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Michael Jackson tribute fits like a glove

Ben Darwish finds a real love for the late pop star's music
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Ben Darwish and his Michael Jackson tribute band will be performing songs rearranged to the afro beat on Aug. 28 at Berbati’s.

Portland's Ben Darwish has experimented with music in his young life, and his recent Michael Jackson Tribute band has been one of the more enriching endeavors.

'We thought it'd be a one-time thing, but it went really well,' he says. 'People loved it.'

He rearranged 10 songs from Jackson to the afro-beat of the late Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, and presented them with a 10-piece ensemble at the Time Based Art Festival last year. Coincidentally, it was shortly after the King of Pop died.

In a more planned manner, Darwish's group will close out the one year dalliance with the music Saturday, Aug. 28, at Berbati's and Sunday, Aug. 29, at Tractor Tavern in Seattle. Aug. 29 would have been Jackson's 52nd birthday.

More known as an indie-jazz performer, the 26-year-old Darwish was getting into the Fela sound while also listening to Jackson, and thought it would be pretty novel to combine the two.

'Fela's music is influenced by jazz and James Brown, in a way the same influence on Michael Jackson,' says Darwish, a Lincoln High and University of Oregon grad. 'And, (Jackson) had the jazz influence by Quincy Jones. I heard the bridge there.'

The Jackson tribute includes: 'Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough'; 'Billy Jean'; 'Rock With You'; 'Blood on the Dance Floor' (obscure); 'Shake Your Body'; 'Fly Away' (unreleased); 'Beat It'; 'Smooth Criminal'; 'Workin; Day and Night'; 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'.'

'Smooth Criminal' has a dance mix, 'and all the others I've tried to have an afro-beat element, based on the drum groove pioneered by Tony Allen of Fela's band. … It's a fuse of styles. … Some of them don't sound like Michael Jackson songs - a lot of mixing and mashing,' he says.

The Michael Jackson Tribute band includes Tahirah Memory and Gretchen Mitchell on vocals, with keyboardist Darwish also singing.

'I've always enjoyed Michael Jackson's music,' Darwish says. 'He's one of those artists who I think everyone can respect; even if for some reason you're not a fan, it's because of his big impact on pop music and music in general.'

He adds: 'It's not a cover band, it's a tribute band. I just wanted to do this last show, and go out with a bang, make room for other stuff I want to do.'

Indeed, Darwish has his own band, the Ben Darwish Group, which recently put out an EP, 'I Don't Want to Live on the Moon.' He also plays host to a jazz series the first Tuesday of every month at the Mission Theater. He teaches at Ethos Music Center.

And, he'll be spending the next two months playing music on a cruise ship in the Bahamas.

The Michael Jackson Tribute will be at 10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28 at Berbati's Pan, 231 S.W. Ankeny St. Cover is $10.