BY JENNIFER KELLY
You don’t even realize the show has started until it has. Sometime in the complicated set-up for EMEFE – 10 players, two drum stations, stacked keyboards, two guitars, a bass, a four-man horn line — all the shaker gourds have disappeared. Now towards the stairs that lead down to the bathroom, a syncopated beat has started to pound, a snaky conga line has formed, the bell-ends of trumpet, trombone and two saxophones are swinging side-to-side as the non-plugged in members of EMEFE swagger in to “Stutter,” the opening track from their self-released album, Good Future. People in the audience are already sucked in to a swaying, blatting, stop-start Afro-beat groove before they have time to think about it. You can’t imagine how a sound this large – forget that, a band this large – will fit on the tiny Iron Horse stage. In fact, they’re taking up most of the dance floor, stomping and shaking in a circle, horns facing inward, a bleating, fluttering, agitated sound rising out of the center.
EMEFE takes over a mostly home-town crowd. People who have manifestly come to see the Valley funksters in Mammal Dap, whose fusion-y, lite-jazz-y set has come to life, right at the end, with the addition of a singer. He’s a slight, cowlicked, shirt-and-tie’d young man who erupts into large-scale classic soul – think Al Green without the raspish low-end growl. His voice is maybe a little too clean for straight R&B, but it’s a powerful thing and when he gets going, the swoops and swivels and sighs are little like Jeff Buckley. He must be a recent addition, since he’s not listed on Mammal Dap’s bandcamp page, but he’s a good one, maybe the element that will lift this foursome from jam band noodlers into real threats.
It’s not easy to hold onto another band’s well-wishers, the aunts, uncles, moms, dads, school friends and girlfriends who have come for Mammal Dap, but I think that EMEFE retains a good number of them by sheer force of positivity. This is a relentlessly upbeat, high-energy show, one that has everyone moving, even and maybe especially, the musicians themselves.
A bit of background. EMEFE is the brainchild of one Miles Arntzen, rail thin but with a wide smile, who started the band while still a student at NYU. Arntzen had EMEFE up and running even before he started drumming for Antibalas. Like that more famous outfit, Emefe wears its love for Afro-Beat on the outside, echoing Fela’s jittery, interlocking rhythms, its sharp, staccato guitar lines, and lush horn melodies. This is an impossibly large ensemble, at least according to modern touring economics, but also impossibly tight and skilled. I would guess that the name, EMEFE, is a play on MFA (or master’s of fine arts), and I would also guess that several band members either have or are getting one. I was taken, especially, with the trumpet player, Michael Fatum, who held one note for what seemed like over a minute, and whose tone was beautifully clear, clean and eerie, and by the tenor sax player Jas Walton, who toyed with the abstractions of free jazz but came back, always, to the groove.
Both drummers were excellent, Arntzen, in full-body motion as he walloped out his beats, leaning from side to side so that his body curved into a c-shape, arms flailing to shoulder height. When there was a break in his drum kit duties once, he sprang off the stage at a run, circling the dance floor in a wild aerobic dance, then vaulting up the stairs to take up sticks again. Javier Ramos, just as good if rather less antic, layered multi-tonal, multi-ethnic intricacies into the band’s rhythms, pounding congas, shaking gourds and pounding cowbells. Towards the end, a young man crowd-surfed his way to the stage, was pressed into service on the congas and did, I thought, remarkably well. (He may have been a ringer.) This allowed Ramos to grab a mic and lead the audience in a group scream, two of them actually, the second impressively loud.
This is a band that works incredibly hard onstage – to the point where the live show is really a lot better than the bandcamp stream of Good Future (not that the stream is bad, but go see the show). Yet I would say that no one works as hard as the two guys at the center of the stage Arntzen, whom I’ve already described and Doug Berns, the bass player. Berns gets a long solo at one point, a churning, pounding locomotive train of low-end, and you hear how good he is, how quick, how powerful, how light a touch he can have and how large an impact. Still even when you can’t distinguish the bassline from the general groove, he is fun to watch, leaning into the big notes, bouncing on his feet, pulling Hendrix-y faces over particularly striking lines. He is a total showman, but the rhythm section in this band is always dead-on, regardless of theatrics.
The show ends the way it begins, with the horn line strutting off into the crowd, the audience expecting it, celebrating it this time, exhausted (it’s 1:30 by now), sweaty, and transported. I have not been to a show this good in some time. If you get the chance (and if you don’t live within a couple hundred miles of Brooklyn you may not), go see this band.
[Top photo: Matt Loops; live photo by Matthew Shephard-Lupo; both courtesy the band’s Facebook page.]