Immigré makes quick work of its “Ali Shuffle” EP

The Madison band plays October 12 at the North Street Cabaret.

The Madison band plays October 12 at the North Street Cabaret. (Photo by Seventh Sense Media.)

Immigré is a 10-piece band drawing on musical traditions that tend to invite improvisation and stretching out at length—funk, Afrobeat, and jazz—but its debut EP, Ali Shuffle, takes a nimble and concise approach. Its three original compositions (recorded during sessions that will eventually yield a full-length album), all clocking in at around four minutes, pack in a variety of rhythmic feels and fleet melodies, all built around layers of drumkit and hand percussion, prickly palm-muted guitar, and a horn section that flows gracefully between ensemble bursts and conversational solos. The Madison band’s next show is on October 12 at the North Street Cabaret.

“I feel like keeping these songs succinct was a way for us to keep ourselves, as well as the listener, more engaged over time,” says Immigré’s bassist, Ryan Lammey. “We were more keen to get these various ideas out into the world in small enough packages where they wouldn’t be off-putting to a casual listener or maybe someone not familiar with Afrobeat. Oftentimes we will expand on these tunes with improvisation in our live shows, but for our purposes now, it was more important to us to have something that captured our range as a group.”

From the attempt to evoke a boxer’s quick footwork on the title track to the swinging slow burn on “Unstable Element,” the tracks on the EP reflect a collaborative and patient songwriting process. There are always plenty of layers at work in this song, but they’ve been gradually honed down into lean and kinetic forms. 

“We’d just play around with different grooves until we found one we liked, then we let it marinate for about six months, then someone or a few people would add horn lines to it. Slow-cooked grooves,” says percussionist Paddy Cassidy. (Full disclosure: Cassidy is working on an unrelated video project with Tone Madison.) “Obviously with 10 people you’re going to have a lot of influences. But ours all sort of convergence on this. [Guitarist Matt Manske] and I went to Mali back in 2011 to study music and he came back with some very unique guitar tricks.”

Lammy explains that a lot of the songs grew from improvised rehearsals that the band would record and listen back to. “We would then reconvene and discuss what parts we liked or how we could improve what we didn’t like,” Lammey says. “I remember listening to the jam that would eventually birth ‘Ali Shuffle’ distinctly and being hit with the horn line right away. I sang it, very poorly, in my phone so I wouldn’t forget it, then transcribed it to paper. I brought that to our next rehearsal, the horn players tidied it up a bit and wrote harmonies. Then they wrote another few horn lines, we tweaked each instrument’s parts to fit together better, and then we worked out the form and voila! An Immigré song was born.”

Just about all of Immigré’s members have performed with musicians including kamale n’goni player Tani Diakite, percussionist Mandjou Mara, and percussionist/choreographer Ebi Gbordzi, but Immigré is walking a fine line here, drawing heavily on various elements of West African music and respectfully recontextualize them. Immigré does call itself an Afrobeat band, but Cassidy admits that’s a hairy proposition. 

“To be honest, I think it’s kind of a stretch to even refer to us as an Afrobeat band, even though our sound is largely derivative of Afrobeat,” Cassidy says. “Probably afrofunk is more accurate, but that’s not a very common term. A lot of Afrobeat bands claim to seek to carry on the legacy of Fela Kuti… which I think, for us, would be a little silly. Fela already has his sons carrying on his legacy. We don’t need to attempt to do that.”

The band strikes that balance of honoring but not rehashing (or crassly appropriating) particularly well on the EP’s closing track, “Jakumaba.” The rhythm here is brisk and slippery, and each musician attacks it with a sharp sense of when to expand and when to hold back. Guitarists Manske and Michael Kelly get into a sprightly call-and-response with the horn section. Closer to the end of the track, the horns Jamie Kember on trombone, Paul Dietrich on trumpet, Bryan Elliott on baritone sax, and Tony Barba on tenor sax) get into a thrilling, darting exchange that just barely flirts with the joyous chaos of free jazz. Again, the band is packing a lot into a short time span, and giving the listener a variety of ways to get drawn into the groove.

“For me, our main goal is to make people dance,” Cassidy says. “Which may seem frivolous on the surface, but for me it’s really important. For me music and dance has a magical, spiritual quality that unites us and I believe it’s a way to create peace, even just for a short while.”

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