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The Motet in Motion

by John Adamian on November 28, 2016

It was a late autumn afternoon, in 2015, and Lyle Divinsky had just played a low-key, solo acoustic gig at Springfield College in Massachusetts. On his way back home to Maine, Divinsky—a soul singer who’d just released his debut album—received a message from one of the members of The Motet. It was his first time speaking with anyone from the group, and they were interested in collaborating.

“I had just played a lunch study hall or something like that,” Divinsky says, one year and one studio album into that partnership with The Motet.

Things kicked into overdrive. Everything was set in motion—and the parts haven’t stopped moving, which makes sense since, at their core, The Motet make people move. The Colorado outfit plays kinetic dance music, with coiled guitar lines and rhythmic patterns that overlap and intertwine, creating tension, gathering energy and releasing it in controlled blasts. Motion and flux are part of the deal. But, as with all the best dance music, part of what keeps it all working is the sense of continuity within the change. And there’s been plenty of change recently for this band.

Last December, The Motet’s longtime singer and frontman Jans Ingber announced that he was leaving the group, amicably, to cultivate a more balanced home and family life. With that, a whole new set of variations and permutations kicked into effect, making 2016 a year that has been both in keeping with The Motet’s mode and unlike any other year in their 18-year existence. In the middle of recording their new record, Totem, released in July, the group tried out and hired Divinsky, 30, as their new vocalist. And then the band started cramming—researching, listening, petitioning each other with song choices—for their epic run of thematic Halloween shows. (This year’s focuses on the music of 1979.) The Halloween shows and the effort involved in picking and learning the material anchor much of the year’s energies for the members of The Motet, fueling their creativity and pointing them in new directions for the future.

The Motet, formed in 1998 by drummer and bandleader Dave Watts, started out doing percussion music—from AfroBrazilian samba to djembe ensemble pieces—and moved to playing tunes heavily influenced y West African and Afro-Cuban music, with deep polyrhythmic underpinnings. (Watts and two other early members of the group visited Cuba to immerse themselves in Batá drumming, part of the band’s whole study-up-and-synthesize approach to threading new elements into their music.) They’ve continued to shape-shift, stylistically spanning genres and continents, ever since.

Listen to “Sunu” off of their debut record, Breathe. At the song’s core, it’s a djembe rhythm, from Mali and Guinea, with deep, bass-like dun-dun drums and bell patterns, over which the crisp djembe plays offbeat accent. But it morphs into a slow funk-soul instrumental with wah-wah guitar, perky bass and organ, and a drum kit linking the West African percussion ensemble. Later on the record, the band shifts into Fela-inflected Afrobeat on “Jiti” and then into a groove-heavy, speed-racer rendering of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” a knotted tune of circling intervallic leaps made famous by Miles Davis, which glides back into West African djembe mode before winding down. And then they launch into “Yogi’s Day Out,” a honky-tonk swing barnstormer, to close out the record, which is just to say that the band has always been comfortable working through changes, without seeming stitched together. Jump ahead to The Motet’s self-titled 2014 record and the band is a different beast—and yet still the same—fully onboard with the soul-funk, channeling Tower of Power, Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, all three of which, incidentally, were the focus of Motet Halloween shows (2003, 2002 and 2010, respectively).

“I think that with a band that’s growing, there tends to be consistent change going on as you have growing pains and you’re striving for different degrees of success,” says Watts. “We’ve always experienced that as a band—shifting and changing.”

As The Motet has bent, morphed, swerved and expanded its scope, so has the music culture at large. The group started performing Fela tunes and playing West African dance music just ahead of what would become an Afrobeat renaissance in America. In 2001, MCA reissued the Fela Kuti catalog, making dozens of formerly ultra-rare recordings available to a new generation of fans, as other like-minded bands like New York’s Antibalas gained an audience. The burst of interest culminated in the musical Fela!, which opened on Broadway in 2009.

“There was an Afrobeat revival that happened about 15 or 20 years ago,” says Motet bassist Garrett Sayers, who joined the band in 2002 after years on the jamband circuit with Miracle Orchestra. “It was such an exciting style that was somehow missed by most Americans, and we were just so excited to be a part of it.”

The Motet’s move toward more explicitly funk- and soul-centric music made perfect sense coming from those starting points. Fela’s Afrobeat is famously shaped by African-American influence , all run through a filter that worked traditional Nigerian elements in as well. And American music fans can relate to the familiarity of the heavy funk foundation.

“Fela and others decided to mix that influence with their country’s heritage,” says Sayers. “To then have that come back to us again as funk fans—I can hear the James Brown in there, but it’s flipped on its head.”

Understanding that lineage—and paying tribute to it—is part of what’s at the core of The Motet’s musical philosophy. “As a drummer, that is something that I’m extremely conscious of,” says Watts. “I think that funk music is America’s African music, influenced directly by the movement of African rhythms and musical culture into the United States, going back to Congo Square [the one place where enslaved Africans were permitted to play their rich drum-based music].”

This year, the arrival of a new singer furthers The Motet’s evolution, dialing in a mellow soul vibe as a counterpart to the percussive funk. When he got the call to collaborate with The Motet in what was a sort of an unspoken tryout, Lyle Divinsky was deep into the launch of his own solo career.

Divinsky, who has grown from New York City street busking to performing on big stages, had been working on his record Uneven Floors when he reached a crossroads. “I put [the record] out in November, then, like two weeks later, I get a call from [keyboardist] Joey [Porter],” says Divinsky. “It was an amazing opportunity, and I’d been digging their music for a long time.”

In what sounds like a trial-by-fire test of one’s creative juices, The Motet sent Divinsky a track of music and asked him to take a shot at writing lyrics and a vocal melody.

“Watts sent me an instrumental, just to see how I would do,” says Divinsky. “Two days later, I sent back ‘The Truth.’” That was in mid-December. Two days after that, they sent him another tune, which became “Fool No More.” And two weeks later, in early January, they flew Divinsky out to Colorado to rehearse; it was his fir t time meeting most of them. A week after that, with Divinsky filling in after Ingber’s recent departure, the band went out for a two-week string of live dates. A month later, which included another two weeks of shows, The Motet was back in the studio to record the rest of Totem with Divinsky fully immersed in the project. “It was just as much fast family and fast friends as it was fast comfort within the music,” says Divinsky.
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