove with the guitarist Wojciech Trusewicz adding delicate rhythmic bouts of funky wah-wah, in an almost reggae meets Nile Rodgers scenario.The call and response between the vocals and the horn section in the verse contrasts against the intense, and somewhat heavier, rock styled chorus.
“Your Way” stands out as the bass adopts a cleaner tone and weaves around the lead guitar line as more of a counter melody. The horns launch into another energetic riff, which takes on a brighter, afro latin feel. This distinctly varies against the folky qualities of the vocals in the chorus.
I personally would have liked to hear more individually from the horn players on this album. There are a few tantalising moments where Rafał Gańko (trumpet) and Karol Gołowacz (tenor sax) have brief solos, but sadly don’t build like they teasingly suggest. This is less of a dig, and more of a compliment to them, but is still frustrating. To be fair, I’m impressed with the full and meaty sound
they deliver with just the three of them (trumpet, tenor sax and trombone) as I often thought that to get that sound you needed a baritone sax, the classic afrobeat favourite.
Overall I would call Wëndelu a success. It is consistent throughout and something you can listen to in its entirety without the nagging temptation to skip a tune. This should appeal to a wide audience of listeners, with its Afro-dub energy going down particularly well at festivals, and has a firm place in the soundtrack to my summer.

Lindsey Evans