Tag Archives: Afrobeat

Caught Up In Getting Caught Up

It is a long time since I have contributed reviews to this site. The reasons are many, varied and not a matter of public record. They’re also quite boring, so you wouldn’t want to hear about them in any case. My tendency had been to write reviews in groups united by some sort of genre, style or perceived common-ground theme. But I presently find myself so far behind that the disconnected overview I am about to subject you to is the only approach that will effectively close the gap. Apologies, and away we go.

As a longtime fan of Afrobeat music, I was greatly interested when I heard that Chicago Afrobeat Project would be collaborating with drummer Tony Allen. Allen, after all, was the man behind the kit for all of Fela Kuti’s groundbreaking records and was just as instrumental (pun absolutely intended) in creating the Afrobeat style. What Goes Up (Chicago Afrobeat Project, 2017) does not disappoint. Allen’s militantly polyrhythmic drumming is as spot on as ever. He also brings the experimental feel of his recent works, so the album isn’t simply formulaic Afrobeat but rather an effective blend of contemporary textures (including measured doses of rap) and traditionally-grounded grooves.

Horns, stinging keyboards and no-nonsense vocals (largely female) share most of the upper mix with Allen’s drums, while bass, guitars and percussion provide covert menace beneath. The lyrical unrest typical of Afrobeat is very much present in songs that address racial and gender inequity, political nonsense, media trickery and the belief that the high and mighty will be toppled sooner or later. None of the tracks are even five minutes in length (another departure from the once-usual Afrobeat template) and lest you think it’s all message-laden heaviness, “Afro Party” will handily prove otherwise. If this is the current state of Afrobeat, it’s in a healthy state indeed.

 

Betsayda Machado & La Parranda El Clavo – Betsayda Machado and Parranda El Clavo – Loe Loa: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree

 

While Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Colombian and Afro-Peruvian music have all been getting their due of late, Afro-Venezuelan music hasn’t fared as well. Perhaps the level of upheaval in that nation has some bearing, but now there’s a degree of redress to be found with Loe Loa: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree (Odelia, 2017) by Betsayda Machado and Parranda El Clavo.

Percussion and vocals are all you hear on this field recording (albeit captured with modern technology), and given that Betsayda and her many-strong ensemble are descended from escaped slaves who lived in hidden village communities, the drumming and call-and-response voices ring with an air of both celebration and defiance. This is thunderously rousing music, binding in its spell and guaranteed to raise your spirits to the highest heights. Alan Lomax is surely smiling from the Great Beyond.

 

Ilú Keké. Transmisión en la Eritá Meta

 

Similarly, Transmision En La Erita Meta (Sendero Music, 2017) is all about drums and voices, though the drums here are more than instruments. They are a trio of sacred Cuban bata, vessels of sound created to invoke and seek the blessings of the deities known as orishas, belief in which originated among the Yoruba people of West Africa and survived the slavery era. The worship system of Santeria was later syncretized with the saints of Catholicism, but purer forms of orisha worship endure in Cuba and elsewhere.

Spoken testimonies are interspersed among the 21 tracks on the CD, and if your understanding of Spanish is as non-existent as mine, the hypnotically complex pulses of the double-headed, bell-festooned bata and reverent vocal chants are all you’ll need to connect to the Divine. The disc comes with an extensive booklet that tells in great detail how the story of the particular drums used fits into the overall tradition that inspired their use. It’s as absorbing to read as the drumming is to listen to. Curl up and absorb yourself in both.

 

Aurelio – Darandi

 

Keeping close geographically as well as covering more music that came about in the age of slavery, Darandi (Real World/Stonetree, 2016) by Honduran Garifuna master musician Aurelio, captures him at his raw best. Following a performance at the U.K. WOMAD festival, he took his band to the in-house studio at Real World Records and recorded a dozen live-and-direct tracks that are a kind of greatest hits from his three previous studio albums.

Acoustic and electric guitars, bass and a pair of snare-buzzed traditional hand drums provide the accompaniment to Aurelio’s nimble voice and the glorious wraparound of his three backing vocalists. The African roots of Garifuna music resound in the highlife-like guitar chiming and feverish drumming, but Spanish and Central American indigenous elements are just as present. I’ll leave it to you to research the Garifuna origin story if you don’t already know it. I’m too busy listening to this excellent music.

