“The first time you stand next to the sound system trucks at Carnival in Trinidad it is unbelievable,” exclaims Yossi Fine, founder and bassist for Ex-Centric Sound System. “On one truck alone, the amount of low end sound, the number of speakers: it’s huge! That is what we tried to create on the album,” he says referring to their latest release, West Nile Funk, released on July 13, 2004 on EXS.
This former bassist for David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Me’Shell Ndegocello wants you to feel the bass in your body. “When you stand in front of the trucks, you can’t help it. The way you dance changes,” says Fine. “You stand there once and you will be converted.” Ex-Centric Sound System broke onto the music scene in 2000 with their debut Electric Voodooland which was called “spiritual food in the pop-music desert” (Vibe) and “fostering some arresting transglobal fusions” (Chicago Reader), among many other critical accolades. The CD, which was on hip-hop label Loud Records, drew fans across many boundaries.
Fine—joined by traditional Ghanaian musician-dancers Prince Nana Dadzie and Miss Adevo, and Moroccan-Israeli drummer Michael Avgil—says the sound system is a very important element in the African diaspora for gathering people. “In Africa, they do it with drums,” continues Fine, who was born in Paris to a West Indian singer and an Israeli guitarist. “But in the Islands they do it with these trucks.”
But there are other ambitions for West Nile Funk, the band’s second full-length release. “I am a DJ too,” explains Fine. “I have spun world music dance albums, but most of them are either too soft on beats or too soft on the African element. People just get off the dance floor! Being a band with Ghanaian dancers and musicians, when we play live, people dance. I wanted to get that on record, capture the energy from our live show, but also create something that is totally progressive. A new sound for the future.”
It may take a few listens to absorb all the layers. Listen on a system with good bass. Listen loud in a car and watch your mirrors bounce. Second, note that Ex-Centric turns the idea of a sample on its head. Each track includes a complete African song from start to finish, rather than small snippets repeated throughout or looped. Third, see how the grooves are driven by live bass and drums, with no guitar and very little in the way of keyboards. “This is not electronic. It is us playing live,” says Fine.
Next, listen to the tempo. “A lot of people are trying to do everything with hip hop,” Fine explains. “But generally African music is not suited for hip hop. Dancers in Africa need to dance faster, to get into the trance element. Our drummer plays Afrobeat but not in a ’70s way. We want to take it into the future. Just as Hip Hop took a bar or two of soul and repeated it, we do that with Afrobeat. We go into a specific part of the beat and speed it up and play it over and over. It’s modernizing that stuff.”
The songs themselves alternate between traditional and modern. “The Original Raga” is a Hutu wedding song. “Ebae” tells of Dadzie and Favouz’s experience as Ghanaians living in Israel. The song includes some Hebrew. The over 50,000 West Africans living in Israel have their own neighborhoods and customs. Many return to Africa with what they have learned about technology. Ex-Centric’s forward-thinking musical essence parallels the technological boom being experienced in Ghana right now. “Bring Your Calabash” is a call to party. “The calabash [a hard-shelled gourd] is perfect for this. They play it and then boom they flip it over and fill it with rice,” recalls Fine. “I’ve seen it many times in Israel.”
“In the beginning, I just recorded any good musicians from Africa,” says Fine about the origins of the group. “But they didn’t end up in the band. ‘Alice in Voodooland’ includes some of those other guys.” The horn sound comes from a hunter from Burundi blowing and vocalizing through a pipe. He is joined by a storyteller from Togo. And Nana rounds it out with a Ghanaian dancehall vocal.
“West Nile is everything west of the Nile. Not just West Africa but the Caribbean and America too,” Fine explains. “When we called our first album Electric Voodooland, it was originally going to be Electric Motherland. But it is everything that is Black. It’s the same with ‘Alice in Voodooland,’ but this time the emphasis is more on the funk elements rather than the dub element. We did the down-tempo dub element on the first album and we did not want to repeat that. I wanted a different album altogether to go completely to the future. We do not want to retro all the African things that have been done. Our logo, the Sankofa, is a Ghanaian bird looking back at its egg, and it means to look backwards in order to move forward. For this album, the forward is extremely important.” West Nile Funk is the first album on Fine’s EXS label (which stands for Excentric Sounds). Fine recorded the next release expected on the label, The AfroRhythms, in Jamaica. He says EXS will “always revolve around cultural world music but of our times.”