Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to the London-based group mixing up African grooves with electro sounds
The Brixton café is buzzing and I’m surrounded by the members of Afriquoi – the atmosphere is alight with laughter. It’s obvious that percussionist Andre Marmot, Gambian kora player Jally Kebba Susso, Congolese guitarist Fiston Lusambo, singer Andre Espeut, and production pro Nico Bentley love working together. Each of them have their own projects and bands, but it’s obvious that their Afro-dance project is a labour of love.
The project started four years ago as the brainchild of Marmot and Bentley. “We really wanted to put together a fusion of African music and UK dance music,” Marmot explains. “Nico and I had worked together on a different project, which we used to call Afro-reggae garage. That was a fun festival thing, but we wanted to make music that was more serious, more African, but also had more of a UK edge on it.” So they started by inviting both Jally Kebba and Lusambo to the initial recording sessions.
It’s clear that both Jally Kebba and Lusambo prefer to experiment with the traditions from which they’ve sprung. Jally Kebba, who comes from a griot family in the Gambia, tells me that he had two choices when he first moved to the UK: to go the traditional route, or to branch off into something new. “I feel like I need to open different doors. [The traditional] door was already open; I could use it any time I wanted to.” Similarly Lusambo, who was a famous rumba guitarist back home, refuses to be pigeon-holed. “If you say ‘please play reggae,’ I will not listen to you because I like to play music that hasn’t got a name. That’s why I like Afriquoi. At the moment we are playing music people enjoy, but it’s not one thing.” Jally Kebba continues, “this project is a journey between two things. Africa is there, Europe is there, so it’s the meeting in the middle, trying to open completely new areas.”
This new area of exploration draws on the traditional music of Africa and mixes it with UK electronic beats. It’s club music for those with more discerning tastes, and it has been winning them fans at every show. “When we’re onstage it’s like an unstoppable energy force and you know that everyone is going to like it,” Espeut says. “And it’s a really nice feeling to know before you go onstage that you’re going to get that kind of response.”
This inclusive, 21st-century musical ethos is reflected in their name, as Marmot explains. “I’ve been lucky enough to make loads of trips to Africa and one thing I noticed is in the French West African countries people would often say ‘quoi’ after a sentence, a bit like the way English people might say ‘innit.’ So that’s a very African thing, and for years I started thinking of Africa as Afriquoi. That was my pet name for the whole continent. But then when this project came to be it made sense to call it that. It’s also basically saying it’s Afro, but so what? It’s African-esque but not defined to any one country or style. So it’s Afro what?”