March 24, 2004: On the Campus
By Sara Mayeux ’05
Imagine a loopy bass ostinato (that’s Wade Perrin ’04), and then, a few minutes later, a relentless drumbeat coming in over that (that would be Greg Marx ’07). Then an explosion of sound: trombones, trumpets, djembes (African drums) and a shekere (beaded gourd), claves, keyboard, and Aliza Kennerly ’04’s husky vocals, all combining to fill Frist’s Café Vivian with sound.
It’s a sound that Alex Toledano ’04 – the one playing that cherry-red electric guitar – describes as “James Brown in urban Lagos, Nigeria.” Technically, it could be called Afrobeat, a style of music with roots in West African Highlife and traditional Yoruba percussion rhythms, infused by American jazz and funk.
Music major Andy Friedman ’04, besides playing the claves, is the group’s primary composer and conductor. He borrows pieces from musicians such as Fela Kuti, an Afrobeat pioneer and Nigerian musician and political activist who died in 1997 after a long, charismatic, and controversial career; Antibalas, the Brooklyn-based band Kuti inspired; and Jorge Ben, a Brazilian funk/soul guitarist. Friedman arranges the group’s instrumentation, adding room for improvisation and original sequences.
But the sound is not exactly Afrobeat tout simple – it’s got no politically charged lyrics (just a lot of “yeah yeahs”), a little more funk, something of a Latin groove.
Whatever you call it, 30 seconds
into the latest performance by the Sensemayà Afrobeat All-Stars at Café Vivian, most of the several dozen students in attendance have jumped to their feet and started dancing in the open space created when the tables were pushed to the back.
Afrobeat is not music with which most Princeton students are familiar, but Toledano, Friedman, and Fernando Delgado ’04 – that’s him on tenor sax – have liked it for a few years. “Starting an Afrobeat band had been one of those thousand long-shot ideas that we’d throw around and never do anything about,” Toledano said. “Finally one night this year the three of us were hanging out and decided that we might as well go for it, without too much hope, though definitely with a lot of excitement.”
They spread the word to other student musicians, and although most
didn’t know what Afrobeat was, many had their interest piqued. The group coalesced last fall, and Toledano and Delgado – both Brazilian — secured use of practice rooms in Witherspoon Hall, where the band practices at least four hours a week. Sensemayà played a few shows at Terrace Club in the winter, and, in February, kicked off a Modern Improvisational Music Association concert series with the Café Viv show.
The group has 14 students, who for the most part didn’t know each other until Afrobeat brought them together. “Now we all love each other,” Toledano says. “That sounds reasonable, but musicians generally tend to be self-centered and arrogant. It’s difficult enough to put together a four-person group that doesn’t bicker.”
Sensemayà has developed a popular following, attracting large audiences to all of its shows. But with six of its 14 members graduating this spring, its future is uncertain. Toledano is hopeful that the underclassmen in the group will continue bringing Afrobeat to Princeton: “I hope they can do it, because I’ve never had more fun in my life. Really.”
I recently accepted an invitation to attend a party given by the Princeton Redhead Society, as a “liaison” to the brunette world of which I am a part. The society, founded by Ann Glotzbach ’05 and Doug Rosenthal ’04, has united several dozen Princeton redheads with study breaks and T-shirts. The party featured a variety of red-themed drinks (cherry ginger ale, rose champagne) and red snacks (Twizzlers and Big Red gum), and guests were invited to sign the group’s petition for official recognition as a student organization with an oversized carrot-shaped inkpen.
Glotzbach told me over brunch the next day that the response to the Red-head Society has been unexpected. “An English professor sent me an e-mail saying she’s writing a book about redheads, and wants to interview us,” she said. And already, the group has been the subject of a front-page article in the Daily Princetonian, which solemnly pronounced the organization “one of Princeton’s newest minority student groups.”
Sara Mayeux ’05 is a history major from Atlanta, Georgia.
On the Campus Online, to be posted March 24, 2004: Please go to www. princeton.edu/paw to read “A Time of Exploration: Our Books, Our Bodies, Ourselves,” by Ashley Johnson ’05.