Kaleta – the inimitable afrofunk legend & frontman extraordinaire – launched his music career after confronting juju pioneer King Sunny Ade at a concert in Lagos, Nigeria. Kaleta recalls, “I was at Church when I heard King Sunny Ade sound checking one block away. By the time church service was over Sunny Ade's gig was in full gear. I infiltrated the gathering, snuck into the front row to watch the show. At the strike of the last note, right before Sunny Ade disappeared I went between him and his bodyguard and told him point blank my desire to play guitar for his band. He invited me to his house. I went the next day with a cassette containing songs and guitar riffs I wrote with him in mind. The rest is history.”
Kaleta played in Sunny Ade’s band for years, recording four albums and ultimately playing with the illustrious Fela Kuti. From these luminaries, Kaleta learned to fuse elements from an array of West African genres, including highlife, juju, afrobeat, afrofunk, and afrodance.
In 1991, Kaleta moved from Lagos to New York City after Fela's Egypt 80 North American world tour. In New York Kaleta’s musical evolution continued. He co-founded afrobeat ensembles Akoya Afrobeat and Zozo Afrobeat and has collaborated on nearly two dozen tracks with Medellin, Colombia-based DJ BOSQ. He has shared the stage with a wide range of artists, including Jimmy Cliff , Yellowman , and Lauryn Hill. Kaleta explains, “Lauryn Hill was rehearsing in the same music complex when she heard my music from another room. She stormed into Zozo Afrobeat’s rehearsal, and two weeks later I was on tour with her playing guitar and traditional Beninese percussion… we performed about 45 dates all over the world."
While Kaleta’s chops suited him well to back up the best in the biz, his drive to create percolated. He searched for a band of his own, but knew the recipe had to be perfect – an irrefutable explosion of creative energy. He needed a dedicated, like-minded group of musicians.
Kaleta credits his ambition and his vision to his older brother’s influence. A music aficionado with a passion for funk and soul, Ligan-Ozavino Pascal stewarded an arsenal of a record collection that he occasionally weaponized to teach Kaleta discipline. When Kaleta misbehaved, his brother would lock him in his room with a pile of records. The price of his freedom? A careful listen. “I had to submit to his huge love for music,” says Kaleta. “He introduced me to James Brown, Otis Redding, and other American, French and Cuban music.”
When Kaleta met Super Yamba Band, led by drummer Daniel Yount, a creative wildfire sparked. Students of vintage West African psychedelic afrofunk, Super Yamba Band had been working as an instrumental group with occasional vocalists. Along with Yount, percussionist Evan Frierson added layers to the rhythms with tama, the traditional talking drum which he learned from Senegalese Wolof griot, Mamadou Mbengue and Candombe, an African-Uruguayan folk hand-drumming style he studied while living there. Saxophonist Walter Fancourt and trumpet player Sean Smith--whose singular and collective horn work has been featured by indie rock and pop bands including Yeasayer, Rubblebucket, and Reptar--brought a brass and synth-keyboard section to the mix, and psychedelic guitar and funky bass rounded out the sound. But when the group met Kaleta, who sang and played guitar over the roots-rhythms while bringing his own infectious style to the project, things locked into place.
“I loved the way they stick together as a team,” says Kaleta. “Their exuberance. Their love for African music, notably Benin funk… I found out they were listening to my idols, too.” It became clear that this was something rare, exciting, and in need of exploration. Super Yamba Band offered the skill and dedication Kaleta sought, and Kaleta brought decades of experience to share with his eager new comrades.
Since 2017, the group has honed their material. Their landmark single, “Mr. Diva,” officially re-released and remastered by Ubiquity Records on June 7, 2019, kicked off their discography. Encouraged by their success at recreating their live magic in the studio, the band set to work recording a full-length album.
Mèdaho features 9 highly danceable, psychedelic originals that harken back to the sounds that captivated Kaleta as a kid in 1970s Benin and Nigeria. The album covers the gamut of rhythms, grooves, guitar riffs and horn statements that you might find in Kaleta’s native countries but with a twist of New York City grit. The album’s standout sounds include guitar tones with retro effects, a powerful 5-piece horn section, a driving percussion section that features a drum set, congas, talking drum, candombe, bells and shekeres. Kaleta’s signature grunts and screams are reminiscent of Benin singers mimicking James Brown.
The album is dedicated to the memory of Kaleta’s brother who died in March 2019. In Goun and Fon (native languages of Benin), “Mèdaho” translates to “big brother” or “elder” or “teacher.” The name sums up this collection of players and their approach to writing and performing. They unabashedly pay homage to their influencers – James Brown, Fela Kuti, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, El Rego, The Funkees, among others – interpreting their work, deconstructing it, learning from it, embracing it, defying it, amplifying it, and pushing it into uncharted genres – the sounds of the future. While Mèdaho is tip-of-the-cap to the vanguards of yesteryear is evident, at heart, it’s a tribute to everybody – famous or otherwise – who ignites passion, teaches, and moves us to create something entirely new.