 

Monoswezi – A Je

 

The liner notes of A Je (Riverboat Records/World Music Network, 2017), the latest by Monoswezi, describe them as “African-Nordic jazz alchemists.” And who am I to argue? Such wording makes my task of describing their music that much easier. I’m fairly sure this is the group’s third album, and the most immediately striking addition to their sonic brew is the harmonium, that hand-pumped organ so central to Pakistani Qawwali devotional music. The instrument gives a penetrating mystical edge to Monoswezi’s already very fine fusion of Mozambican, Norwegian, Swedish and Zimbabwean sounds. As before, I’d peg the rhythmic side of things as mostly African, though melodically it’s the punctuation of instruments like clarinet, banjo and the prior- mentioned harmonium that add the welcome Scandinavian chill and outward reach.

New to the lineup is Sidiki Camara, a calabash and ngoni (lute) player whose name I’ve seen in the credits of many a West African music album and who brings an extra layer of spark to this one. A Je is Monoswezi’s best yet, full of propulsive, hands-on percussion, adventurous but mutually perfect combinations of lead instruments (such as banjo and mbira plucking happily side-by-side) and vocals that sound like jelis singing tales of recent trips to Arctic zones and beyond. Consistently great listening through and through, so count it a must-have.

 

Elida Almeida – Kebrada

 

Closer to the African mainland (just to the west of it, specifically) we find the latest up-and-coming singer from Cape Verde, Elida Almeida. She scores on Kebrada (Lusafrica, 2017) which despite her young age finds her fully adept at the heart-stirring nuances of singing in familiar Afro-Portuguese styles like funana and coladera, mixing things up with some Latin and Caribbean inflections. Nothing revolutionary, just great music for the many out there who love the sounds Cape Verdeans have brought to the world. The fact that one of the contributing musicians is recently deceased Malagasy accordion master Regis Gizavo makes it even greater and more than a little bittersweet.

 

Stringquake – Cascade

Sometimes three pieces are all you need. Such is the case with Stringquake, whose album Cascade (Stringquake, 2016) blends Amelia Romano’s harp, Misha Khalikulov’s cello and Josh Mellinger’s percussion into instrumentals that range from intimately moody to absolutely grand. The two stringed instruments complement each other to perfection, an intertwining mesh that trades leading roles of tonal beauty while keeping pace with a percussion backdrop that includes cajon, frame drum, tabla and steel pan. You can rightly call some of this chamber music, some of it jazz fusion (like the cover of Don Cherry’s “Guinea”) and some of it world music in the not-otherwise-easily-classified sense. But it’s all beautifully, passionately rendered and stands up to repeated listens that continue to impress.

 

Astrid Kuljanic – Transatlantic Exploration Company – Riva

 

If an unconventional musical foursome is more your speed, check out Astrid Kuljanic on her release Riva (One Trick Dog Records, 2017). Her band, comprised of accordionist Ben Rosenblum, bassist Mat Muntz and percussionist Rogerio Boccato, is called the Transatlantic Exploration Company and her own background of having been born in Yugoslavia, studying music in Italy and Manhattan and finding inspiration on the Adriatic island of Cres makes the name perfectly fitting. And not surprisingly, the music fits the moniker as well. Kuljanic’s swooping, versatile vocals make her sound at home singing reconfigured traditional Croatian songs, scatty jazz pieces, samba-inspired charmers, a quirky original or two and a completely unique take on Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.” She and her players sound like they’re having a blast and the music is again hard to classify, but the whole thing is head-spinning good. Available from www.onetrickdogrecords.com

 

Divanhana – Live in Mostar

 

Lovers of sevdah, the often-melancholic traditional music from Bosnia and Herzegovina, will rejoice in Divanhana’s Live in Mostar (ARC Music, 2017). The band sports instrumentation that only bows partly to tradition (accordion, electric piano, electric bass, drums, percussion and violin) and livens up their “Balkan blues” with jazzy breaks and klezmer-like seasonings. The achingly gorgeous lead vocals of Naida Catic (particularly on the unaccompanied “Daurko Mila”) are clearly a major asset, but the entire band rises to the occasion.

Given how crystalline the sound is, you might easily mistake the disc for a studio album until the audience reaction reminds you that a lucky bunch of folks were able to enjoy this live and direct. And the CD comes with the next best thing to having been there: a DVD featuring live performances and interviews. Get this and savor a double dose of sevdah at its progressive best.

 

Various Artists – Cuba! Cuba!

