Live & Local
Live & Local: The Rafiki Project at Jack's Bar
Published: February 8, 2012
If Matisyahu were a stoner into Sublime (minus the ska and ragamuffin stuff), he would sound like the Rafiki Project.
The Helotes/Austin reggae foursome (guitarist/vocalist Daniel Ramírez is from Helotes but lives in Austin, while bassist Banner Matney, drummer Chase Mullenax, and Portland's trumpeter/keyboardist Charlie Hickman remain settled on SA's western fringe) is hardly an original band, which didn't stop them from releasing a refreshing debut, Greener Grasses. They deliver the precision and grooviness of Matisyahu's Dub Trio, the songwriting ability and edge of Brad Nowell's version of Sublime, and the intensity of rock. If you want to dance to it, fine. But their main concern isn't evoking peace and love vibes, but making you feel as if you've been run over by a 10-wheeler (while leaving you wanting more). With Rafiki, the song and the power are as important as the groove, but the song always comes first — when they have it.
Saturday night at Jack's they were at their best going through the full album in order. They were less effective following up with four unreleased songs, most of which were not nearly as good as those on the album, making the latter part of the show feeling forced. There was no need for any extra goodies after the solid Greener Grasses rendition.
The barefoot Rafiki (only drummer Mullenax wore shoes) plays hard, especially when they step away from reggae (as on "Honduras Street," with a '60s soul flavor and needless reggae bridge, and the fast-driving rocker "Lupe's"). "Rabbit Hole" is a dynamite track, but it was marred by insufficient volume in the keys (sorry, I've been spoiled by 502 Bar's sound engineering). Still, you have to really try hard to ruin this gem, which is the ultimate Rafiki hit — great melody and chorus and a simple but unpredictable keyboard line.
Ramírez is a terrific singer, simultaneously sweet and bold (even though I could've used a little less echo effects); as a guitarist he's good enough, too, with a million pedals, a love for distortion, and a metronome chip implanted in his right wrist. Mullenax is a powerful drummer that knows when to play soft, and Matney his perfect rhythmic partner (he's adventurous but always comes back home). Meanwhile, Hickman's trumpet and keys are vital in the record, but if you heard the album you could tell he got the rawest deal sound-wise.
"We fall in a rogue state of music," Ramírez told me before the show. "We're not rock enough and we're not reggae enough." Rafiki's hybrid may be hard to book, but I disagree. If rock is about freedom and attitude, then Rafiki Project is one of the best regional rock bands we have. All they need is to integrate their vocal harmonies live (Ramírez double-tracks on the record) and come up with "rock" songs as good as their dub reggae stuff. If even more rock is what they want. Dear booking agents: don't doubt Rafiki — they may do the skank, but they can rock, too.
> Email Enrique Lopetegui