While Adelaide plays host to the popular world music festival, WOMADelaide, The Shaolin Afronauts are the only afrobeat band in town. “I don’t think there are any other afrobeat bands in Adelaide,” bassist Ross McHenry says with a laugh.
Though when you factor in the diversity of the town and the large jazz community, the origins of the band’s genre actually makes quite a bit of sense. Even the introduction of the internet and the ability to communicate with fellow afrobeat bands around the world has helped shape the Shaolin Afronaut sound.
Ultimately, Ross’ inspiration for the genre came from the very festival mentioned earlier. “My parents were WOMAD tragics, so they used to always take me,” he says.
“I remember weirdly in suburban Adelaide in the ’90s hearing that music and enjoying it. Then when I started playing bass I got really into music in my teens and gravitated towards soul music. I was really into stuff that was really out there for a 13-year-old, and I think you can hear that in the Shaolin Afronauts stuff – especially the Head Hunters sound.”
Ross’ interest soon lead him to his fellow nine band members (some of which came from the band The Transatlantics) with ‘Kilimanjaro’ the first creative output from the 10-piece.
“That was the first tune I ever wrote for the Shaolin Afronauts. It’s funny because it’s very different but it’s also very much the same. The Shaolin Afronauts was, for me, when I started writing without trying to be anything specific. Sure we’re an afrobeat band, but we never worked to create anything specific – it was a very intuitive writing process,” he says.
“We were using things like Garage Band, the microphone on my laptop and my shitty nylon stringed guitar but it came together very quickly. And we still laugh about it as a band. Even though my song writing, and of the other band members, has improved exponentially, I’m still really intuitive about it and try not to over think things. It has to be natural and not to force it. That kind of intuitive nature remains at the core of the process even though the technical elements around that have evolved.”
Intuition aside, the band’s skills have enabled them to take on various projects, including taking to the stage as an 18-piece band and doing a special live composition for the original Mad Max film at the Astor. The uniqueness shines through and it’s something they’re sure to continue doing.
“We’re interested in doing musical things that allow us to push the musical boundaries and explore the emotional elements within music,” he says on the matter.
At it’s core, the band try to harness the emotion at the centre of the genre’s origins. “You kind of think of afrobeat as raging dance music, which it is, but it’s an interesting textural journey. What we try to do is obviously play afrobeat… but we also try to take it somewhere with how we see the world,” he says.
Written by Amanda Sherring
When & Where: Kennedys Creek Music Festival, Kennedys Creek – October 21-23