Let’s take a sonic trip – to Nigeria!
I was first exposed to the Afrobeat genre at a NYC club during a set by DJ Rich Medina. The music was infused with life; I was surprised that music could be so energetic and also sound so chill at the same time. Leave it to the 70’s to parent a genre as solid as Afrobeat!
Afrobeat, a term coined by the genre’s founder, Fela Kuti, is an amalgamation of the coolest musical genres in existence. It has elements of funk, jazz, psychedelic rock, and reggae, and these influences are all weaved together on top of a foundation of polyrhythmic beats and chants traditionally found in the West African region. The sound of the music relies heavily a on “tinker-pan” African-style percussion (Wikipedia), and the bands are usually extremely large (15-20 performers), consisting of frenetic horn sections, drums, shekere, congas, claves, guitar, and bass. Fela Kuti’s band was innovative at the time for incorporating the sound of not just one, but two baritone saxophones into the musical collective. The two barry saxes in concert essentially provide a thick, almost tangible groove to the mood of the cuts. The vocal arrangements are often done in the “call-and-response” format, and are usually either in the Nigerian language called “Pidgin”, in the Yoruba language, or in English. Many of the newer, more modern afrobeat bands do the majority of their tunes in English.
So who is Fela Kuti, anyway, and how did he single-handedly manage to create an entire sub-genre of music all by himself? Before he was known as Fela Kuti or simply, Fela, he went by Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. He was born in 1938 in Nigeria during very turbulent times. There was a general anti-colonial sentiment within the people of Nigeria, and Fela was able to channel the political tension in his environment and spin it into art. After a trip to the U.S. with his band Koola Lobitos in 1969, Fela became acquainted with the Black Panther movement, and the passion of the Black Panthers seemed to invigorate him. The group inspired Fela to start speaking out against the injustices of his homeland, and provoked him to embrace his traditional African culture with full force. Soon Fela Kuti started using his music to broadcast all of his views, including: his support for Socialism and Pan-Africanism, his disbelief of the effectiveness of Western medicine, his distaste for dictatorships, and his support for a Democratic African Republic. He even disapproved of some of his fellow Africans, claiming they were betraying traditional African culture. Kuti was so outspoken, he started to ruffle the government’s feathers, and they started regularly raiding Kalakuta Republic, AKA the commune he created. (the commune which contained a nightclub, recording studio – which he declared was a state independent from Nigeria) (Wikipedia).
Fela’s political views influenced the subject matter of his songs to the point of riot. His single “Zombie”, which was a commentary on the behaviors of Nigerian soldiers, provoked the Nigerian military to ambush the commune. As a result of this song, Fela was beaten nearly to death, his mother was fatally thrown out of a window. All of his recordings were burned in the studio. In response, Fela countered with songs “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier”, which referenced the attack. In another incident, corrupt soldiers arrested Fela after planting a joint on him. He foiled their plan and ate the joint they had planted on him. Police then attempted to wait for him to “produce the excrement” so they could charge him. Fela paid another inmate to perform a “switch-the-poo” and then presented the untainted poo to authorities, effectively escaping charges. This whole experience also helped Fela “produce” something else…. A hit Afrobeat album entitled Expensive Shit. Talk about a “backfired” plan!
Although Fela died in 1997 from Kaposi’s Sarcoma as a result of AIDS, his music and spirit have recently been revived with the release of the new musical Fela!, which opened on Broadway in November 2009. The production features Brooklyn Afrobeat band Antibalas in the orchestra pit. The show received rave reviews and is backed by Questlove, Jay-Z, Will Smith, etc. If you can’t get a ticket to that, definitely check out the first installment in the re-release of Kuti’s entire catalog, starting with the album Best of the Black President.
FUN FELA FACTS
• Fela changed the name of his band numerous times: First it was called Koola Lobitos, then Nigeria ’70, then Africa ’70. It was briefly known asEgypt ’70 at some point as well.
• At one point, Fela was married to 27 women.
• In 1979, Fela “put himself forward for President in Nigeria”, but officials refused to let him be a candidate.
• Fela went to prison for bogus charges of “currency smuggling”; at that point when he went into jail he had 12 wives. When he got out, he divorced all of them, offering the explanation: “marriage brings jealousy and selfishness” (Wikipedia)
• Fela recorded over 70 albums during his career.
• He referred to his stage act as Underground Spiritual Game
• Fela didn’t really have the best strategy when it came to pleasing his fans – For one, practically all of his songs are 10 minutes or longer – when performed live, a song can realitically last up to 40 minutes. In addition, Fela refused to perform songs live after he had already recorded them in the studio.
Check out some Afrobeat by Fela Kuti, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Kokolo, and The Budos Band.
Fela Kuti with Africa ’70 in 1971
Impressive! At Femi Kuti Concert (Fela’s son) at Central Park Summerstage in 2007
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