 

If your collection of Cuban music isn’t complete (and whose is?), pick up Cuba! Cuba! (Putumayo, 2017). The various artists here are mostly in classic sound mode and some are younger artists carrying the torch for that classic sound. Still, the Putumayo folks like to throw in a wild card or two, and one surprise here is the unearthed instrumental “Guajira” featuring legends Alfredo Valdes Jr. on piano and trumpeter “Chocolate” Armenteros, recorded in Peru in 1964. That track serves as a kind of guidepost for the other fine singers and players on the disc, including veterans Roberto Torres and Armando Garzon (the latter with the ever-venerable and hypnotic “Chan Chan”), Miami-based young traditionalists Sonlokos and the always invigorating Jose Conde y Ola Fresca. This one’s got sizzle to spare.

 

Various Artists – Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston

 

“Chan Chan” is also the opening track on Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston (17 North Parade/VP, 2017), a brilliantly realized Cuban/Jamaican fusion in which son meets one drop, congas patter away alongside nyabinghi drums, Spanish-accented troubadours trade off with Trench Town chanters and both sides nice up the party. Some songs are more one locale than the other and employ a key element (like deejay chatter or regional horn riffs) that make the connection, while most are seamless mashups that are simply thrilling, like veteran guitarist Ernest Ranglin joyously picking his way through “410 San Miguel” with pianist Rolando Luna nimbly matching the vibe (and that’s before the dub effects even kick in).

Some of the other participants on the album are Sly and Robbie, Barbarito Torres, Changuito, Bongo Herman, Julito Padron and a chorus of notables that includes Leroy Sibbles, Lutan Fyah and Price Alla. That’s just the tip of things. No other written words will do justice to this landmark release recorded at Havana’s Egrem Studios under the guidance of producer/arranger/keyboardist Jake Savona. Highly recommended.

 

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino – Canzoniere

 

Grandly combining Italian traditional music with jolts of contemporary Western pop, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino strike a tasty, dance-ready balance on Canzoniere (Ponderosa Music Records, 2017). CGS are one of those bands that can seemingly do it all, mixing accordion, uniformly rhythmic clatter and a reggae feel on “Ientu,” infusing “Moi” with a start-and-stop techno stomp that dramatically punctuates the traded vocals, builds simplicity into complexity in nothing flat with help from guitarist Justin Adams on “Aiora” and erects walls of sound throughout using instruments and voices that are organically and electronically symbiotic. I’m not sure if the term “mind-blowing” is still in the accepted lexicon, but this album fits that description in a most satisfying way.

 

Mary Ann Kennedy – An Dan: Gaelic Songs for a Modern World

 

Scotland’s Mary Ann Kennedy gives us An Dan: Gaelic Songs for a Modern World (ARC Music, 2017), and a very nice lot they are. Her voice is grand and soaring and the arrangements, heavy on strings and Kennedy’s own piano, match to near-perfection. The lyrics are from a combination of literary sources while the musical arrangements are again Kennedy’s work, so the whole thing has an air of tradition mixed with vision.

Those who appreciate the familiarity of Gaelic music will be spellbound even as subtleties like the South African melody that underpins “Song for John MacDonald” ring true from a world beyond. For pure beauty, you can’t beat this.

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Latin Afrojam from Chicago

¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat

¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat – Juntos (2017)

Juntos is the new album by a Chicago-based collective with rotating members named ¡ESSO! (El Sonido Sonic Octopus). The band’s sound crosses numerous musical boundaries. It’s a superb mix of Afro-Latin, funk, rock, jazz, Afrobeat, pop, reggaeton, ska, cumbia, and more.

The band features seductive rhythms and a creative brass section. On the vocals side ¡ESSO! features lead and background vocals in Spanish. There is also some less interesting, tired rapping thrown in.

The members of ¡ESSO! Afrojam Funkbeat are committed to social justice, performing for grassroots community organizations that support after-school, immigrant justice, and fair housing programs throughout Chicago and Illinois.

Personnel: Armando Pérez on guitar, bass, keyboards and vocals; Kevin Miller on saxophone; Dan Lieber on drums and percussion; Ezra Lange on bass; Diana Mosquera on vocals; Lessic Franko on percussion; Jess Anzaldúa on percussion; and Matthew Davis on trombone. Juntos also includes various guests.

Buy the digital download version of Juntos. The CD is available from cdbaby.com

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The Groove Master and Chicago Afrobeat Project

Chicago Afrobeat Project – What Goes Up

Chicago Afrobeat Project – What Goes Up (Chicago Afrobeat Project, 2017)

Chicago Afrobeat Project, one of the finest Afrobeat collectives in North America, teams up with Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer and groove master Tony Allen on What Goes Up. What was initially to be a collaboration on two tracks, grew into 10 tracks.

