To be honest, the Rafiki Project — not to be confused with the Central Ohio charity — had me at sound check. Guitarist-vocalist Daniel Ramirez tested out the mic with the chorus from Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and part of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “Crossroads” — two songs I’ll always be a sucker for. I bring this up not, surprisingly enough, to discredit myself as a music critic or to say the band sounds anything like either of these acts when they’re not goofing around during tune-up, but to bring up a few peculiarities in my own musical taste, strange fetishes I try to avoid talking about, but I’m afraid the Project caters to directly. I have a genuine appreciation for some Sublime songs, for example, and I like trance-y Bob Marley remixes better than their original counterparts. If you do, too, get to the next Rafiki Project concert (they play a free First Friday show March 5 at Lazy Daze, 628 S. St. Mary’s), and give them a listen. If you stopped reading this at the first mention of Sublime, uh … well, I guess I’ll catch you later.
“Aggressive Touch” plays off of the tension created by the imbalance between Banner Matney’s relentless bassline and Charlie Hickman’s lethargic trumpet. Brandon Perry, electronics wizard, fiddles knobs and plays keyboard, creating walls of reverb for the other instruments to bounce off of. Like most of us born too late, the Rafiki Project seem to cut their Marley with a healthy dose of revisionist reggae, diffusing the key elements — the off-beat guitar, the dread-rattling basslines, the soulful, politically minded vocals — through contemporary American filters such as Fugazi and Ben Harper. “Raincoats” makes the inanity of lines like “Raincoats will do you no good/ It’s the rain that provides you with your food” a non-issue by hazing Ramirez’s vocals in a thick cloud of dub and distortion till they’re another noise in the collage, serving the same purpose as the vocal-sample sweet nothings in a lot of electronic dance music.
Other songs seem to have more meaning. “This is a song about people who steal land,” Ramirez says before “Whole Entire World.” Other songs are titled “Interconnected,” “Planting Trees,” and “Ocean Thief,” which opens with Ramirez’s guitar getting fierce before the music belies its angry lyrics with shrugging delivery, oceanic ambience, and Hickman’s catchy mariachi trumpeting. “This is another song about stealing land,” Ramirez says, introducing it, “because we think it’s important. We don’t like singing about girls. Let’s put it that way.” A few other song titles: “Enorma,” “Dub Atomic Atmosphere,” and “Preservatives,” which wastes no innuendo describing a “flight to my mushroom planet” and drifts between Top 40 catchiness and tweaked-out retro-futuristic reggae that might be called space jam, if Michael Jordan were never born. Watching it played live is like seeing a remix created in real time.
The one weakness worth pointing out, in fact, is the rest of the band’s reliance on Perry’s electronic embellishments, which could be more effective if the band better diversified to supply him with more original instrumentals to work with, but as the Rafiki Project has yet to drop their first official album (due March 20), we can save that worry for some other day. — Jeremy Martin