It’s said that no one is a prophet in their own land. It certainly becomes much less disappointing when said prophet convinces a whole continent, instead. When Chad-born Montrealer Caleb Rimtobaye donned his AfrotroniX costume – including a Daft Punk-inspired helmet – in 2015, the whole African continent bowed down before him. Now, it’s on to Europe, before America finally succumbs to his African rhythms-and-chants inspired electronic music.
Times are good for Rimtobaye, who we had to track down for three months before managing to talk with him – because his touring schedule is so packed. In a recent profile, France’s daily paper Le Monde introduced him as the “Pan-African musician of the future.” Last November, Rimtobaye was crowned Best African DJ at the Afrima Gala (All Africa Music Awards) in Ghana. Last February, he was crowned Best Artist at the third annual Gala Dynastie celebrating “Black Excellence in Québec.” Those recognitions come not a moment too soon, when you consider that the AfrotroniX project has been going on for four years, not to mention the 15 years of existence of his other project, the Afro pop outfit H’Sao.
It was while working on a new H’Sao album that Rimtobaye began his AfrotroniX transformation. “I felt a need for a new artistic challenge, I wanted to explore a new universe,” Rimtobaye told us from Montréal, between connecting flights. “I didn’t want to do what we’d done before. I’ve always liked electronic music, I met a lot of musicians from Berlin’s underground scene and I liked the way they worked. That’s when I decided to amalgamate those techno and electro sensibilities to African art.”
Art, here, is meant in its most universal sense, since Rimtobaye believes “AfrotroniX is a concept, a universe, a vision that points to Afro-futurism,” a literary and musical movement that dates back to the 1950s. Afro-futurism frames Africa (and its diaspora) in science fiction, imagining an African society that’s as avant-garde as, if not more than the Western world — especially on a technological level. Marvel’s superhero, Black Panther, recently became the icon of Afro-futurism, and musicians such as Sun Ra, Drexciya, George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic, Jlin, and Janelle Monae have all espoused this optimistic vision of Africa.
All aspects of Rimtobaye’s AfrotroniX project have been carefully considered, from his songs to his live performance, his space-hero costume to the show’s visuals, created by Baillat Cardell & Fils. “I felt the need to show another side of Africa,” he says. “It’s a modern continent, but I get the feeling that Western media aren’t interested in that [modernity]. Young Africans want to participate in this movement, and in the future of our world. They, too, are globalists.”
Not only is this vision of Africa at the core of AfrotroniX’s themes, but it was quite literally the catalyst for his project, conceived in 2011, and launched in 2015. “The H’Sao experiment led me to re-think my vision of African music,” says Rimtobaye. “We travelled extensively thanks to that project, and I realized that our music, in the eyes of the world, was still the music of another ethnic community. I wanted to present African music differently,” says the musician, who was dubbed the “African David Guetta” when he first performed in Tanzania, four years ago.
In other words, AfrotroniX summarizes the whole debate about the ill-designated, so-called “World Music.” In the Western world, anything that’s not from the Northern hemisphere is thrown into that hodge-podge, “even though what H’Sao did was quite universal” – namely a fusion of soul, R&B, pop, reggae, and African rhythms. “I do African electro,” says Rimtobaye. “Rhythmically, I use a lot of African polyrhythms, and the electronic element is only there to support that. The core of my songs is very African, even more so than what I did with H’Sao. I even use [African music] samples, rhythms, and voices to further link my work to the African traditions.” The next AfrotroniX album, planned for release next fall, will go even further in that direction.
When you travel like Rimtobaye has with H’Sao since 2001, and then with AfrotroniX, “you realize that what you hear when you spend a night in a club is always the same,” he says. “It’s the same music whether you’re in Australia, or Europe, or North America. It’s the same style of music everywhere. So it’s nice to have access to this Afrobeat alternative, African club music.”