The Afropop Beat

By Mona Malacane

Founded by Bob Port, Mike Gasser, and Brian Gygi 14 years ago, Afro Hoosiers International (AHI) is an Afropop band of 11 members whose tunes can’t help but make you want to get up and shake your groove thang. Think of their sound as kind of poppy jazz rumba that is funky mixed with a dash of salsa and drums. They play African pop music, which is mostly (if not completely) sung in languages other than English. Thankfully they have quite a few linguists and one or two ethnomusicologists to help translate lyrics and sing vocals, making them sound pretty darn authentic. AHI is comprised of a percussionist, two vocalists, two alto saxes, a baritone sax, a tenor sax, a bass, a flute, drums, a trombone, a keyboard, a guitar, and some other cool, unique instruments that vary depending on the song. One of those funk masters is Norbert Herber, who plays the saxophone and writes arrangements for the group.

The members of the band are only part-time Afro pop stars, with day jobs or school to attend. So when someone graduates or moves out of Bloomington, another musician must be recruited as replacement. Because the band has been around for some time, it now has quite a few alumni who still keep in touch with Bob, the last of the founding three who still plays in the band. Norbert says they have been referred to as the Afro pop mafia because “you can get in but you can never get out … once you’re in the family you can never leave.” So naturally I was curious as to how he got involved with the Mob.

Norbert has played the saxophone for 30 years and attained a degree in Jazz Studies from the Jacobs School of Music. He played professionally for a number of years but took a hiatus while working on his doctoral dissertation. After completing his doctoral studies, he contacted Larry Yaeger who was playing with the Afro Hoosiers at the time, as he wanted to return to his roots and get back into collaborative music.

How one feels when listening to Afropop

How one feels when listening to Afropop

Playing with AHI is very different from the sound design and musical work Norbert does as a faculty member in the department. Performing in front of an audience and working with sound in interactive environments are two very different experiences, he explains. “The kind of music that I do now – electronic music and music that is embedded in software or embedded in intelligent environments – it’s a completely experience and when you play in front of people and those people are dancing, there is an exchange of something between you and the dancers. And I don’t get that with the other kinds of music that I do.”

Playing Afro pop music can be challenging, however, because it has a unique texture that is quite different from traditional American and European music. “When you look at rhythmic patterns in a European way you think about time signatures and you think about things following regular orderly blocks. And in African and Indian music there is more of an emphasis on a consistent pulse … and then those pulses will have different variations added to them that causes the feel of that pulse to shift in a way that feels temporarily uncomfortable and then it snaps back.” That moment of tension can be difficult for some traditionally trained band members to reconcile but is one that Norbert likes and is comfortable with.

He also enjoys the collaborative feel of playing in a band and the flow that transpires when they play together. “When you have 12 people and you don’t rehearse as often as you would like or should, things are always fluid. And being able to change things on the fly and adapt to a section of the song that is forgotten or left behind or something gets extended, you just go with it and play and hope that it doesn’t disrupt anyone’s music experience and it usually works out.” The improvisation combined with the style of music creates a unique experience that is very easy to get swept into.

If you’re in a Zumba/dancing mood or need an energy boost, you can listen to a few of their songs on their website and keep up with them on Facebook to see their upcoming events!

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