Sankofa Electrofolk “Brings It Back” To Asheville
Maybe you’ve heard them while sipping chai at Dobra Tea, after a few beers at The Mothlight or in the performance space behind Static Age’s spread of punk and metal LPs. No matter where Sankofa Electrofolk plays, they seem right at home. With influences that span world folk traditions from Turkey to North Africa and beyond, Sankofa’s music evokes sounds that feel familiar, even if you can’t put a finger on where you’ve heard them before. Firmly rooted in traditional folk music, the group has spent the last two years electrifying Asheville in its exploration of what the term “folk” really means.
At their live shows, it means dancing—and lots of it. Members Aaron Kaczmarek, Chukk Bruursema, Ben Colvin and Ryan Oslance are as committed to getting audiences out of their seats as they are in doing justice to the subtleties of global music. I caught them at the Mothlight in September and was surprised to find just how much their live show has in common with rock performances: they took the stage at 11, playing past midnight for fans who’d already spent hours drinking, socializing and getting their groove on to Les Amis, a West African fusion group. Sankofa amplified the energy to a fever pitch, and it was clear that many had come out for the sheer pleasure of moving their body to Sankofa’s wild, interlocking string sections and dynamic percussions.
The performance was both heavier and more joyful than what their recordings had me ready for, demonstrating their flair for bringing colorful tones from the 60’s along with heavy metal to already-complex styles. Percussionist Ryan Oslance identifies psychedelic rock as a major inspiration; indeed, songs such as “El Milagro Verde,” an intricate dialogue between bass and lead guitar, calls to mind the Grateful Dead as it pays homage to its Peruvian roots. Other tracks, such as “Rompi Rompi,” display a fierce fidelity to the legacies that interest them – “Rompi” is sung in its original Turkish and performed with an asymmetrical rhythm more common to Eastern European than Western folk. That degree of complexity might turn dancers away, but fans don’t mind: “People seem to find their own groove within it,” says Oslance of his drumming, which frequently veers off into unusual time signatures. They proudly bill themselves as a “world music dance party,” and they deliver.
“I really do consider the people that support us and come out to our shows to be the other half of the band—the energy they bring is that integral.”
With such a far-ranging background, I was curious about how all four members found each other. Sankofa is in part the brainchild of Aaron Kaczmark, a music prodigy and local luminary who’s devoted more than a decade to exploring art music from all corners of the globe. Aaron began an ethno-world music series at Dobra Tea along with Bruursema, playing for tea drinkers happily ensconced among décor well-suited to such exploratory music. One day he invited Oslance, a longtime fan of his work, to join them. Sankofa took off as this trio, recently adding saxophonist Ben Colvin to the mix. Defined by eclecticism, all members are gifted in a number of creative disciplines that extend beyond sound to include technical and fine visual arts. When he’s not mastering instruments such as the Chinese pipa and Afghani rebab, Kaczmarek develops websites and graphic art projects; Bruursema is a sculptor, lighting designer and photographer.
Asheville is an ideal home for these creative polymaths. Here, they are not only surrounded by a network of like-minded artists but are welcomed by locals known to embrace such unrestrained experimentation. Of course, much has changed in town since Kaczmarek first began investigating global music. As Asheville tourism has boomed, its homegrown subcultures have shifted significantly, and it seems that its longtime artists are experiencing the growing pains felt by any urban scene hit with a wave of newcomers. I asked Kaczmarek for his thoughts on how being a musician in Asheville has changed from when he started. “What I remember most then is a feeling that Asheville really belonged to its locals,” he wrote. “I think that feeling is slipping away for a lot of people who have lived here for some time.” Oslance recalls what it was like nine years ago, when he moved the region to play with instrumental math-rock group Ahleuchatistas. “Then, the scene was pretty small, and it was easy enough to get to know the core members of each subscene,” he said. He also reflected on how having such a close-knit network of dedicated musicians made it easy to play in various genres across the city. It’s no secret that the influx of tourist-targeted bars and hotels, along with proposed restrictions on busking, have evoked frustration among those with a stake in the city’s freewheeling creative world. However, as Aaron points out, “change can either push you to complain or adapt,” and takes pride in the fact that local musicians have negotiated such challenges with style: “Compared to 10 years ago,” he wrote, “I think the Asheville music scene has grown to be a much more professional environment to work in.”
Though a development away from the grassroots may have some concerned about its future, the local music scene maintains an energy that is very much its own. As a newcomer myself, I’ve been struck by the sense of unity palpable at so many different shows in town; many of the city’s sonic aficionados appear to not only love live performances, but see them as integral to their spiritual wellness. On his website, Kaczmarek writes of the relationship he imagines between music, spirituality and communal healing, and spoke eloquently of the place he sees Sankofa Electrofolk occupying therein: “For me,” he wrote, “folk arts are all about a shared experience—a moment with the divine. If there’s one mission I have with Sankofa, it’s to capture and convey that spirit.”
Their show at the Mothlight was almost akin to a tent revival in its sheer joy and fervor. With this in mind, it was interesting to hear Kaczmarek’s affirmation of his intention to foster communal transcendence among his bandmates and fans. “There’s a distinction between musicians that entertain from a stage and musicians that acts as catalysts for a collective experience,” he wrote. “I really do consider the people that support us and come out to our shows to be the other half of the band—the energy they bring is that integral.”
Given their unplanned growth from a sporadic collaborative effort to a firmly-established band, it’s clear that audiences must have voiced a solid appreciation for Sankofa from the get-go. Oslance notes that they were popular from their early shows at Dobra, and they show no signs of slowing down. As for what comes next, members are excited about the possibility of a studio recording – while there are no official plans, the advent of Colvin’s saxophone stylings has their music fully fleshed out, and Oslance hinted a record might not be too far away. Meanwhile, Oslance and Colvin develop their sound with the Flamenco-focused Juan Benavides Group, which is beginning a weekly spot on Wednesdays at the Mill Room. And Oslance’s group Ahleuchatistas just released a new album; they’ll be playing a release party at the Mothlight on November 20th.
Such grueling schedules might wear these hardworking virtuosos down, but their commitment to values both creative and service-oriented keeps the energy levels high. Sankofa’s music is so absorbing that it’s easy to forget the fact that they’re carrying musical traditions much older than that of typical Friday-night fare, but honoring heritage is their raison d’etre. At once urgent and contemplative, their sounds remind fans of the capacity of music to transport individuals beyond time and place. The name “Sankofa” was taken from a Ghanian proverb encouraging the remembrance of the past in order to build a better future; it is with this enlightened ideal that Sankofa Electrofolk brings its journey across continents and generations to the diversity of music venues that call Asheville home.
Emma Stamm is a writer and web developer based in Asheville; you can find more of her work here