CULTURE- FRIDAYS UPDATE Afrobeat: Not much afro, but lots o' beat

Richmond Afrobeat Movement

If you're as surprised as we were by the notion that Richmond has an Afrobeat movement, sit back down– drummer Austin Dandridge says it refers to stage kinetics, not cultural momentum. But if he has his way, it won't be long now– the band is headlining major shows several towns away after only a few months.

Dandridge found his way into Afrobeat thanks to his involvement with the UVA Afropop ensemble led by Heather Maxwell. Osmotic, his last band, called it quits in mid-2006, and that fall he decided to let his love of Fela Kuti take the wheel. He shared three sample tunes with musicians he recruited from the VCU music department's email list, and by October he'd found enough interested parties to form a band– even if some of them were, to put it mildly, neophytes.

Thankfully, the training regimen was fairly easy to design: "We started off playing all Fela covers, because some people didn't know what Afrobeat was," says Dandridge. "If you're not used to it, you can't just go in and start writing it."

But he says the band has really stepped up to the challenge. "You're playing the same guitar part for 20 minutes, and for a lot of guitar players that's really hard to do– they'll lose the tempo or start noodling around because it's so easy," he says. "You gotta find a mature guitar player who can do that."

One guitar player is in his forties, and the other can't legally drink yet; interpret that however you want. On any given night, those two can be supplemented by anywhere from 9 to 12 other musicians– and no matter how cultured you may think we are, Nigerian political anthems aren't exactly a lucrative market segment around these parts, meaning that the band faces slim pickings come payday.

"The money thing is always a struggle," says Dandridge. "You find outwho's really there to play after that– the thing about being a 12-piece band is that you're not doing it to make money."

Like Brooklyn-based Afrobeat torch-bearers Antibalas, who took Starr Hill by surprise earlier this spring with both their enthusiasm and their ethnic makeup, it's mostly white folks driving Richmond's favorite Afrobeat band.

And, for that matter, they're actually Richmond's only Afrobeat band.

Dandridge shrugs it off. "I think it's more about the actual message we're trying to convey with the music," he says. "How many bands from Nigeria are able to get over to the States and play this music? Bringing this music out to a lot of people who wouldn't hear it otherwise is a good thing."

Richmond Afrobeat plays Fridays after 5, Friday, June 29, at the Pavilion at the east end of the Downtown Mall.