One Artist’s Mission to Connect: Talking ABENG with Walshy Fire

Paley Martin speaks to the Major Lazer member about his new solo album.
By    June 20, 2019

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Paley Martin can do a mean tick tock.

On a late Thursday night in Manhattan, in the basement of an alleyway bar, Walshy Fire grips the mic. Just hours before to the release of his debut album, Walshy Fire Presents: ABENG, he’s MCing his own listening party, walking a crowd of industry folks, influencers, and musicians through the sounds they’re about to hear. “ABENG,” he says, “is a horn instrument brought to Jamaica from Ghana used by runaway slaves to communicate over long distances.” And while the crowd maintains their chatter and orders their next round of drinks, the music begins to reveal an intimate, centuries old conversation.
For those still attuned, it’s clear that ABENG is a journey deeply personal to Fire. Beyond this being his debut solo album, it’s a dynamic dialogue between two places he holds dear: Africa and the Caribbean. “This is a conversation that I hope everybody enjoys,” he says. “I want the people of the diaspora to see each other as one.”

A Jamaican-American DJ, MC, and producer best known as one third of dancehall/reggae/electronic trio Major Lazer, Fire has always woven the message of unity throughout his music. ABENG, while no exception, is different — more “targeted,” as he puts it. “With Major Lazer, [the music is] a lot more specific,” he tells me on an earlier phone call. “[ABENG] isn’t an EDM thing. There’s no festival music on there. There’s no drops. It’s really authentic Afrobeats and Caribbean music.”For much of Fire’s life, however, Africa remained a mystery. “I was completely clueless until I started to travel,” he admits. “Besides Fela Kuti, [African music] just didn’t come over to the West. My foundation is solely Caribbean, and it wasn’t until I began to go to Africa that I saw the similarities between the sounds.” His connection with the continent began on a tour with Major Lazer and four returning tours to follow. “As soon as you get there, you just feel an energy,” he shares. “You start to eat the foods that are similar. You’re looking at faces that are similar.”

This surprising familiarity so many miles away from home was what kickstarted the idea for ABENG, as did the tragic passing of a friend. “The name, ABENG, was sparked by a friend of mine,” he tells me. “I used to love his name. I wondered what it meant, and I’d just bother him about it. When he passed, I’m like, yeah, that’s the name [of the album].”

From the legacy of his friend to that of his ancestry, ABENG carries rich meaning. Pairing African and Caribbean artists, the LP is textured with a seamless fusion of reggae, soca, dancehall, and Afrobeats. “I just tried to make sure I covered all the bases,” he shares. Enlisting top-tier artists like Nigeria’s Runtown, Ghana’s Stonebwoy, Trinidad’s Machel Montano, and Jamaica’s Christopher Martin, among others, Fire is joined by an A-list lineup of personal friends. “It was just vibing,” he says of his approach. “Listening to the sound of the voices in my head, reaching out to people and saying, ‘I think you would sound good on this.’”

Much of that vibing was done on the road through file sharing, Fire discloses. “We do what we can,” he says. “Everyone’s got tight schedules. Everyone’s moving and traveling.” But if he could make the album his way? “We’d for sure do it in Africa.”

Although its sonic focus is specific, much of the album’s content maintains a universal message. Take “Call Me,” for example. A collaboration between reggae/dancehall singer Kranium and Afrobeats artist Mr. Eazi, two of the most relevant artists in their respective genres, “Call Me” tells a simple, love-ridden tale. While the Afrobeats soundscape immediately transports listeners, the hook is a casual request to which most can relate: “Just call me, call me when you’re lonely.” The same could be said for Alkaline and Runtown’s “No Negative Vibes,” the LP’s lead single. A slowed-down summer anthem, the feel-good track enlists Fire’s overarching mission of positivity. “Tonight, to tonight, tonight, no negative vibes,” repeats Runtown.

Back at his listening party in Manhattan, the message resonates as Fire grips the mic again. “This project,” he says, “and everything that I’ll do, is going to be 100 percent positive.”

For Walshy Fire, positivity isn’t just a buzz word; it’s a mantra embedded in the DNA of this album and his music that came before it. Tonight, as ABENG blasts through the speakers of a hip alleyway bar in Manhattan, a rare and significant story unfolds — not only the story between distant lands, but that of an artist whose purpose was to embrace and perpetuate their beats, histories, and voices.

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