What Goes Up features a formidable rhythm section, an excellent cast of vocalists, and fabulous keyboards and guitars, as well as a solid brass section. In addition to classic Afrobeat, Chicago Afrobeat Project injects soul, funk, jazz fusion, blues, electronica and other elements, creating an explosive mix. The only drawback is the participation of some rappers who disrupt the cool vibes with their tired, monotonous out of rhythm rapping on 2 or three songs.

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Artist Profiles: Chicago Afrobeat Project

Chicago Afrobeat Project
Chicago Afrobeat Project (CAbP) is a dynamic musical collective rooted in 1970s funk and jazz-infused afrobeat. CAbP mixes traditional afrobeat with other dance-invoking musical motifs such as Chicago’s electronic house music complex West African percussion rhythms and upbeat funk.

At each performance the polyrhythmic groove and sharp horn lines of CAbP stir up energetic momentum sweeping listeners directly to the dance floor time and time again.

The group began in late 2002 in a third-story loft on Lake Street in downtown Chicago. What began as a simple experiment turned into sifting through unique and colorful musicians literally from around the world.

One by one at a series of loft rehearsals in downtown Chicago like-minded musicians joined the project until members of the current band felt an undeniable chemistry.

Today the ever-morphing 7- to 14-piece CAbP consists of a full percussion section a full horn section keys guitar bass and African dancers (at select shows) — and is still growing.

The band’s live set consists of originals as well as carefully chosen classic and obscure afrobeat covers — each embedded with the unique CAbP footprint. In CAbP each member is a leader an ensemble player a percussionist and a soloist.

Discography:

Chicago Afrobeat Project (CAbP Music 1, 2005)

(A) Move to Silent Unrest (CAbP Music 2, 2007)

Off The Grid (CAbP Music, 2009)

Nyash Up! (Chicago Afrobeat Project, 2013)

website: www.chicagoafrobeatproject.com

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Sizzling Jambú

Jungle Fire – Jambú (Jungle Fire Music/Nacional Records, 2016)

Los Angeles-based Afro-Latin funk band Jungle Fire is an outstanding collective of musicians from various backgrounds who have played with many well-known artists and musical styles. On their album Jambú, Jungle Fire delivers a sizzling genre-defying combination of Afrobeat, funk, cumbia, Latin jazz, West Coast Latin rock, makossa, and more, featuring an irresistible rhythm section and potent brass section.

The line-up includes Joseph “Joey” Reina on bass; Jud McDaniel on guitar and bass; Patrick Bailey on guitars; bass and Korg MS-20; Sam Halterman on drums; Sam Robles on baritone saxophone; Otto Granillo on trombone; Sean Billings on trumpet; Alberto López on congas, timbales, batá drums, cajón, güiro, flor tom, guacho, guagua, llamador, Moroccan bongo, guijada, qraqeb (karkabas); claps and vocals; Michael Duffy on timbales, bongos, bongó cowbell and claps; Steve Haney on congas, bongó, batá, shekere, güiro, trash lid and tambourine. Special guests: Sandino González-Flores on vocals and Natalia González on vocals.

 

 

 

 

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Artist Profiles: Honoré Avolonto

Afrobeat musician Honoré Avolonto started his career in 1969 as a percussionist. The young conga player went onto become one of Benin’s most prolific composer.

Avolonto composed Benin’s most successful LP (no title – SAT 143) which was recorded for the Satel music label in the late 70s. The album was recorded with the Black Santiago, a band fronted by amazing trumpet player Ignace De Souza, another legend, with whom he recorded the Afrobeat track “Dou Dagbe We” few years earlier. Avolonto has fronted some of Benin’s most powerful bands.

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Length & Time: Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids

Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids - We Be All Africans
Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids – We Be All Africans

I will be writing a column on Length & Time in music, in each presenting an album and its strategies that pertain to addressing Length & Time.

We Be All Africans is wholly political. Its songs are rich enough for a politicizing listen. Their lengths burn the mind.

The title of the album is slogan English, replenished by political rallies and political conversation. The song “We Be All Africans” is Afrobeat-ish Jazz, political, that could be a Fela Kuti song. Fela’s aesthetic was built on ethos guided by Nigerian religion and ethnic culture and so was his appeal. Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids’ Afrobeat is rooted in subjective political sentiment, on abstraction about ‘blackness,’ and on an appreciation of Afrobeat. Ackamoor’s Afrobeat nonetheless sounds phenomenal.

