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Elikeh: Music From Togo to D.C.

Adje! Adje! explores the personal odysseys of Africans abroad.

September 3, 2010

Adje! Adje! explores the personal odysseys of Africans abroad.

The band Elikeh’s newest album, Adje! Adje!, puts a distinctly West African spin on the Afro-beat form, using traditional Togolese polyrhythms as a point of departure. The band ventures through many musical side streets, from blues to rock-guitar solos, from brassy funk to Parisian banlieue rap.

On the opening track — "Adje! Adje!" (Never Ever Again!) — bandleader Massama Dogo faces down the corruption and poverty that blight his homeland of Togo and many African states. In a politically charged plea, the singer sounds a 21st century call to action against the financial and moral ransack of the continent. "People are trapped between governments and corporations," Dogo says. "Africans in particular are being used and abused."

Despite such weighty subject matter, Adje! Adje! (Azelea City recordings) is an engaging and entertaining collection that strikes universal human notes about solidarity and exile.

If the music is firmly rooted in Togo — elikeh means rootedness in a local African dialect — the flexible ebullience of musicians from diverse backgrounds stirs a rich global gumbo.

The international cast in Elikeh moves seamlessly between styles, from an Afro-beat grounding to an affecting African-in-exile blues. Continental drift has rarely sounded funkier.

Even the local roots of Elikeh's music have been indirectly influenced by global forces that have shaped Togo's past, namely colonization and tribal Diaspora. The track "Novi Nye" is adapted from a kamou rhythm from northern Togo. In this case, the bell that would normally be used throughout the song is used sporadically.

Meanwhile, the song "Obleblemi" is based on the rhythm called abadja — a call-and-response rhythm from the south. However, abadja has a closely related, some would say identical, form in Ghana, called agbakor.

Dogo explains: "On "Oleblemi," abadja is the call-and-response rhythm, but it's the same as agbakor — this is just what it is called in Ghana. It's the same rhythm because the Ewe people are the same tribal people in both Ghana and Togo. They just got divided by European mapmakers.

"People say Togo doesn't have much indigenous traditional music, but that's just because Togo is so small that its traditional music — which is basically tribal — was already absorbed into surrounding countries. You can't put borders around music."

The rich mix of influences on Adje! Adje! proves that this applies even more today in the globalized world of the 21st century.

Massama Dogo came to the U.S. capital in 2000 to forge a musical career beyond the tiny West African country of Togo. He has since carved out a niche in the city's vibrant African music scene by tapping into the little-known cultural roots of his homeland.

If Afro-beat propels Elikeh's sound, Dogo salts the songs with local styles. "Novi Nye" (My Brother) starts with the interlocking bell-and-drum pattern of the kamou, before a sanguine flute sound adds air to the track's earthiness.

But America also seasons the musical mix in a burst of guitar reverb. This gives an urgent edge to the lyrics' uplifting call for unity among Togo's ethnic and political groups. This seamless switch from West African roots to the blues — and its baby, rock ‘n’ roll — is a constant thread throughout the CD.

Dogo also spices the CD with forms more familiar in downtown D.C. than Lomé. "Oleblemi" is a song with a distinctive highlife groove, but both this track and "Get Ready" feature hard-hitting funk-rock with distorted guitar solos from veteran John Lee.

Spectacular shards of guitar also propel the imperative of "Let's March," courtesy of the rhythmic grind of Frank Martins, who played on the original version of the song by Nigerian songwriter Orlando Julius Ekemonde.

Martin's virtuosity also illuminates "Aiko," which uses a slowed-down version of a style from Southern Togo called tumewe, again with the call and response of the agbekor rhythm.

While the media in Africa and America continue to favor Ghanaian hip-life, Congolese Soukous and Ivorian Zouglou music, Elikeh's music, on this their second CD, has deep enough local roots to support any branch of world music they care to incorporate.

In a song like "Get Ready," we get Spanish guitar on a cool groove — and we get the brass stabs of Clayton Englar and Aaron Pratts interwoven with lush licks of African guitar that sound straight from Soweta. We get whistles, the ubiquitous call and response routine adding drama to the song's dynamic — and all the while Tosin Aribisala chops out the funkiest drumming south of The Roots' "Questlove" Thompson.

Massama Dogo grew up the son of a long-time Togolese government minister and he risked familial wrath to speak out against institutionalized corruption and greed. In music too, he rarely took the easy option: He defied his father by choosing the guitar over the one-stringed African lute called a tchimo.

