London-based six-man outfit Fofoulah have a unique sound: it's deeply rooted in West African musical traditions and yet simultaneously futurist, even dystopian. It's also, frankly, bloody good. The band's two studio albums, 2014's eponymous release and 2018's more adventurous Daegu Rek, combine elements of electronic music, dub textures and sci-fi synths. Here at Tap Social though, the band's live show pared things back and pushed percussion to the fore, with Dave Smith on drums and Kaw Secka and Batch Gueye playing sabars, a type of drum from the Gambia and Senegal with a distinctive, almost ceramic sound. Supporting the trio were Tom Challenger on keyboard, Phil Stevenson on guitar and Johnny Brierley on bass.
Fofoulah crafted a layered, richly-textured sound and the together the drumbeats make for a reverberating barrage that got the crowd bouncing and twisting. Then came the vocals of Gueye, who is armed with a plaintive, yearning cry, while Secka's rapping is fiercer, more urgent. He's also a natural frontman, gesturing and rousing the audience. Both vocalists express themselves in Wolof, which, like their drums, originates in coastal West Africa (Fofoulah translates as "It's there"). But not understanding the lyrics wasn't an issue - the tone gave you everything you need to know, and the singing and rapping had a spellbinding, mesmeric quality, the likes of which Botley surely has not seen before. Altogether it's hectic, full of pace and power, and takes you somewhere you can't quite envisage.
Things mellowed for a moment with 'My Heart', more of a love song than the heady, percussion-led incantations we'd heard earlier on, and there were strains of silken saxophone from Challenger. Then it was ramped up again, Secka often unleashing a tama ("talking drum") for improvised drum sequences. Fofoulah don't set out intending to make 'fusion music', but just combine the musical backgrounds of each member, reflecting London's cosmopolitan cultural patchwork. As a result the music feels organic, and the band really seem like a tight-knit collective. Smith is clearly a phenomenally talented drummer and you can see the bassist and guitarist grinning and rolling their eyes when he adds more bars to a song, the sabar players watching for his signal to end the beat.
The last segment of the gig was raucous, the crowd well-oiled, and 'No Troubles (Kelinte)' went down a storm, building to peaks and then metamorphosing into a different beast entirely. The band followed it up with 'Seye', a dense, urban, primeval ripper of a track, and somewhere along the line Gueye marshalled the crowd back and took to the floor himself. There had been some good shapes on show but this was something else, Gueye skipping and hopping with such venom that he kept himself impossibly airborne.
We yelled for one more song and got 'Ya Ngu Mom' for our troubles, a haunting earworm of a song that digs in and stays put for the journey home. Energetic and powerful, this was far from everyday stuff, but then neither Oxford Contemporary Music nor Upcycled Sounds are particularly interested in the run-of-the-mill (the latter's next fixture in late March is a techno-ceilidh crossover). This was another eagle-eyed pick from organisers who know exactly what they're going for. Frantic and shamanic, Fofoulah's well-composed chaos was irrepressible.