“Que’est-ce qui se passe?” asked electronic musician Caleb Rimtobaye, better known by his stage name AfrotroniX. He directed the question – a French phrase meaning “what’s going on?” – to his native Chad, a country forced to adopt Western customs in the name of modernization but still mired in poverty and corruption. Rimtobaye’s question, however, was not sigh of exhaustion but a rallying cry for change. He quickly urged the crowd to their feet – “how they do it in my country” – and launched into an infectious dance tune whose refrain asked the audience its titular question: what’s going on?
DCASE Welcomes AfrotroniX to his Debut Performance in Chicago
Rimtobaye’s only accompanist, playing a drum machine and a bevy of African percussion, embodied AfrotroniX’s unique blend of electronica and traditional Chadian music. Throughout the set, Rimtobaye executed this unlikely combination in a variety of surprising and creative ways. DJing behind two laptops, for instance, Rimtobaye effortlessly wove samples of African chants into the fabric of the pulsating dance track “Sinon le pays va tomber.” The song “Petit Pays” opened with a techno synth before unveiling its underlying African rhythm. And many of Rimtobaye’s vocal melodies carried the inflections and modalities of Arabic music, popular in Chad’s predominantly Muslim north.
Unlike many electronic musicians, AfrotroniX is an incredibly gifted singer and instrumentalist. Throughout the show, Rimtobaye’s pitch perfect voice stood out over the din of techno drums and throbbing bass. His bright and melodic guitar playing carried shades Highlife, a genre born west of Chad in Ghana and Nigeria. Rimtobaye’s guitar solos, in fact, were some of the most thrilling moments of the entire concert, as he strutted towards the front of the stage, fingers dancing across the neck of a cream-colored Fender guitar.
Jaga Jazzist Follows AftrotroniX with a Different Brand of Electronic Fusion
AfrotroniX was followed by a set from the Norwegian electronic jazz outfit Jaga Jazzist. The group’s eight members stood spread across the stage, facing different directions, surrounded by striking light fixtures – a far cry from the suited rows of horn players that usually come to mind when one thinks of big band jazz. Most musicians alternated between a handful of instruments: at various points in their performance, the band included drums, bass, electric guitars, synthesizers, keyboards, clarinet, flute, tuba, trombone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, vocals, and a host of auxiliary percussion. Their songs, shifting from cinematic overtures to droning electronics to swanky big band themes, incorporated most of these instruments seamlessly.
Unlike AfrotroniX, who stacks African rhythms on an electronic foundation, Jaga Jazzist is – as their name would suggest – first and foremost a jazz group, albeit one that infuses their music with an electronic aesthetic. Instead of the blues and soul, their set drew from the rock and funk fusion of 1970s Herbie Hancock and the highly arranged, quasi-classical compositions of 1950s Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Layers of icy synthesizers and glitchy drum machines fleshed out their enigmatic sound.
“You must be proud of this stage,” said Martin Horntveth, the drummer of Jaga Jazzist and one of its founding members. It is no coincidence that he made note of Frank Gehry’s iconic design – like the Pritzker Pavilion at which Jaga Jazzist performed, their music’s organic curves and natural flourishes are disguised by a striking metallic sheen.
The Millennium Park Music Series is sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). For more information, visit the DCASE website here.
Photos: Sam McCarthy