This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Above: Members of the Body Electric Afrofunk Band outside the Apollo Theater where they performed in early February. Below: Will Healy '12 (left) and Nate Torrence '11 at Shrine World Music Venue in August 2011. Photos courtesy Luke Leavitt '12.

The Apollo Mission

Call it a Cinderella story. A group of seven Vassar seniors and recent graduates was performing for commuters in New York City’s subway station at 125th Street and 8th Avenue when a gentleman walked up and handed them a business card. “I’d like you to play at the Apollo,” he said, referring to the legendary theater in Harlem. The band—known as The Body Electric Afrofunk Band—had just been discovered. It was a moment years in the making.

Geography major and keyboardist Luke Leavitt ’12 came to Vassar with a mission: to start a band. He envisioned a band that would draw on many influences, most notably Afrobeats. An inherently African—and especially Nigerian—form of music, Afrobeats was pioneered by Fela Kuti and combines Yoruba, jazz, funk, and other elements. In the spirit of Kuti, Leavitt wanted to use music as a platform for social activism. “It allows us to be political in an abstract sense,” he says, “cohering people in a public space.”

Leavitt found like-minded musicians in Chris Connors ’12 and Dan Kleederman ’12 on guitar and bass, Nate Torrence ’11 on sax and trombone, Will Healy ’12 on trumpet, Alex Goldberg ’11 on percussion, and Ben Roberts ’12 on drums.

The group got its start in Fall 2008. In addition to Afrobeats, the Body Electric’s diverse influences also include Prince, B.B. King, James Brown, Animal Collective, and contemporary Indy bands. The result is eclectic improvisational dance music.

Rehearsing twice per week (often in Skinner Hall) for nearly three years eventually paid off. In 2011, the Body Electric was one of 19 new bands and soloists added to the roster of more than 200 that provide 150 weekly performances at 25 locations throughout the New York City transit system, including Grand Central Station. They had become part of an institution known as Music Under New York, part of the Arts for Transit program of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. It was—and remains—a good gig, with the group pulling in upwards of $300 per hour, strictly in tips. They were performing in a station on the A line when Adé Williams, community relations manager for the Apollo, happened by.

The Body Electric Afrofunk Band

Last month, the Body Electric graced the Apollo stage as part of the theater’s Community Jam event. “It’s a landmark institution,” says Leavitt. The weight of performing on that hallowed stage was not lost on group members.

Apollo Theater historian Billy Mitchell served as the event MC, along with personalities from Harlem radio station WHCR. “At the Apollo, we were sort of called upon to represent Afropop in general,” explains Leavitt. WHCR interviewed the group on its News and Views from Africa program. The schedule billed the band as an Afropop act. Getting ready to introduce the band, MC Mitchell listed other Afropop greats that had performed on that very stage. “Then we come on stage, and we’re very clearly not African,” Leavitt says.

“We didn’t let that deter us from playing our butts off,” he says. The Body Electric played a 20-minute, two-song set consisting of “Crystal City,” an original by Leavitt, and “The Process,” an original by Kleederman. The group easily won over the Apollo’s notoriously opinionated crowd. “We were really well received. During one of the solos, people were shouting ‘Take your time! Go for it!’ They were really encouraging,” Leavitt recalls.

Many band members are now wrapping up their senior year at Vassar, while also planning to release a CD in summer 2012 with seven tracks, all originals. They’re also heading back to New York City, where Music Under New York—and possibly a career in music—is waiting. “We’re committed to the idea of going pro in some way,” Leavitt says. They’re shooting for the moon, and at the very least, have already landed at the Apollo.

Listen to clips of the band's music, or catch the latest gigs, by visiting its Facebook page.

–Peter Bronski

March 2012

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