[AFROPOP MEETS KING OF POP] When Michael Jackson died in June, every musician who had ever attempted a moonwalk stormed the stage for tribute shows, playing straight covers of “Beat It” and “Thriller.”
For local jazz-pop wunderkind Ben Darwish, that wasn’t enough.
“I’d kind of gotten sick of tribute shows,” says Darwish. “People do it straight up, and it’s a kind of cheap way to get people out to see you play.” Darwish wanted a true tribute, from one musician to another. So the classically trained 25-year-old pianist and composer reimagined the King of Pop’s work through the ears of Afrobeat master Fela Kuti for a Time-Based Art Festival show that wowed 500 listeners. Now, after hundreds of hours penning arrangements for a 10-piece band, Darwish brings his Afrobeat MJ tribute to the Goodfoot. He’s assembled a dream team of jazz and Afrobeat talent to nail every beat, including members of his funk group Commotion, vocalists Gretchen Mitchell and Tahirah Memory, a full horn section and master percussionist Neindow Mashud, a regular player with worldbeat guru Obo Addy.
Days before the show, Darwish is maniacally penning new arrangements and promising a night of explosive, primal dance. Aside from “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”—which borrows the “mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-coo-sa” chant from Afrobeat luminary Manu Dibango—Jackson’s intricate pop songs don’t bear much resemblance to Afrobeat’s repetitious grooves. To restructure them as Afrobeat, Darwish stripped them to the bones.
“Afrobeat’s a cyclical form that’s over one bass line for, like, 20 minutes. There’s a ton of chords on MJ songs. I had to delete all those,” says Darwish. “But there’s a lot of stuff people can hold onto, like lyrics, melody, bass lines. I’ve taken parts of melodies and put them over different chords and added tons of new material.” Darwish has grafted some songs to Afrobeat classics, including a mashup of “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and Fela Kuti’s “Expensive Shit.”
More obscure songs like “Blood on the Dance Floor” are imbued with the West African pulse. More familiar songs are presented as call-and-response chants, while others are presented as pulsing instrumentals. It’s an admittedly ambitious project, especially given the sacred nature of the songs. But if anybody can pull it off, it’s Darwish, whose commitment to authenticity, musical discipline and un-fakeable funk permeates each measure. “I took it to the point where some of the songs, you can’t even tell they’re Michael Jackson songs,” he says. “People might be surprised, but they won’t be disappointed. Hopefully we’ll even open people’s minds.”
SEE IT: Ben Darwish’s Afrobeat Tribute to Michael Jackson goes off the wall Saturday, Dec. 26, at the Goodfoot. 9 pm. $10. 21+