First you hear some vocal “percussion,” then the drummer drops a bomb and a ferocious horn section tears into a complicated, propulsive riff. You listen and you’re thinking, “Gee, I know this tune, but … oh, wow, it’s Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s ‘Ein Keloheinu!’”
But it’s like no other version of “Ein Keloheinu” you’ve ever heard before — a rocking, rollicking Afrobeat roller coaster.
On a recent Friday afternoon, guitarist Jon Madof was getting ready for Shabbat. He had the iconic and iconoclastic Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat, on the turntable, and the Sabbath on his mind.
“The whole thing just popped into my head,” Madoff said, thinking back to 2011 when the idea hit him. “I started humming one of the Carlebach tunes and the drum pattern [from Fela’s band] was still in my head. And I thought, ‘Oh, this works perfectly.’ The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to work. So after Shabbos, I went on the Internet and saw that nobody had ever done it before.”
A new sound and a new band were born. Madof was already well known for his guitar trio Rashanim, a mainstay of the Tzadik Records musical family, and he had played on numerous other John Zorn-initiated projects, but this was something more ambitious.
The band he assembled was Zion80, named in tribute to Fela’s groups Afrika 70 and Egypt 80; it’s a 13-piece ensemble with a big sound based on a five-member horn section anchored by baritone saxophonists Jessica Lurie and Zach Mayer. The higher ranging horns are manned by a familiar trio of Frank London on trumpet, Matt Darriau on alto and Greg Wall on tenor. Madof is one of three guitarists, alongside Yoshie Fruchter and Aram Balakian, and they are joined by a plethora of percussionists, keyboardist Brian Marsella and bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz. Madof’s band mates represent the cream of the downtown scene.
Besides the rich, low sound created by the paired baritones, the band also owes a lot of its power to the driving pulses of the Afrobeat-inspired rhythmic lines.
“When I had the initial idea, it made so much sense to me because a lot of what makes Afrobeat work is not the melodic line,” Madof explains. “You can take any kind of melodic line and fit it into the genre. When I think of Afrobeat, the first thing I think of is Tony Allen’s drum pattern.”
Allen was almost as legendary as Fela himself, and it was his power to drive a large ensemble, as much as anything, that attracted Madof to the Afrobeat sound.
Conversely, it was the simplicity and directness of Carlebach’s melodies, along with the profound spirituality behind them, that drew Madof to his songs.
Madof grew up in a secular Jewish home in Philadelphia. When he and his wife decided on a Jewish wedding, they became increasingly drawn to the more traditional Jewish world. Today, the 39-year-old Madof is a traditionally observant Jew living in White Plains with his wife and three children. And marrying — if you’ll pardon the expression — Shlomo and Fela.
Compared to the trio format of Rashanim, Madof’s role in Zion80 is more demanding and more complicated. He willingly acknowledges the change.
“I would never have thought I’d be presumptuous enough to ‘conduct’ a band,” he says with a laugh. “At the beginning I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to write charts for five horns or to conduct them. But I feel like I’m getting a handle on the conducting thing, and I don’t worry about the voicings [in the horn section]. I just make the music sound the best it can to me, and ask the horn players what adjustments need to be made.”
And he keeps coming back to the initial inspirations, Fela and Shlomo. That seems to work just fine.