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World Music Matters

AfrotroniX promotes Africa 2.0

Audio 10:00
Caleb Rimtobaye on the decks
Caleb Rimtobaye on the decks RFI/Alison Hird

Caleb Rimtobaye, lead singer and guitarist with the Canadian-Chadian band H’Sao, has traded the quartet’s world music, soul universe for electro. His solo project, AfrotroniX, blends electronic beats and African rhythms to reflect "a modern, urban Africa" turned towards the future.

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Rimtobaye wears an eye-catching white plastic helmet both on and off stage.

In tribute to Daft Punk perhaps?

"No, they’re just bike helmets," he smiles, avoiding any accusation of trying to surf on the French band’s phenomenal success.

Rimtobaye’s headgear is inspired by a much older, more traditional Chadian culture.

"It came from a mask we call Do in my Sara language, it’s like an initiation, boys wear it when they come out of the bush. So it’s something sacred."

Rimtobaye designed it himself and considers it attractive headwear. It’s undoubtedly a head-turner.

It also allows him to "savour" the music and keep his concentration when playing or mixing on stage.

The 34 year-old’s own initiation into electronic music is a recent affair.

A year ago he was composing, playing keys and singing mainly gospel-inspired soul and jazz with his two brothers and a friend as part of H’Sao.

Afrotronix after his show in Paris
Afrotronix after his show in Paris

When the Canadian Arts Council offered him a grant to develop a new project, he jumped at the chance to leave his comfort zone and take a few risks.

"Living in Montreal has opened lots of musical doors," he says. "I’d met very different people, played guitar for DJs. And as I also have a studio I was able to make sounds for R’n’B artists for example."

After experimenting with rock and blues, even metal, he was drawn in by the endless possibilities offered by electronic music.

But as he didn’t want to compete with Canadian DJs or promote Western urban music, he dug into his African roots and returned to Chad to "pick up samples of (his) grandmothers’ voices."

He then mixed them with loops composed on his computer.

"The African rhythmic base, like Saï in Chad for example, has a completely different rhythmic form but electronic music adapts very well to African rhythms," he says.

"Taking a tribal art form and mixing it with a digital one gives me endless ways to experiment."

Which is what he does not just in the studio, but increasingly on stage with the AfrotroniX show: live performance (keys, drums, Afro-urban choreography), DJing and a multi-media-rich set.

"There’s augmented reality in the show, dancers interact with video images. On stage, I try to portray Africa in 2050."

Thanks to considerable Chadian financial backing, Rimtobaye managed to take a huge version of AfrotroniX to N’Djamena last October.

He says it was hugely important his fellow Chadians see, and approve, the show.

"I’m taking tribal songs and putting them in a digital world, putting really trash dub-step onto them. So it was important they give me their blessing."

Fortunately they did.

"I guess that’s something I’m proud of," he adds. "The mission is to be an ambassador of this Afro-futurism idea I’m pushing, and to try and get more people to understand and follow it."

Paris’s Chadian community also turned out in big numbers when Rimtobaye recently performed at the Theatre des Etoiles. Draped in the national flag, several members of the public jumped on stage to dance and sing along to Petit Pays - a tribute to this "little-known" but beautiful central African country.

The challenge now is to get Western audiences to adopt the AfrotroniX spirit, and look through that window onto an urban, connected and modern "2.0" Africa.

"I want us to come out of the stereotype of Africa being a place you retreat to, where you re-charge your batteries," he says.

Africa isn’t just a source of raw materials he adds. It’s increasingly urban.

"There’s a big movement in the fields of fashion and business, an Africa that’s looking to the future," he says. "That’s the Africa I’m interested in. So I want to be a kind of musical ambassador for that movement."

Rimtobaye is aiming, quite simply, to help write the continent’s future.

"We didn’t participate in writing our history. So this time we want to decide how the future is going to be."

AfrotroniX’s debut album is planned for the summer.

To keep up to date on further shows and video clips, follow AfrotroniX on Facebook.

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