Recreating the Equator

Matchatcha and Dibala at West Point Baptist

Despite the visible age of the West Point Baptist Church in Bronzeville, there’s a sense of vitality there, of coming together. Fluorescent bulbs plugged into old chandeliers and other recent renovations give a sense of the reinvigoration of the old, of the rekindling of extinguished flames in new ways. That’s something the South Side African immigrant community wants to promote with the long-awaited return of Diblo Dibala and his current backing band, Matchatcha, to Chicago.

Matchatcha and Dibala play a style of music known as soukous, from the French for “to shake”, secousse. The goal of the music, as the name implies, is not to impress the audience or display virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, but rather to make them feel the music, both emotionally and physically. Matchatcha creates a strong rhythmic base on which Dibala can overlay his snaking guitar lines, whose interplay with the keyboard creates an atmosphere of energy and exuberance. The rhythms have their origins in the Cuban rumba, which itself is an amalgamation of traditional African dance and Spanish influences. The return of Afro-Cuban rhythmic and melodic structures to an African musical setting  gives soukous a well-traveled aesthetic, a kind of homecoming after a long time away.

Dibala and Matchatcha are well known among the attendees: one mentions that this is his fifth time seeing them, although the last time was in 2007.

Indeed, this is a long-awaited reunion with the band for those present, most of whom immigrated to the United States, from Nigeria, Angola, and Kenya, among others. The immigrants were able to construct a community for displaced Africans in the nineties through a club called Equator, a hub of African music owned and managed by Emmanuel Egwu, also the organizer of the concert. Equator, which opened its doors at 4715 N. Broadway in 1990, was the only Chicago club that specialized in African music. Equator brought together people of different nationalities through concerts by famed African artists, such as Fela Kuti, Thomas Mapfumo, and Dibala himself.

The Equator club closed down years ago, but the memories of times there are still strong in the audience at West Point Baptist. “I used to go there almost every Saturday night,” says one man. His sentiment is reflected in the connection that still exists here among those in attendance. They seem eager to renew the sense of companionship they had at Equator and to bring it to new and greater heights.

For Egwu, however, this is a return to familiar business. Egwu, through Equator, introduced Dibala to Chicago, but it’s been years since Egwu has been in the business of running a club, having decided instead to focus on his family and friends. This is an unexpected return, and, for the half-full church of former clubgoers, a welcome one.

According to Paulo Bombe, a curator of African arts and longtime colleague of Egwu’s, “Egwu excels in the business of bringing people together and making them happy,” whether it’s through music or simply a place to gather. Bombe mentions that the event would probably not have happened without Egwu, who seems to have a knack for the business side of entertainment, but doesn’t lose sight of the underlying goal of a positive group experience.

For Egwu, this is a preview of things to come; he hopes that this will be able to happen again, once or twice a month, possibly even weekly. The goal is a new community center, where African immigrants across generations will have a chance to connect over shared cultural experiences.

Watching the reactions to Dibala’s cascading melodies and passionate attitude, the performers’ enthusiasm becomes undeniable. The dedicated friends and acquaintances who have by now left behind their clubbing days are swept up in the music, and soon they’re dancing like they’re at Equator once again. This first reunion is an encouraging sign of more gatherings to come.

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