An Electrifying Immigration to Afrobeat - An interview with Bassist Ryan Lammey
by Michelle Harper
Immigrè - an Electrifying Immigration to Afrobeat
photo by Otehlia Cassidy
The love of the musical and cultural message of Afrobeat is what inspired this group of accomplished and prolific musicians join forces and form what would be known after 2012 as Immigrè. Citing influences such as Tony Allen, Fela Kuti, Antibalas, Amadou & Mariam to name a few, Immigrè ‘s high energy, uniquely fresh sound is undeniably contagious. The band’s original track “Djiguiya” immediately creates a frenzied space of rhythm and melodies, driving the body to celebrate. And the funky juxtaposition of horns and keys on “Jakumaba” transport you into an electrifying world running rich and deep in infectious grooves.
In speaking with Ryan Lammey, Immigrè’s bassist, there’s one big challenge to getting things going full speed: Successfully navigating the google calendar of ten plus worldly musicians with side projects to arrange time to get together to create and play the music.
“Well, our drummer is in Brazil, bari sax player is in Thailand, keyboard player is in Ecuador”, Lammey writes on Facebook messenger in response to my interview request availability. “But they’ll all be back for the show at The Frequency on the 20th of January”.
The Afrobeat genre began in Ghana in the late 1960s, coined by a Nigerian born man named Fela Kuti. His music served as a powerful social and political movement against the political corruption of the Nigerian government, poverty and inequality. Kuti’s 1986 song “Beasts of No Nation” inspired the 2005 Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel, which was made into an award-winning movie starring Idris Elba in 2015. Characterized by a fusion of jazz, Fuji and heavy Nigerian drumbeats, Afrobeat bands are “big bands” with typically 15-30 musicians made up of vocals, guitar, bass, horns, keyboard and multiple percussion pieces. Since 2012, Afrobeat has made a resurgence in influencing pop culture, especially in the UK with more and more Afrobeat nightclubs opening each year.
Lammey recalled how the band began quite unexpectedly at a backup rhythm section rehearsal for local Wassoulou musician Tani Diakite and the Afrofunkstars.
“It started at a rehearsal. I was new, and I like to practice and go over things, so I asked if they would be willing to get together one night and go over some material, and so we did. Afterwards, we thought we’d like to get some horns and chart out some arrangements of our own. That’s what sparked it. Playing with Tani.”
Lammey was drawn to the Afrobeat sound since studying music at Indiana State University. Although guitar was his focus, he quickly learned that in the music business “bands are always looking for a bassist”, so he transitioned from six strings to four (which he admits, fits better with his brain).
Discussing the musicians that make up Immigrè in print would literally take up an entire magazine. “Tony Barba, Jamie Kember and Pete Baggenstoss play for The Big Payback”, Lammey mentions. “Everybody else has at least a project or two going. Dr. Tim Patterson our drummer teaches music at MATC and Jamie teaches too. Brian plays with the Kissers.”
“Paddy, our percussionist, he’s been to Africa to study drumming and African dance, and he and his wife they teach it. They are heavily involved in that. And our guitar player Matt Manske has been over there with them too studying and learning West African style. Once I found like-minded people here, I thought [playing Afrobeat] would be great to do.”
When speaking on what Afrobeat music means to him and the band, Lammey said “We’re very drawn to Afrobeat as a political movement and being a catalyst for change, the whole story behind that and we wanted to be a political band to some degree and we also wanted people to come to our shows and have a good time, so we thought this would be a perfect medium to achieve both those goals. To get people on the dance floor and have a message too.”
“We decided on the name Immigrè because we’re all very aware that we’re all white guys from Wisconsin. It’s very obvious. So, we felt like we should acknowledge we are immigrants into this genre and the style. We also wanted to highlight the plight of the immigrant in this country, to have a little political undertone there too.”
What are the band’s goals for 2018? Our focus this year is getting more original material, playing more venues and getting the word out about us. Separate from building our audiences, when you have 10 sometimes 12 people in the band, depending on how many people show up to play drums, it’s hard to coordinate schedules. So that’s our first hurdle. There’s not a whole lot of coverage on the great world music groups in town. I want to say it’s kind of an underground scene instead of in the forefront. We’re hoping to help foster that by playing more shows and getting the word out.”
Lammey mentions the great support local venues have lent to bringing world music to Madison and the surrounding area. “We love the North Street Cabaret. The Crystal Corner. The High Noon Saloon is a great venue, very accommodating. And The Frequency is great. Darwin has always been one to foster the music scene around here and helping local musicians thrive.”
What’s next for Immigrè? “On the 20th of January, we’re playing with İESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat, a band from Chicago that is more Latin music based and it’s really fun music. We’re trying to build a bridge with Milwaukee and Chicago to play different venues with different bands.”
Ryan acknowledges that in growing an audience for Immigrè, people will need something in their hands to take home and play. He insists with conviction that the band will have a full album released in 2018.
“We’ve finally hit our stride with our writing process with ten people, and we’re really excited about it! I’m going to say we’re going to have something this year recorded and out, so put that in print and it will light a fire under our asses and we’ll get it done!”
I for one am looking forward to it.