A diverse community of L.A. musicians revitalizes the genre through African and island rhythms

By Bliss Bowen

Jungle Fire lays catchy grooves with multiple percussionists, thumbing bass and feisty horns

“Ethio-Afrobeat-TropiFunk”: To the uninitiated, that might sound like a rhythmic riot. But Saturday’s Ethio-Afrobeat-TropiFunk Festival at The Broad Stage, curated by music journalist Betto Arcos, celebrates a creatively vital scene in which Mexico68, Ethio Cali and headliner Jungle Fire have all risen from L.A.’s fertile nexus of Afrobeat, Caribbean music, Ethiopian jazz, and funk.

According to percussionist Alberto Lopez of 10-man band Jungle Fire and Ethio Cali trumpeter/bandleader Todd Simon, their independent community started surfacing in 1999 as musicians streamed into L.A. from other cities. Lopez was one of them.

“That’s when a lot of bands and groups started appearing, like daKAH Hip-Hop Orchestra,” Lopez recalls. “The Reverbs. Breakestra.” Many musicians were hired on as sidemen backing better-known acts like LCD Soundsystem, Ozomatli and Stevie Wonder — including members of Jungle Fire, which didn’t officially form until 2012. The musical connections and creativity that have arisen from that boisterous confluence of players are a natural byproduct of L.A.’s polyglot culture.

“That’s why the L.A. scene is so amazing these days,” says Simon, citing its camaraderie and diversity. He points to Ethio Cali’s extended musical family, which includes original saxophonist and fellow native Angeleno Kamasi Washington as well as Buyepongo and Chicano Batman, and band members who also play with the likes of Aloe Blacc, Kendrick Lamar, Sinkane and Lady Antebellum.

“Outsiders come in and bring something really different; they’re obviously really open to being multicultural, and also [there’s] the caliber of musicianship and seriousness. Everybody’s eager to work with each other in different ways,” he says, adding that the music has “shifted” over time to “grabbing some other different rhythms and sounds” from Cuba, Colombia, Chile and Peru, expanding on the scene’s funk-Afrobeat foundation.

That creative exploration inspires genuine passion for the music. No one puts together a 13-piece Afrobeat orchestra, like Eastside-based Mexico68, because they’re in it for the money.

“We all play music that we love that we weren’t hearing being played anywhere, that we would like to hear more often,” Lopez explains. “It’s music that’s kind of died commercially; nobody tours it, nobody records it because it’s not commercially viable any longer. When was the last time you heard a funk record on mainstream radio? It has to be a very specific throwback thing like Amy Winehouse or Bruno Mars.

“Thankfully, we hit upon a vein, because there are several groups out there — not just in L.A., but all over — that like that music. It’s a movement of people who play really cool music that’s not conventional any longer, that’s not being heard. Because it’s 40 or 50 years after the genre evolved, we also incorporate things that didn’t exist before — perhaps certain rhythms, perhaps certain sounds —but keeping the spirit of those styles of music.”

Jungle Fire’s unique lineup virtually mandates a dance party: three percussionists and a drummer positioned stage front, backed by thumping bass, guitars and a feisty horn section. The signature sound that results is raw and insistent, whether they’re swaying to the dreamy “Lamente Momposino” or jamming on the polyrhythmic title track of their new album “Jambú.”

“It’s the locomotive that moves the train — almost half the band creating rhythm,” Lopez says with a laugh of their emphasis on percussion. “There are no other bands in L.A. that do that. A lot of Cuban and Colombian and West African music we like had that. We’ve done a couple gigs with just two percussionists and a drummer, and although it was nice, it wasn’t the same.”

Mexico68’s music also has a fat, rubbery bottom end, spiked with keyboards and horns — a thick, rumbling marriage of Chicano funk with polyrhythmic Afrobeat à la Fela Kuti and his Africa 70 ensemble. Ethio Cali’s music, inspired by 1960s and ’70s-era Ethiopian jazz, isn’t as dance-focused, but the elastic dynamics and intensity of compositions like “Azmar” and “Mulatu” (inspired by vibraphonist and conguero Mulatu Astatke) are stirring.

Collectively, Saturday offers an unusually lively musical program for a seated concert venue.

“We’ve done some [shows] in Santa Barbara and other cities that were sit-down venues, and about halfway through the concert everyone was dancing in the aisles,” Lopez says, laughing. “We’ll have all the security people freaking out.”

“Mexico68’s like Afrobeat with this L.A. Latin tinge to it, and Jungle Fire’s in-your-face Afro Latin party groove music,” Simon muses. “We’ll do some explorations into what we call virtual jazz, and also bring in a lot of our favorites from the Afro funk world, whether it’s music from Benin or Ghana or Ethiopia. A venue like The Broad is
a perfect blank canvas for us to do something really special.”

Ethio-Afrobeat-TropiFunk Fest goes off at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 13, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica.; Tickets are $35 to $65. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.