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Sirius Rhythms

Close encounters with the Afro galactic hip-hop of Dogon Lights

Dogon Lights performs on Wednesday, April 13, at Don Quixote’s.

At a 2012 show, Dogon Lights opened up for Tinariwen, the desert blues band from northern Mali that’s known for its fantastic blend of traditional styles and modern instruments. As the Bay Area world fusion band played, Dogon Lights multi-instrumentalist Vir McCoy looked out into the audience and saw one of the members of Tinariwen dancing to their music. It was a moment he won’t forget.

“They were a little bit surprised by us,” McCoy says. “They set down their traditional instruments to pick up our instruments, but we were like, ‘wait, what are you putting down? That’s pretty cool, let me try that thing.’ We picked up their instruments and they picked up ours.”

The members of Tinariwen may have been surprised to see a Bay Area band playing the instruments of their Sahara Desert homeland, but Dogon Lights was just doing what it does—blending cultures, styles and sounds into a genre-defying celebration of life and music.

On any given song, you might hear the camel-skinned sintir, a traditional instrument of the Gnawa of Morocco; the kamale ngoni, a small, stringed instrument from West Africa; the thumb piano; the berimbau, a percussion instrument used in capoeira music; the djembe drum; and more, blended with electric bass and guitar, electronics, a drum kit, and whatever else the band is feeling. Add to that the rapping of Ashel Seazuns, and Dogon Lights is creating something truly extraordinary that they call Afro galactic hip-hop.

The name Dogon Lights refers to the Dogon people of West Africa who believe that they were seeded here from the star Sirius. The name was given to the group by its founder, Yacouba Diarra, who has since returned to his home in Africa. The name has both an earthiness as well as a galactic feel to it—perfect for the Dogon Lights.

“We’re very careful about not being in any one particular genre,” McCoy says. “We’re creating our own.”

Comprising Seazuns, McCoy, Evan Fraser, Alpha “Bongo” Sidibe from Guinea, and Ian “Inkx” Herman from South Africa, Dogon Lights has a musical pedigree that includes work with Beats Antique, Mickey Hart, Rising Appalachia, Hamsa Lila, Dirtwire, Sting, Paul Simon, and Hugh Masekela. The band draws from many styles and cultures, and doesn’t follow convention when it comes to making music. At one point, the members considered adding a full-time bass player, but they realized that if they just run the kamale ngoni through a bass amp and turn up the low end, Fraser could hold down bass duties.

“He’s playing basslines that are completely different than the way that people think of playing basslines,” says McCoy. “It makes it unique and really fresh.”

Keeping things fresh is a priority for Dogon Lights. The members don’t want to lean too far into one genre or style or become predictable. There’s a goal of keeping a shared and interesting mix of sounds.

McCoy likes to play psychedelic blues guitar, but he’s careful not to play it on every song. If he does, it starts to sound like something you’ve heard before. If the music starts to sound familiar, the band stops to mix it up.

“We’re very careful about not being in any one particular genre,” McCoy says. “We’re creating our own.”

The consistent thread through the music of Dogon Lights is its super-high energy. From the first drumbeat through the last note, the music sweeps you up and gets you moving. When asked what it’s like to play such fast, high-intensity music night after night, McCoy has one word: “Sweat.”

“It’s a workout,” he says, “it’s just a sweat bath. But everybody gets to sweat together so it’s like a prayer.”

When newcomers stumble into a Dogon Lights performance, they’re often left wondering what it is they’re experiencing. But that doesn’t last long.

“It takes people a moment to figure out what’s happening,” says McCoy. “Then they just start dancing and it doesn’t matter. There’s that shared commonality where it’s like, well, this is really cool, whatever it is.”

On the band’s forthcoming album, expected to drop this month, there’s more emphasis on the rapping of Seazuns. The resulting sound has been described as West Africa meets West Oakland.

“It’s what happens if West African instruments came to the Bay and they met West Oakland, with this rap and electronic feel,” says McCoy. “Boom—Dogon Lights.”


Dogon Lights will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $12/adv, $15/door. 335-2800.

 

Contributor at Good Times |

Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on community, collaboration, the future of work and music. She's a regular contributor to Shareable and her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Yes! Magazine, No Depression, UTNE Reader, Mother Jones and Launchable Mag. More info: catjohnson.co. Follow her on Twitter at @CatJohnson.

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