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Exploring The Roots of The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra

Written by Daniel Clarke on May 19, 2010

The first thing one notices about the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra is their sheer size. The inclusion of fifteen or more members immediately evokes images of logistical nightmares on the road. I asked Tim DeLaughter from the Polyphonic Spree recently how he managed to find the money to tour with a similarly large ensemble, and he admitted that it was in large part due to some sort of corporate sponsorship.

The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra have so far managed to avoid such associations, bringing their afro-beat inspired funk sound to audiences across the country with their own funding, although with their developing links to the scene in Africa, you’ve got to wonder how long that will last.

That being said, it seems their African contemporaries, and especially relatives of the late pioneer of afro-beat Fela Kuti, have really started to connect with the Melbourne locals. It’s a burgeoning relationship that has yielded some exciting cameos on their debut album Do Anything Go Anywhere, with Tumi (South Africa) and Modenine (Nigeria) lending their skills to the release.

It’s quite an exciting, and envious position for a band that should by all rights still be finding their feet to be in, and it seems it’s only going to get bigger from here.

Turntablist Ethan Hill spoke with Tim Poulton to discuss the consequences of such a large roster, the connections certain lead members of the band have made with African musical heavyweights in their recent trip to the continent, and their upcoming show in Sydney on May 28th.

Music Feeds: There are not many bands that can boast fifteen plus members, so I can understand why you refer to yourselves as an afro ‘orchestra’. Do you ever encounter any problems on the road that other four or five piece bands would never have to experience?

Ethan Hill: Well, I think that it’s not so much we face different problems, it’s just they are on a different scale. Just imagine you had to get four blokes onto a 6am flight, when one might have gone to breakfast already and another might still be making his way back from last night and all the things that could go wrong there. And then when you get home you have to organise a time to rehearse when everyone is free. And now imagine you had to that same thing with sixteen people. As basic mathematics suggest, there’s about four times the potential for chaos lobbing into any given situation, which is just the way we like it.

And having said that though, no matter where we are at – it’s always a party. There’s so many people from so many different walks of life in the group and everyone is always so genuinely excited to be playing with the band that it’s always ball whenever we all get together.

MF: I read that some of the members of the band recently travelled to Africa to promote the new single and recorded with some African hip hop artists. Can you tell us a little about that experience?

EH: It was pretty damned amazing really – the three band directors (Tristan, Zvi and myself) went on our own pilgrimage in search of good music, dusty old records and the spirit of Fela. First we went to South Africa where amongst many other things we met up with African rap star Tumi and recorded vocals for three tracks that feature on our new album. From there we went to Lagos, the capital of Nigeria and home of afro-beat. We had been in contact with MC Modenine through Tumi and he acted as an unofficial tour guide as well as contributing the opening verse on the album (alongside Terry Tha Rapman, also a Lagos native).

Modenine introduced us to a radio presenter who insisted we come on his show so we got to play our single at the time ‘Future Africa’ across all of Nigeria. As soon as we finished we were being dragged across into the attached TV studio and prepped for air, which we previously knew nothing about. They ended up interviewing us for an MTV-style program, then the next day we had a serious sit down with the Lagos equivalent of Bert Newton and even a spot on the travel show. When we returned to our hotel the girls working there informed us of how many people had been watching us by mimicking a dance move we had been cajoled into, along with some general laughing and pointing – it was one of the biggest TV networks in Nigeria, a country of one hundred and fifty one million!

Bruised egos in check we took ourselves to The New Afrika Shrine at the invitation of Yeni Kuti, one of Fela’s daughters. The Shrine is the venue Fela established in the 70s and it’s still running today as a haven for the political agitators, thinkers, stoners and dancers of Lagos. The energy was electric in there and Zvi and Tristan were lucky enough to be asked up on stage to jam with Femi Kuti & The Positive Force. The next day we were invited to a BBQ at the Kuti house were I interviewed Femi for my radio show and we played soccer, swum and shared a few chicken wings with the whole Kuti clan. It was a pretty crazy end to an amazing trip.

MF: You are teaming up with Strides for your Sydney show at The Basement on Friday 28th May. I can imagine it is going to be an extremely energetic show. Do you have anything special planned for it?

EH: Well I think the fact that we are playing for the first time in Sydney itself will pretty special for us. We’re really stoked to be finally able get up there and launch our new record We had over seven hundred people to our Melbourne launch and it was an amazing night.

We are touring as a sixteen piece band and it’s a real visual spectacular with backup singers/dancers (including Kukuua and Lydia, mother/daughter combo originally hailing from Ghana), percussionists, a five piece horn section and MC 1/6, recent winner of the Hilltop Hoods Initiative grant.

It’ll be made an even better night by the fact that we are alongside The Strides – I caught them playing at Global Carnival and was well impressed; they really nailed the afro sound and I can’t wait to see them again. When we play a show we like to make a whole night of it so DJ Huwston and myself will keep the party going all night. Bring your dancing shoes!

MF: Your debut album Do Anything Go Anywhere must have been an interesting process to record. Were there any problems dealing with so many different artists with so many different skills?

EH: I guess the recording process itself wasn’t too difficult as everyone in the band was happy to give their time and played brilliantly but it did take a long time for us to mix the record and get the sound right. It’s not something that has been done too often in this country so there was a lot of trial and error and many nights-going-into-mornings propped up with a combination of scotch and energy drinks (not in the same glass if you don’t mind). The fact that we had so many people with so many different skills was a real plus for the record as it meant there was always something new and divergent appearing in every track, helping thirteen minute jams like ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ come alive with a constant evolution through the song. That song features vocal contributions from Lamine Sonko, David Marama, MCs 1/6 and Nfa (of 1200 Techniques fame – Ed.) as well as a crazy horn arrangement from Tristan Ludowyck.

The fact that there were such important international contributions to the record also presented it’s own unique challenges in fitting vocal takes to a band recorded (mostly) live. But from Johannesburg and Lagos to Brunswick it was a long and ultimately fulfilling process – we are really happy with how it turned out in the end and so far has been quite well received.

MF: Do you have any plans of promoting the album further in Africa?

EH: We would love to return to Africa, this time with the whole band in tow. Yeni Kuti extended an open invitation for us to play at Felabration – a music celebration of the life and times of Fela Kuti. It would an incredible experience to get the whole band there for that and play at The Shrine with afro-beat and afro-inspired bands from all around the world. Of course there are some logistical (mostly financial!) difficulties in making this happen but we really hope to make it happen one day.

In terms of collaborations, recording MC Tumi again is a must so visit to Africa for the directors is definitely on the cards for the next record. With the next trip we are hoping to work with the friends we have already made as well as incorporating a broader range of musicians and vocalists. Basically we feel we have opened a line of musical communication with Africa and we are not planning on closing it any time soon!

The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra play The Basement on Friday the 28th May, with support from Sydney locals The Strides. Their debut album Do Anything Go Anywhere is out now. Find it on iTunes.

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