Later, when he fronted a student band at the University of Lomé, he clashed with contemporaries who wanted favored Western standards by bands like the Scorpions and the Rolling Stones, or popular African music from anywhere but Togo. Dogo satisfied himself by creating music based on indigenous traditions such as the upbeat skank of agbadja.

When he moved abroad, the artist recognized the effects of mass media's cultural erosion on the lives of the scattered masses of Africans in America, Europe and elsewhere. "Africans need to learn again to become Africans," he states in soft-spoken, warm West African tones.

"They need to know who they are. Kids in Europe forget about their culture. If an African kid doesn't speak his language, he loses his identity. Africans are trying to live like Europeans and Americans — and they are quickly losing their culture."

Emigration was the melting pot from which he forged his artistic identity. The émigré found himself in a linguistic limbo in Washington, D.C., his local African dialects as redundant in daily life as his other tongue, French, the language of Togo's colonizers.

Despite record company pressure to sing in English, Dogo resolved to embrace his Togolese patois as a distinctive voice in a world gone monolinguistic. His hybrid dialect adds local resonance to songs about universal disenfranchisement.

Just as the singer's creolized African and European dialect can convey the discombobulation of the African diaspora, so the mix of musical influences creates a disconcerting yet intoxicating brew ("You can't put borders around music," he says).

On the track "Jondji," a poor man's rhumba with roots in the Congolese Soukous, the singer — in a seductive mix of Mina and French — begs his woman to forget the world's troubles and dance. With its sunny brass stabs and playful call and response, few could resist these six minutes of sweat-drenched dance music.

Dogo sings, as he speaks, in a melodic mix of English, French, Ewe and Mina — a blend that adds a global knowing to these songs of exile, longing and protest.

Occasionally, on a song like "Let's March," the mass-market language of 21st century global citizenship is used to universalize the message of solidarity:

Let's Move On my friends,
From London to D.C., ebony and ivory,
Because we got no choice.

With its Togolese and West African roots, Dogo's latest tower of song is manned by a United Nations of musicians, a crew drawn mainly from the modern-day Babel of the Washington music scene.

Dogo's band includes Africans, Americans and even a Chinese-Irishman. "But we are a band who all believe in what we do," he says of a group whose live schedule has included fundraisers for Amnesty International, Dafour and The Enough Project (a campaign that aims to stop the use of rape as a war tactic in Congo).

At the end of many global music highways and byways, Adje! Adje! takes an unexpected final leap, from rhumba to rap. Dogo admits that rap is not his natural métier, but admires the direction it has taken in Africa.

He cites Senegal as a scene where artists like Didier Awadi have steered the lyrical form clear of the standard bitchin' and braggin' that now passes for so much Western rap.

"Most African rap is socially oriented," he says. "It's not about the fact that I've got better bling than you, it's about having a social conscience."

The social conscience of the colonized is shaded with a powerful poignancy on the CD's standout closer, “Madjo.” The song is an African exile's lament for a homeland left behind in the pursuit of Western dreams and illusions.

Massama's chorus plays off a rapped Crie de Coeur, a story of statelessness voiced in Parisian street French by Malian rap star Yeli Fuzzo.

The lyric's wish for a return to an African homeland is echoed in mournful minor guitar chords. The rap ballad takes many of the CD's themes of alienation, exploitation and anger, and gives them a purely personal context.

It's a touching, soulful shift from major to minor, from the political to the personal, ending Adje! Adje! with a sense of longing and loss that linger beyond Fuzzo's sadly rapped words of hard-earned wisdom.

Massama Dogo jokingly refers to Elikeh's lively mix of 70s-style Afro-rock and 21st century Afro-beat, highlife and West African roots rock as "Afro-high." It's as good a label as any for the compelling sound of a band that has transcended the need for any such musical labels or stylistic pigeon-holing.

This is music beyond borders. La Musique Sans Frontiers. In the age of mass media and mass movement, Elikeh's roots remain deep in the rich polyrhythmic earth of West Africa. But Adje! Adje! is the bold statement of a musician with his ear to the global whirl and a band that matches his ambition to challenge many of its contradictions.


This is music beyond borders. <i>La Musique Sans Frontiers</i>. In the age of mass media and mass movement, we experience the rich polyrhythmic earth of West Africa.

Massama Dogo grew up the son of a long-time Togolese government minister and defied his father by choosing the guitar.

"Africans are trying to live like Europeans and Americans — and they are quickly losing their culture."

The singer sounds a 21st century call to action against the financial and moral ransack of Africa. "People are trapped between governments and corporations."

With its Togolese and West African roots, Dogo's latest CD is manned by a United Nations of musicians.