Happy accidents seem to be a pattern for Armo. Take the group’s name, for instance, which stems from an auto correct that came up on Antibalas trumpeter Jordan McLean’s phone when he was quick-texting Antibalas singer Amayo and, somehow, randomly summed up the band’s ethos.
“It just stuck,” McLean says. “It doesn’t have to mean anything but, if you say it in the right way, it could mean we’re armed, or brothers-in-arms. But it’s also part of what we do musically.”
Even the group’s origin story starts by chance. In November 2016, just a few days before the divisive presidential election, McLean and Amayo sat for a night of conversation connecting the music of their longtime Afrobeat band to spirituality as part of Relix Editor-in-Chief Mike Greenhaus’ “The Friday Night Jam” speaking series at New York’s Nublu 151. After their talk, the longtime bandmates performed with a stripped-down version of their ever-changing big-band ensemble, including Antibalas drummer Kevin Raczka, Antibalas percussionist and singer Marcus Farrar and Toubab Krewe bassist Justin Kimmel. (The latter of whom subbed for Nikhil P. Yerawadekar, who was playing bass in Antibalas at the time and now plays guitar in Armo.)
Going in, the format was lively and loose—an approach that can only work when the musicians onstage have at least a passing familiarity with each other’s tastes and chops, as well as the ability to listen with their ears wide open. “We played a Fela tune,” McLean continues, “and maybe some of Amayo’s tunes, and it was a lot of fun. We went out to dinner afterward, and it was just over dumplings and ramen that we decided, ‘OK, let’s keep doing this. We’ve gotta make this a band.’”
The ensemble’s self-titled, 10-inch vinyl debut is a testament to their work ethic. Tracked in analog splendor at Hive Mind Recording in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, the EP consists of three songs that clock in at a total of about 14 minutes, yet still pack a wealth of influences into their steamy, mesmerizing grooves. The opening “Queen Mother,” penned and sung by Amayo, channels the classic lilt of a slow-bubbling Fela session, with the frontman’s one-two stabs on the electric keyboard punctuating a vocal chant that sends the song into a spacey, soul-stirring dreamworld. McLean’s “Beauty of Innocence” (its title—rather bizarrely, McLean admits, based on a direct quote from Donald Trump about the bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester) chugs along on the chorus—“Destroying beauty of innocence/ Evil losers of life”—with Yerawadekar’s clean-picked guitar guiding the call-and-response. Meanwhile, “The Visit,” also written by McLean, picks up threads of Ethio-jazz, underground hiphop, garage-funk and even psych-rock, pivoting on an infectious, Fred Wesley worthy horn line straight out of a vintage James Brown and the J.B.’s throwdown.
For McLean, who has worked as a musical director in many different settings, it’s mind-boggling that Armo even exists, let alone has scored regular gigs at the ultra-hip Bar LunÀtico in Brooklyn—where they have been joined by friends like Joe Russo—and a number of high-profile parties around the city. Which is to say: As unexpected as the band’s emergence has been, there’s still plenty of creative juice in the tank.
“We don’t rehearse and we don’t plan anything. There’s dozens of songs we can draw on that we can play for hours. That’s the coolest thing about the band. It’s almost like we don’t have to do anything except get together and make it work,” McLean observes. “We don’t really consider much more than the moment when we get together. This is the opposite of Antibalas, in a way, and the opposite of the discipline of Afrobeat, because you need to have a very tight approach to fit the mold of that music. We all know the tunes so well that we’ll have that but, otherwise, we want it to be in the moment. If the band is reflecting anything about the time we live in, it’s really just about being utterly present.”
With that in mind, McLean looks to Amayo, the de facto leader and resident Afro futurist not only of Antibalas and Armo, but arguably of the modern Afrobeat movement in general. Amayo often speaks of his own roots in Lagos, Nigeria, and how growing up with the music of Fela influenced his thinking—and how, since joining Antibalas in 1999, his worldview has evolved to embrace more far flung concepts of modern zen, spiritual travel, the calming fluidity of martial arts and the ever-renewing energy of the collective. All that might sound a bit heavy to the uninitiated but, to the guys in Armo, it’s really quite simple.
“At this point, we don’t really talk about politics all that much,” McLean says. “Over the last few years, Amayo has moved away from the obvious politics of the day into a more spiritual realm—and that’s also where Sun Ra’s influence is accounted for in all of our lives. Of course, the political aspect of how we all live in this world as members of society is one thing. But as far as I can tell, what we’ve been trying to balance that with is the cosmic, the universal, the eternal. It’s this idea that we’re all energy floating across this vast omniverse, and our atoms touch, and then we spark something that leads to the creation of this music. That’s the cool part.”
This article originally appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.