At first, there’s something ineffably unsavory about Zongo Junction. It’s the same thing that makes one cast aspersions against Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Vampire Weekend, The Talking Heads, and just about every other North American group that’s taken inspiration, to varying degrees, from Afrobeat, the hybrid genre born of traditional African music and modern funk in 1970s Nigeria. You don’t want to like them, because you don’t want to believe that something as rooted in time and place and geopolitics as Afrobeat can be replicated so effortlessly by a bunch of well-educated twentysomethings living in Brooklyn.
The thing is, though: These guys are good. The thirteen-piece band — several members of which are Bay Area transplants — honors Afrobeat by borrowing, amply and plainly, from the the genre’s pioneer Fela Kuti. All of his formal hallmarks dominate the band’s five-song debut EP: the densely orchestrated, interlocking rhythms on “Oh Why?” and “Madoff Made Off”; the figuratively political lyrics on “Elephant and Mosquito”; the rambunctious, vital, heart-thumping horn work throughout. But the boys have also managed, an ocean and a half-century away, to harness the unmistakable joy Kuti took in his performances. Thieves! is an utterly jubilant and adeptly instrumentalized take on the genre’s greatest triumphs. If anyone’s ready to take up the mantle as Afrobeat’s US ambassadors, it’s these guys. (self-released)