Even with the soothing gurgle of a surprisingly ornate fountain built into a faux-natural cliff face, the smoking patio of northeast Minneapolis's Palace Bar is a long way from the jungles of Nigeria. The homey dive is just a few houses down from the practice space inhabited by Black Market Brass, however, and as members filter in and sidle up to the bar, there's an air of comfortable familiarity.
With all the mosquitoes buzzing around our heads, we might as well be in that jungle after all.
"I studied traditional drumming in Nigeria for six weeks," percussionist David Tullis explains, with a note of pride. "That's like Shanga worship, some serious ritual music. I had read that the Afrobeat styles kind of came out of that rhythmic tradition. I wanted to try and see what was at the beginning of that road, or at least what I could access."
Tullis may be only member of the group to have visited the ancestral motherland of the deep funk sounds that so inspired them, but all of the band's players share an enduring love for the pioneering output of Fela Kuti. What truly unites them, however, is their interest in contemporary practitioners of those glorious '70s tones, groups like Daptone's Budos Band who put an ever-so-slight modern twist on the genre. The guys in Black Market aren't traditionalists; in fact, they'd prefer if you called them a band that plays afrobeat, instead of an afrobeat band.
"We don't have a singer and we don't talk about political issues," elaborates Tullis. "That was the whole point of that music. I mean, [Fela Kuti] was basically taking on the president of the most corrupt country with music. He got thrown in jail, and not because of his horn section."
"We don't wear dashikis," adds baritone sax man Cole Pulice. "We don't try to chant or sing in a dialect either."
So if Black Market Brass aren't revivalists, what are they? Pretty simply, they're a dance band, with hip-shaking funk rhythms inspired, not limited, by their forbearers.
"The more that we can get people to pay attention to this old shit that we're paying attention to, the better — but that's not our endgame," says Tullis.
"Our endgame is getting people to dance!" adds Pulice, to a rumble of agreement from the rest of the gang.
As a huge, entirely instrumental band, Black Market faces challenges that would never occur to the average indie-rock four-piece. Just imagine how much their wall of horns pisses off the average underpaid sound man. Forget about playing most clubs with stages smaller than six by six feet, and try not to think about how thin that meager entry fee is when it's split 10 ways.
"I think hard work is much more important," says Tullis. "You're the first person that's interviewed us. We have a lot of people that like us, we play cool shows, but when you're an instrumental band you have to know that you're just not gonna get that sort of attention, so you have to work for your fans."
"Back in the days of our beginning we played some pretty tight sets to 10 or 12 people," guitarist Hans Kruger jokes. "We've played those shows where we've had more people onstage than in the audience. We've played some slammin' sets like that, man."
But playing those sets is exactly how Black Market Brass earned their strong local following, and their recording relationship with Secret Stash Records. (Plus, both Tullis and guitarist Mitch Sigurdson play in Black Diet, and Pulice also is a member of Sonny Knight's backing band, the Lakers.) Their live show is the stuff you rave about to your friends the next day. It's precise execution meets raw and freaky free-experimentation, locked tight to an uptempo groove that just won't quit.
"Even people who are skeptical of instrumental music, once they see us play, everyone across the board is a believer," Pulice explains. "It becomes very much a word-of-mouth thing. Like, 'You gotta go see this band.' Our live show is our best weapon."
So how do you know when all that hard work pays off? It's when fans are screaming out horn lines and singing along, Splinter says.
The band got a great payoff one night at Club Jager on the eve of the release of their debut 45 with Secret Stash. Worldwide Discotheque dance night hosts Bryan Engel and Steely Dan McAllister had requested the test pressing of the new single, and dropped the needle just before bar close to a wildly enthusiastic reception from the dance floor.
"It goes for two minutes, and it's going over really well, and then the power crashes," Tullis says. "It cut out halfway through our song. So now it's bar close, but the guy who owns the place was like, 'No, play it again, people were loving it. I am authorizing this.'"