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The Seven Ups express their love for Afrobeat

Like every year before it, WOMADelaide 2019 promises to be an incredibly expansive musical experience. 

This year’s lineup boasts a deep well of global talent spanning Palestine, India, Benin, South Africa, France, USA, New Zealand, Mali and beyond.

A range of Australian artists will also take part, from Mojo Juju to Tkay Maidza, Julia Jacklin to Mambali and Zephyr Quartet to Melbourne funk-jazz collective The Seven Ups.

“We’ve wanted to play WOMAD for years so we’re stoked to finally be on the lineup,” says guitarist and songwriter for The Seven Ups, Trent Sterling. “Of all the festivals, I think it’s got the most diverse lineup. There’s big names, kind of mainstream names, but then there’s the lesser known world-music artists.” 

It’s tough to pick a highlight from the long list of acts slated to appear at Adelaide’s Botanic Park over four days in March. Reeling off names like Fat Freddy’s Drop, Sona Jobarteh, Christine and the Queens, Angelique Kidjo, Liz Phair, Maalem Hamid El Kasri, DJ SAMA, Gwenno and Tara Tiba is barely scratching the surface. 

“I’m really stoked to see Ustad Ali Khan, the sarod player,” Sterling says. “I was in Mumbai a few weeks ago and he was playing a show but I missed out on tickets. So it’ll be great to see him and Khruangbin and Thando. I play [Khruangbin’s 2018 LP Con Todo El Mundo] on repeat, pretty much. It’s anytime music. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, it’s always appropriate.”

The Seven Ups’ inclusion on such a global lineup makes sense given their deep affection for ‘70s Nigerian music, namely revolutionary and Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti, as well as the likes of Ali Farka Touré (Mali) and Mulatu Astatke (Ethiopia). Sterling’s discovery of Kuti greatly stimulated his artistic ambitions.

“I can remember exactly when I first heard Fela on PBS,” he says. “It was on Flight 1067 to Africa. Every year [Stani Goma] does a two-week special when he just plays four hours worth of Fela. It was probably about ten years ago now. I was driving and I heard that and I’d never heard anything like it. I went home and listened to it and I was like, ‘Oh my God I want to play this music.’

The Seven Ups are a bunch of musicians from Melbourne, Australia. So to label themselves an Afrobeat band, no matter how faithful the reinterpretation, wouldn’t be entirely appropriate. 

“Being a bunch of middle class white kids, we wanted to do something different and not just try to rip off Fela, which we’d never do successfully anyway,” says Sterling. “We try not to call what we do Afrobeat anymore. When we first started up we were probably a bit more naive and oblivious to it and we said we’re an Afrobeat band. As time has gone past we’ve realised that we’re not, but just very influenced by it and have a lot of respect for the music. 

“There’s a consensus in the band that we don’t want to just be a carbon copy or try to take anything away from Afrobeat itself because it’s such deeply cultural and political music. For us to just try and do the same thing, as well as not sounding as good, it would be cultural appropriation.”

Released in autumn 2018, The Seven Ups’ second album Commandments features eight lively and musically complex instrumentals melding funk, jazz and psych rock along with the African influences. Sterling, the band’s leading creative force, admits that working as a seven-piece requires a certain amount of patience.

“I usually just write everything, chart it all up just by myself and then I’ll bring it into the band and we’ll workshop stuff, clean up arrangements. Sometimes I’ll have a really clear idea of what I’m after and then other times I’ll just be fairly vague and it might come out sounding completely different. There’s a bit of input from the band and it definitely would sound different with different musicians.”

The Seven Ups play WOMADelaide which comes to Adelaide’s Botanic Park from Friday March 8 to Monday March 11. Head to the festival website for tickets and program information.