Henhouse Prowlers Become Musical Ambassadors
Henhouse Prowlers, the Chicago-based bluegrass outfit, had played Africa before.
In 2013, the band was chosen to do a month-long tour of the African countries Congo, Liberia, Mauritania and Niger as part of a State Department-funded program called American Music Abroad. So they weren’t exactly surprised when last summer they received an invitation to play Nigeria.
“All the embassies talk to each other, and word got out that our trip went really well,” says Henhouse Prowlers cofounder and banjo player Ben Wright. “We got a call from our embassy in Nigeria asking us to come over for a program called Arts Envoy. We had such a good time our first trip we accepted graciously.”
Wright, who describes the trips as part diplomatic outreach, part cultural exchange and part impromptu jam session with local musicians, says this time the band wanted to create their own version of a local hit – a tune Nigerians would recognize. So he asked the cultural affairs officer at the embassy in Abuja to send some Nigerian songs to the band. The song they chose was “Chop My Money” by a Nigerian hip-hop duo P-Square, made up of twin brothers Peter and Paul Okoye. The track mixes English, pidgin and a West-African language called Yoruba, but they each learned a verse, syllable by syllable.
“We essentially unknowingly picked the song everyone from age 2 to 80 knew,” Wright says. “The minute we started playing that song, people just lost it. They couldn’t contain themselves and that’s how it was everywhere.”
The first time they played it was at a reception at the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission’s house in Abuja, in a room filled with some of Nigeria’s elite. One man gave each member of the band a 500 naira banknote (about $3) as a mark of approval at the end of the song. The highlight of their tour, however, came when they headlined a July 4 concert at the U.S. Embassy.
“Peter Okoye of P-Square happened to be there and he got up and sang the song with us completely unrehearsed,” Wright says. “P-Square is the biggest band on the continent, so cameras started going off, people were singing along. People just lost their minds.”
The song has grown on Henhouse Prowlers as well. Since returning to the U.S., they recorded their own bluegrass version of “Chop My Money,” and still play it in their set.
“We perform it every night,” Wright says. “The underlying thing about that song is that it’s just a great tune. Whether you’re from West Africa or West Chicago it’s a great song, and people request it every single night.”
Henhouse Prowlers – which in addition to Wright includes Jon Goldfine on bass, Dan Andree on fiddle and Starr Moss on guitar – have two more State Department trips planned for 2015. In April, the band will spend two weeks in Russia, and in May, Wright says, they will spend the month in another part of the world he could not disclose because it had yet to be officially announced.
“These trips are pretty intense,” he says. “It’s a mix of performances and we also go to orphanages and colleges and do presentations and interact with local people and musicians as a type of exchange. Of course, many of these people have never heard bluegrass before.”
When not serving as international ambassadors, the band, which initially formed as a side project in 2004, continues to churn out its brand of distinctly new traditional bluegrass while still touching on classic themes such as love, loss and regret.
After recording 2007’s self-titled debut and 2009’s “A Dark Rumor,” which was produced by Don Stiernberg with assistance from Greg Cahill of Special Consensus, Henhouse Prowlers first gained national recognition in 2010 when they reached the finals of the 37th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June and followed up a month later by winning the prestigious 2010 RockyGrass Festival’s bluegrass band competition at Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, Colo. The Prowlers took the top prize after two rounds of judging by playing mostly original songs and capping the competition with a grassed-up version of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”
“It was important for sure,” Wright says. “I’m not a big fan of competitions like that, but as a band starting out you have to do things that sticks your neck above everyone else. We worked really hard and it really did push us.”
Since then, Henhouse Prowlers have released two more albums – 2011’s “Verses, Chapters and Rhymes,” and their latest, 2013’s “Breaking Ground,” which was produced by Cahill. Cahill also broke out his banjo, performing on “Ravenswood Getaway” and “Rosebud Rounds the Yard.”
“He started Special Consensus, which has been around for 40 years,” Wright says. “They are a huge influence to us as a band. To spend that much time in the studio with someone with that much musical experience and life experience was just incredible.”
Many of the tracks, including highlights “Lonesome Road,” a road song penned by Goldfine, and “The Track,” about a man out for revenge, remain in the band’s regular set list. Wright adds that they have also been road-testing new material, particularly the Moss-penned “Leaving You for the Interstate,” from the band’s as-yet-untitled fifth album, due out later this year.
“We’re in the studio right now,” Wright says. “We have 13 original tunes so it will be first time that we release an album that doesn’t have a cover on it. I’m really excited about it. It’s already shaping up to be a crazy year.”