DC's Elikeh released their latest album at the end of August, but I was too busy to review it the week of its release for the Washington City Paper. But its worthy of attention, so here goes (who cares about release dates anyway):
The title of Elikeh’s third album, “Between 2 Worlds” explains the situation of this DC outfit’s Togo-born leader, as well as their musical approach. Joined by Americans on bass, trumpet and saxophones plus a Nigerian guitarist, Benin drummer & special guests, rhythm guitarist/songwriter Serge Massama Dogo sings in English and Mina, and his band melds various 1970s-rooted Afropop styles with funk, rock, and reggae. Concerned about the plight of his country, which he periodically visits, Dogo, who wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten songs here, employs a Bob Marley-like lyrical methodology combining critical commentary with inspirational uplift.
“How can you lead with no vision, Mr. President,” Dogo quickly lectures Togo’s head of state in the album opener “No Vision.” But Dogo, a former university orchestra director, does not use a hectoring tone. Instead his folk-like melody conveys sadness that is kept from sinking too low by the punchy Afrobeat horns, and his own leisurely, yet upbeat rhythmic guitar. The next three compositions offer subtle variations on this Fela meets Togo and America rhythmic style—potent brass with high-pitched guitar on “Know Who You Are,” guest Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure getting ragged on “Alonye,” and cover song “Olesafrica” adding uplifting group harmony vocals.
Two mid-album cuts and the album closer suggest Dogo also enjoys listening to American acoustic coffeehouse strummers. “Fly to the Sky” urges listeners to “fly to the rainbow” without sounding too saccharine and “Foot Soldier” urges listeners to “fight for the future, become a soldier for the revolution.” Cliched maybe, but the laid-back yet memorable tunefulness of his vocals makes it work, if less successfully than the more upbeat numbers.
“Eh Wee” and its faster polyrhythms, and “Let Them Talk” with its noisy horn solos return the group to its musical bread and butter. This is where the group sounds most lively. While teenagers from Togo and the African diaspora might prefer programmed African club beats and find this quaint, its tight and dynamic variation on many decades old styles feels void of dust and spiderwebs. “Nye’n Mind Na Wo” adds to the classic afropop repertoire with pretty, sparkling Malian kora underneath vocals and Santana-esque axework from Dark Star Orchestra’s John Kadlecik. Dogo’s influences from both sides of the pond may be retro but they rarely sound old-fashioned here.