Afrobeat made in LA: surprisingly the perfect climate for this inspired collective

Photography by Owen Richard

Photography by Owen Richard


“LA is a great big freeway” – or so the song goes. Los Angeles, California: a massive concrete runway of promise, with the potential to take you anywhere you want. LA is Capitol Records, Hollywood, the Entertainment Capital of the World. Los Angeles, California: “one day soon she’ll make you a star”. Or so the song goes.

That’s LA, sure. But of course there’s a flipside. Of the major cities down the west coast of America, the world’s perception of LA is of the plastic and gauche, the kitsch and the mass market; the domain of the megastar but rarely the cult famous; the home of the adored but seldom the admired. LA is seen as the uglier, harder, dumber brother of swinging San Francisco; the softer, squarer, lazier cousin of hipster Seattle. If San Fran is the Grateful Dead and hippies, and Seattle Nirvana and coffee culture, then Los Angeles is The Eagles and psychiatrists. For all its wealth and alchemy, the truth is that LA rarely does cool. LA rarely does outsiders.

So it’s maybe a slight surprise that one of the most talked-about bands of recent months, playing a genre of music that’s tipped to define 2010, hails from the City of Angels. Fool’s Gold, a loose collective of ever-changing Angelenos built around the songwriting hub of Luke Top and Lewis Pesacov, play summery afrobeat, all West African highlife, chanted mantras and flat-palmed percussion. But unlike, say, Vampire Weekend or any number of Brooklyn’s current ‘Graceland’ fans, theirs isn’t American music with a dash of international flavour, but actually more like African music wearing a stars’n’stripes pin. Their self-titled debut album owes far more, for example, to Fela Kuti than it does to Paul Simon, with its unhurried, groove-laden songs, foreign-sung lyrics (singer Top performs mainly in Hebrew) and loose, long compositions full of breakdowns and build-ups. Their live incarnation, too, is in debt to the epic desert jams of Tinariwen rather than the American punk spirit of rattling through ten songs in thirty minutes.

Nevertheless, Top insists that LA is the inspiration for his band: “Our album is definitely related to Los Angeles. Lewis and I grew up in the [San Fernando] Valley, which is flat and wide, and I think the geography of the city makes people want to reach out beyond it. Los Angeles is about little communities of people in a big place, and you kinda make your own reality.” Pesacov, the band’s lead guitarist, agrees. “It’s so vast and open that it leaves your mind open to be able to reach past the suburban walls and into different communities,” he says. “We just had this impulse to reach as far as we can. There was no deliberate idea to do something global, but we bonded over a shared idea of reaching out. It seemed like the natural thing to do, as crazy as that seems.”

“I think it’s a really innately human impulse to want to reach beyond your immediate environment”, explains Top. “African musicians are reaching out to the Western world to inform their music, taking cues from soul and Jimi Hendrix, and these days from hip-hop and rap…”

“And, equally, we’re hearing what they’re doing and filtering it through our own music,” says Pesacov, finishing his bandmate’s sentence.

“It seems like there’s a tradition of conversation there,” continues Top. “A kind of international cultural exchange.”

But where previously musicians would meet together to swap techniques and ideas, Fool’s Gold’s cultural exchange is of a very modern variety – surprisingly, neither Top nor Pescarov have ever visited Africa, and instead use the web to feed their addictions to desert blues, Mahmoud Ahmed and new Tuareg groups .

“I’ve never been,” says Pescarov, unapologetically. “All the music I’ve heard is just mined from my dad’s record collection, and the newer stuff, like a lot of Eritrean pop, you can’t get anywhere, so you go on YouTube. There are no mp3s, no CDs, so you have to watch the videos.” That’s YouTube, by the way, owned by Google, whose headquarters are just 250 miles up the coast from Fool’s Gold’s home town. Maybe LA isn’t that far, geographically, from their African influences after all.

“I’ve never been either,” admits Top. “But the music speaks volumes so I don’t feel the need. I don’t think the guys in Mali need to visit San Francisco to have their sound – it goes back to that cultural exchange thing: we’re not playing their music, we’re playing our music with their influence.”

“It feels really good, though, to be performing in different places from Los Angeles,” adds Pescarov, at pains to point out that world travel is definitely on the Fool’s Gold agenda, funds permitting (they head to Belgium after this, and then onto France, where apparently they are already building a head of steam). “I want to play The Festival in the Desert, in Mali. It’s about four hours in a 4×4 across the sands from Timbuktu – I reckon we could do it.” He pauses for a quick daydream, perhaps acknowledging the irony that it’s only by actually being in an African-sounding pop group that they might have the chance to see, in the flesh, African pop. Then he snaps back to reality: “…even though I’d miss Los Angeles.”

Pescarov’s homesickness might sound a touch parochial, but maybe it actually says more about LA than it does about him. After all, his hometown (he was born in Hollywood before moving to the Valley) is the one place in the world that attracts people who want to paint their own adventures and create their own realities; maybe it’s one of the few cities that actually could be evoked while playing a gig four hours outside Timbuktu. And in that sense it figures, oddly, that a world music band should hail from LA, of all places. “There’s no other place like it on earth,” says Top. “We love world music, but we feel like that’s our home.” Maybe LA really is a great big freeway after all.

Live at Madame Jojo’s

Currently, Fool’s Gold are a seven-piece – “an intimate line-up tonight,” jokes singer Luke Top, remembering the band’s early performances that saw 15-plus musicians on stage. They cram onto the tiny stage, and flow through just five songs in fifty minutes, the whole group dancing not quite in unison but like some many-tentacled sea creature whose arms are all being buffeted by the same wave.

Two nights earlier, they played Fabric. “That was different,” guitarist Lewis Pesacov admits. “We were the only band on a bill of DJs, and everyone just wanted to dance and do drugs. But that’s cool – you can definitely dance and take drugs to our music. In fact, I want nothing more!” Indeed, with the repeated grooves and hypnotic percussion, Fool’s Gold’s West African highlife has more than a passing resemblance to electronic music. “It’s about getting into this trance,” explains Top. “We’re not electronic, but there’s the same vibe. There’s something about that propulsive beat that lets us stretch out and allow the natural flow of the songs to happen.”

However, of course, Fool’s Gold are a band, and while none of the seven men on stage look alike – Top is all Brylcreem hair and smart shoes, Pesacov is denim jacket and three-day-old stubble, and various others are in red pyjamas and cardigans – they smile and throb together in a way that a solitary DJ can’t, and that happiness is infectious. By the final song, half the band has jumped into the gyrating crowd to shake their percussion, and the sunny music is overcoming the wintery January night outside.

By Sam Walton

Originally published in issue 14 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. February 2010

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