The Opposition Party is a 10-piece ensemble comprised of talented music aficionados John Knecht (percussion), Danny Howard (percussion), Bryan "Rez" Resendiz (drums), Michael Weimann (bass), Jason Kaulas (guitar), Joshua Siegal (keys), Jake Worley-Hood (trumpet), Joshua "Shap" Shapiro (tenor sax), Andy Peplinski (trombone) and Joshua Therriault (baritone sax). For the past year they've worked tirelessly toward synthesizing African rhythms with reggae and dub influences, and so far the results have been sublime. Their brand of afrobeat clearly pulls from legends like Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Tony Allen and Thomas Mapfumo (in addition to many others), but as a whole they've continued to impress with a sound all unto themselves.
They've performed at a number of venues throughout Chicago (Martyrs, Chopin Theatre, The Whistler and Reggie's, to name a few), and with a live album already under their belt it appears they're already looking to make a permanent stamp on the local music scene. They'll also play a free show at The Whistler on October 7 for a show. Centerstage corresponded with The Opposition Party via e-mail to chat about everything from the band's brief history together to its take on how powerful a genre afrobeat can be.
You have quite an ensemble, how did you all meet?
We formed a few years back when a bunch of us had been in another project, working on learning some Fela and Thomas Mapfumo material. We went different ways, but eventually a few of us found ourselves without a project at the same time, and all still interested in playing African and reggae music. So it was just kind of continuing what we'd been up to before, and gradually adding pieces that fit.
For example, our bass player and keyboard player met in an African band years before and randomly ran into each other in the music wing of the Harold Washington Library downtown. One of our percussionists joined the project after a band member tried to buy his talking drum at a store performance, only to realize that not only was the drum not for sale, but the drummer was a familiar face as well.
Can you take me back to your first performance together?
Our first performance as the full ensemble was a fundraiser in April 2009, playing to help raise money for the Cause & Affect Foundation. We set up in a wing of the Primitive Gallery in the West Loop, which was hosting the event. It was a really nice night great cause, beautiful space full of all of these artifacts from all over the world, a Buddhist meditation room - lots of wood and gorgeous shapes, which made for a really pretty acoustic environment, and that worked out well because we brought a mobile multi-track recording rig and put down the tracks for our album/demo, "Live at Primitive" (which you can download here). In retrospect, its kind of hard to believe we decided to multitrack our first performance, but it helps when you have a guitar player who is also a sound engineer and can tweak levels while playing guitar, so it worked out.
You all have deep resumes and extensive knowledge in your respective crafts, what was it about the genre of afrobeat that spoke to you guys?
When we were starting to get into these tunes as what would become the nexus of the group, it seems like there was a bit of a growing awareness of Fela in particular, especially with groups like Antibalas and Chicago Afrobeat Project coming out. But the more you get into it, the more you realize that, for example, James Brown was influenced by Fela. Talking Heads were influenced by Fela. The list goes on. And one thing that we have been really into is the way that the influence goes both ways, with African and Jamaican musicians very aware of what was going on in the states during those periods. So, possibly what's real is the inspiration and musical ideas transferring around the world, and what's artificial is this idea that things fit into categories or labels. With afrobeat, it's so closely tied with some aesthetics that our ears are used to and Fela sings many of his songs in English, so possibly afrobeat is like a gateway drug. But at the same time, we were also delving into Mapfumo and things like that.
You cite Fela Kuti and Tony Allen (amongst others) as sources of inspiration. Do you think Fela's political message still resonates today?
Well, the name of our band is The Opposition Party, and when we're together and not playing, we're usually talking politics. It would be hard to envision a period in history where a message of wariness of the government, wariness of those in power would not resonate. Most of us in the U.S. are not living in a situation where the government is throwing our family members out of windows (as happened to Fela in Nigeria), but consider that after the financial meltdown in 2008, Nigeria put the heads of its banks in jail, while we put ours in the government. So yeah, maybe the message gets more important all the time.
What do you think about Fela on Broadway? Having Antibalas involved is a nice touch.
We were very excited to see that, and hopefully many more people are aware of the sound because of that production. Also, the choreography was done by Bill T. Jones, so we're definitely looking forward to seeing that at some point. Antibalas is a great choice, but we're hoping if they decide to do a run in Chicago, they'll give us a call.
Afrobeat as a genre has a rich history, but here in America it's still a relatively new experience. What's the reception been like so far for you guys?
The reception has generally been great, but you can definitely tell when you are getting an audience of people who are unused to the sound. It can be more of an appreciation than a participation in some cases, where what we're looking for is total participation by the audience in creating the vibe, the motion of bodies, the transfer of energy around the room. We try to get the music off the stage and under people's feet, under their butts. The music is restless, so it's great when the room is too.
Where have you performed so far, and are there any standout moments for you?
We've performed around Chicago, so we've been doing the club and festival thing. We really enjoyed playing World Music Day at the Taste of Chicago last summer, and thanks to all the people who showed up to dance! Also, we just did a gig at Martyrs with Euforquestra, out of Colorado, and that was a lot of fun because the vibes of the two bands jelled so nicely. Another really special gig this year was performing with the DePaul African Ensemble at the DePaul Concert Hall. We had dozens of percussionists on stage with us for the final number, and we got to watch one of our percussionists, John Knecht, trade rhythms with Avo Randruut, who teaches the ensemble for DePaul. That was a really positive event in a beautiful space.
As a whole, how has Chicago embraced your sound?
We're just getting ourselves known a bit, so that's a really tough question to answer. We do a lot of different things, from dub to soul reggae to afrobeat to Ethiopian jazz to Chimurenga, other West African styles, and occasionally even some straight up funk we like to mix it up. So there's a bit of a learning curve there, both in terms of what we do and in what works we're always honing, always moving forward, always experimenting. The response has been pretty positive, but as for embracing the sound, there are a lot of different types of music to go experience in Chicago, and we're still getting on the map a bit.
What can we expect from you guys in the future? Is there a full length in sight?
We're in the midst of planning some Midwest excursions, and finding more places where we can have that great balance of intimate and spacious enough for a 10-piece band. We're really looking forward to playing the Whistler in Logan Square. Then there's Reggie's Music Joint in December, and we just added a special set with Soulphonetics, resident DJs at the Butterfly Social Club, which should be very loose and experimental. Our demo is really more of a live album, and that's 12 tracks, but of course, we're always writing, so look out for an album of original music too.