A whole new world for Franz Ferdinand

They took many by surprise when they joined Africa Express in Liverpool last week. Now Franz Ferdinand tell Elisa Bray they have fallen under the spell of Afrobeat
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The Independent Culture

When Franz Ferdinand took to the stage at the Africa Express show in Liverpool last week, and brought to life one of the best known songs of the night so far, their breakthrough hit "Take Me Out", the infectious and distinctive sound, paired for the occasion with vocals from the legendary Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, was still a collaboration firmly rooted in Glasgow.

But on their second song, the Malian ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté, Senegalese percussionists and the London rapper Kano joined in, and suddenly there was an entirely new feel. It was less like Franz Ferdinand adding African spice to their own indie music, and more like the art school rockers playing an African song. Their tight music had suddenly opened up and moved into a new dimension.

Afterwards, their guitarist, Nick McCarthy, was still buzzing from the musical experiments of a special night. He told me that the number was in fact the band's latest song. "We only wrote it a few days ago. We haven't recorded it yet."

So early was the creation that they hadn't even decided on an exact title. McCarthy thinks it's "Stay Tonight", but other band members told people that it could be called "Can't You Let Me Stay Tonight". "We've never played it live before, but we're glad everyone seemed to enjoy it, and the African musicians seemed to like it," says McCarthy.

It was, of course, the first time an audience had heard the song. And that was only one of a number of firsts for Franz Ferdinand, who had taken the day off from recording their upcoming third album in Glasgow, due out in October.

It was also the first time they had collaborated on the song – and the first time they had tried it out with African artists playing alongside them on African instruments. Kapranos says that their nerves were jangling more than normal, not least because of the lack of rehearsal before stepping out on stage. "We've never really done anything like this before on stage," he says. "It's great because you've no idea where the music is going or who is going to join in."

McCarthy, however, reveals that this is the direction that all of their music is following: "Our new songs have an African feel – the whole album does."

This is an unexpected change of direction for a band that famously set out to make music for girls to dance to. The Glasgow four-piece sprang onto the scene and the radio airwaves in 2004 with their second single "Take Me Out" (their debut single, "Darts of Pleasure", only reached No 33 in the charts). They went on to collect the Mercury Award for their self-titled debut album, and brought rock music to a new mainstream audience, breathing life into a British music scene that had become dominated by manufactured pop. Their signature brand of intelligent art rock pushed aside the boy bands in the charts and paved the way for the Kaiser Chiefs, The Zutons, The Futureheads and a whole host of other guitar groups.

Watch the video for Franz Ferdinand's hit single 'Take Me Out'





But Franz Ferdinand have always fused genres. They drew their early influences from the angular jerky guitar of post-punk Scottish indie bands The Fire Engines, Orange Juice and Josef K fused with the dance groves of the Gang of Four, combining dance with rock in their guitar riffs and without the use of sequencers and samples.

With a second album You Could Have it So Much Better released just a year later, and two Brit awards under their belts, they retained the jerky guitar sound while also referencing the sound of Bob Dylan.

So, well before African Express this was a band unafraid of genre-hopping. But why the African influence? McCarthy explains that the band have been listening to a lot of African music recently. "Afrobeat is the new thing. Ethiopian mixes are everywhere. We're getting really into it here."

Unlike many of the Western acts at the Africa Express show – Hard-Fi, the Magic Numbers, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly and Reverend and the Makers, to name but a few – this was Franz Ferdinand's first Africa Express experience. Kapranos had received a call from Damon Albarn asking the band to get involved, and, as with all 130 artists taking part, it was only on the day that the musicians joined up to prepare their collaborations.

Backstage at the Olympia, in a rabbit warren of rehearsal rooms, there were artists from all over the world meeting up and working out what songs to play. McCarthy explains how they met Maal and Kouyaté for the first time that evening, and showed them the chord progressions of their songs and what to play on their guitars. Maal was the one who requested their opener "Take Me Out", which they were originally not planning to play. But the Senegalese singer told them how much he adored the song and that he had been listening to it repeatedly on his journey up to Liverpool in preparation for the show.

But it is not just the daring live collaborations put on by Africa Express that are attracting attention. Some of the most exciting new bands of the moment are mixing indie music with Afrobeat. Most are emerging from across the Atlantic, in Brooklyn, where Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer and Dirty Projectors have led the trend.

Another Brooklyn band, Antibalas, are a 12-piece modelled on Fela Kuti's Africa 70 band and Eddie Palmieri's Harlem River Drive orchestra, using primarily Afrobeat styles, but also incorporating jazz, funk and dub over Cuban rhythms and traditional West African drumming. In the UK, there is the Oxford quintet Foals, who, among the techno pulse of their intricate guitar and drum beats, have given an Afrobeat feel to their new single "Cassius".

So why, I ask McCarthy, does he think there has been this sudden explosion of interest in African music? His reply is typically down to earth. "We must be fed up with British music!"

And after the legions of post-Libertines, post Arctic Monkeys outfits that have been springing up over the past few years, perhaps they're right. Afrobeat is not new to the history of Scottish indie rock: Orange Juice's drummer Zeke Manyika is from Zimbabwe and incorporated African rhythms into the band's music – sometimes even steel drums.

Then there's Albarn – one of the pioneers of Africa Express – who put Afrobeat into the mainstream with his supergroup The Good, The Bad and The Queen. The band's drummer Tony Allen, the legendary Nigerian percussionist and songwriter, can claim credit for founding the genre during his years alongside Fela Kuti.

I ask McCarthy which of the African musicians they were most excited about collaborating with, given that they'd just performed with some of the continent's greatest musicians. "Everyone says it, but it has to be Tony Allen," replies the guitarist. According to Kuti, "without Tony Allen there would be no Afrobeat", and both Albarn and Brian Eno are among those who have hailed the Nigerian as the greatest drummer who ever lived.

Africa Express has taken parties of Western musicians to Kinshasa in the Congo, and to Bamako, Mali's capital. Do Franz Ferdinand fancy a trip to Africa to explore the roots of their new musical direction further? "I've been to Morocco," McCarthy answers. "Paul's [Thompson, the band's drummer] been. I'd really like to go. We're hoping Damon asks us."

The band return to Glasgow to resume the new album. And they're leaving with a wealth of fresh inspiration from perhaps the most unlikely of sources.

CROSSING CONTINENTS: THE NEW AFROBEAT BANDS

Foals
Probably the most widely tipped band not yet to have released their debut album, the Oxford quintet Foals' Antidotes won't include their crowd-pleasing techno rock singles "Mathletics" and "Hummer"; instead, it will introduce Afro-beat, Nigerian percussion and guest horns from the New York band Antibalas.

Vampire Weekend
The biggest breakthrough of the new crop of African-influenced bands, Vampire Weekend combine Afrobeat, calypso, highlife and reggae grooves with indie rock. Ezra Koenig's African-influenced guitar charms the listener throughout the quartet's self-titled debut.

Yeasayer
The soi-disant "Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel" Brooklyn quartet released their debut All Hour Cymbals at the end of last year. It blends Seventies prog rock, psychedelia, Middle Eastern guitar, sitars and Afrobeat rhythms.

MIA
London-born rapper M.I.A., with her Sri Lankan roots, packs many musical influences into her second album Kala, from Afrobeat to tribal house, reggae, traditional Asian music, hip-hop and funk, a development on the baile funk and grime-heavy influence of her Mercury-nominated 2005 debut Arular.

Suburban Kids with Biblical Names
The Swedish four-piece's debut album #3 mixes tinny Afrobeat guitar, polyrhythmic African highlife, skiffle and electronica with 1960s-influenced indie pop.

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