black fire records

Okyerema Asante

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Ghanaian master drummer Okyerema Asanta poses for a portrait in his home in Northern Virginia in 2014.

Asante Sana – Okyerema Asante

All that vinyl was heavy but Okyerema Asante knew it would be worth it once he got the records on the plane. The Northern Virginia-based master drummer’s LP “Sabi,” recorded at Omega Recording Studios in Rockville, MD, would be a hit back in his home country, Ghana. What Asante didn’t count on was Customs not letting him board the plane with all the records. He needed a backup plan.

Asante’s journey started when was four years old, banging on pans in Koforidua, the Eastern region capital of Ghana. His uncle, a senior master drummer, spotted Asante’s early talent and began to groom him to play the talking drum. By the age of 10, Isaac Asante earned the title “Okyerema,” which means master drummer.

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Eager to develop his own style, Asante introduced conga drums into his repertoire and refigured the end his talking drumsticks to sound like the palm of his hand. Today, a set of Asante’s unique talking drumsticks are part of the world’s largest drumstick collection, which was exhibited in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from 1995-2002.

Asante eschewed the Western trap drum kit, remaining dedicated to traditional Ghanaian music. He found compatriots when he joined the group Hedzolah Soundz. In 1972 the band recorded a self-titled LP at the EMI Nigeria studio, which was finally released in 2010 on Soundway Records.

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In 1973 Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti introduced South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela to Hedzoleh Soundz, who then recruited them to become his backing band. Asante and the other members of Hedzoleh Soundz moved from Ghana to Los Angeles to join Masaekela, and eventually to Alexandria. The legendary South African musician and Hedzoleh Soundz recorded the 1973 LP “Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz” and 1974’s “I Am Not Afraid,” both on Blue Thumb Records. The group eventually returned to Africa with the exception of Asante, who decided to split his time between Virginia and Ghana.

As he continued to develop his craft, Asante added more instruments to his act. He currently plays up to 86 instruments during his performances. He also adopted a signature look—a helmet with antelope horns that is normally worn to celebrate victory after a battle.

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In 1976 Asante recorded his funk-tinged debut LP, “Drum Message,” at Arrest Recording Studios on 14th St. NW. The LP was co-produced by Black Fire Records founder Jimmy Gray, but remained unreleased until 1993 when Asante’s Oneness of Juju band mate Plunky Branch issued it on CD on the label.

In 1979, Asante recorded the aforementioned “Sabi.” When he couldn’t get on the plane with all the records the master drummer was forced to bring only a few copies, which he re-pressed once in Ghana. As he had hoped, the album was a hit in his home country.

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Asante became a sought after traditional Ghanaian drummer for many artists during the 1980s, including Masekela, Fleetwood Mac, and Paul Simon, and recorded on Mick Fleetwood’s “The Visitor” in 1981 and Simon’s “Graceland” in 1986.

Asante has released more than three solo albums since “Sabi” and is currently working on his latest, “The Honorables.” You can purchase Asante’s music here.

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Sugar Bear

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Free Yourself – Experience Unlimited

Ballou Senior High School student Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott wanted to be a boxer. Recognizing that he wasn’t all that good he decided to pursue his back up dream of being a rock star instead. A huge Led Zeppelin fan, 15 year-old Elliot taught himself to play bass and formed the band Experience Unlimited with kids from his Southeast DC neighborhood. The young group struggled to get gigs but things finally started to move when they won “Best Rock Group” at a Duke Ellington School of the Arts talent show. As they played around town Elliott became a fan of many of the older bands he saw on stage, especially The Soul Searchers, The Young Senators, Aggression, Mixed Breed, 100 Years Time, and Father’s Children.

In 1976 Experience Unlimited—Elliott, Donald Fields, Andre Lucas, Phillip Harris, Clarence Smith, Anthony Easton, Michael Hughes, Greylin T. Hunter, and David Williams along with Melva Adams, Marvin Coward, Wayne Davis, and Bobby Owens recorded “Free Yourself,” an LP of original material on Black Fire Records at Bias Studios in Falls Church, Virginia. Elliott wrote the album’s title track.

Even with an album under their belt and Elliott in a new frontman role, Experience Unlimited struggled to find a fan base as black artists playing rock and roll. They were just too different. A turning point came when they played with Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers at the Panorama Room and the late “Godfather of Go-Go” convinced Elliott to switch to the emerging genre.

Throughout the 20th century until today Experience Unlimited (EU) has been one of DCs most successful go-go bands along with Brown, Trouble Funk, and Rare Essence. EU’s lineup changed over the years, but Elliott remained constant.

“I kept going because I love to play,” says Elliott. “That’s my high, I don’t care if it’s five people or 5,000, I love to play.”  In 1988 EU brought go-go to national attention with the #35 Billboard Hot 100 single “Da Butt,” which was featured in Spike Lee’s 1988 film “School Daze.”

“My mother thought I was making noise and told me to shut that stuff up, but once she finally saw me on TV she was in awe,” says Elliott.

“Da Butt” attracted record companies from Motown to Warner Brothers to Virgin Records, which they eventually signed with, releasing their sixth LP “Livin’ Large” in 1989. EU has shared the stage with Earth Wind & Fire, Whitney Houston, Bob Dylan, James Brown, and New Kids on the Block. The band records and performs constantly but Gregory laments the status of go-go today.

“This is the go-go capital of the world but everything is still neutral. I have to do something to bring it back to national attention.”

You can purchase EU‘s music here and here.

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Design by Ibraheem Youssef

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