“Whispering Tenderness” is soul, also political. It’s the sort of song that conjures good sentiment both because of a woman’s singing voice and because of a fresh and cool perspective; it is a medley of goodness. “Traponga” is a much harsher listen. That they are on the same album is exactly what We Be All Africans is all about: it strives to cover a significant pan of what Ackamoor considers to be African-ness (political.)

“Silent Days” is what is today considered Afro-futurism (political.) If translated to French, it could be a jazzy French chanson (political) and would work. English, the language par example of Gothic feeling and of sobriety, of reformation, seems unsuited to this sort of political feeling balladry.

“Epiphany” is slow and sultry. Naming a sultry song “Epiphany” is fascinating (is sultry, the act of being sultry, an epiphany about one’s self?) In the US (because of its protestant cultural history) it may be the case. What’s more is that perhaps blackness in music, black music, provided this country with an epiphany about individuality – that this world was made to Jazz, rag, rock, blues, stride, funk, in until one’s death.

Buy We Be All Africans

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Artist Profiles: Femi Kuti

Femi Kuti
Femi Kuti

One of the heirs of the genius of Nigerian Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti is his son, Femi. Femi’s version of Afrobeat is the exciting new sound to emerge from Nigeria for years, borrowing the best elements from his father’s powerfully polyrhythmic prototype – the funky, jazzy, heavily percussive sound that took James Brown’s beat back to Africa. Femi adds to the winning formula with a freshness and exuberance of young Lagos and its taste for the new R&B and dance music of the United States of America and Europe.

Femi first rose to international prominence in 1985, when he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, fronting Fela’s forty piece band, Egypt 80. Fela failed to make it onto the plane, having been arrested at Lagos airport and jailed on a trumped-up fraud charge. Femi, already a member of his father’s band, came to the rescue that night, giving a show that brought the audience at the packed Bowl to its feet. Even though the fans had paid to see and hear the charismatic Fela, Femi was able to fully satisfy them with the same rude, muscular saxophone style (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) and lean self-confidence bordering on arrogance.

Two years later, Femi had formed his own young band, The Positive Force, and released their debut album for Polygram Nigeria. Titled No Cause for Alarm, the album was a raw but impressive mixture of funky soul-jazz, driving percussion and horns, with sharp social comment.

Strong interest in this album prompted a dramatic debut appearance in Paris, where Femi’s no-hold-barred show devastated a huge audience. He has since carried out numerous, extensive European tours with critics favorably comparing the big band sound of the sixteen member group with Fela Kuti’s legendary Egypt 80.

The performance of The Positive Force’s lithe and sensual dancers/singers is described as a visual feast which has to be seen to be believed. In 1994, Femi was signed by the legendary Motown label. An album, Wonder Wonder, was released in 1995, and was followed by a successful tour of the United States. Unfortunately, soon after the record’s release, a change in the presidency of Motown resulted in the scrapping of Tabu, the African music boutique label which the company’s former president, Jeryhl Busby, had championed. An undaunted Femi pressed on, carrying out extensive tours within Africa, with further acclaimed visits to Europe in 1996 and 1997.

Femi Kuti
Femi Kuti

Sadly, in August of 1997, Fela Kuti died. Another tragedy was to shake the Kuti family to their roots shortly afterwards with the untimely death from cancer of Femi’s younger sister, Sola. Together with his other sister, Yeni, Sola had been a founding member of The Positive Force and her presence sorely missed. Her place in the group was taken by Femi’s wife, Funke, who has proved to be a gifted singer and dancer. In December 1997, Femi signed a recording contract with Barclay/Polygram. His Shoki Shoki album was first released in Europe to tremendous critical acclaim.

Femi performs regularly in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. He has also toured extensively in Europe and the United States, including a 50-date European tour and US club tours. Femi and The Positive Force will continue to return to the US on tours and festival dates.

In July of 2000, UNICEF published Femi’s AIDS in Africa essay in its Progress Of Nations 2000 report. On September 4, Femi received top honors at the Kora All Africa Music Awards, including Best Male Artist in Africa and Best Song for his sexually charged single, “Beng Beng Beng.” At the globally-televised World Music Awards in May, 2000, Femi received the Best-Selling African Artist award and performed “Beng Beng Beng” to a captivated audience.

In 2001 Fight to Win continued to evolve this development of a democratization and an openness in afrobeat instigated by Femi Kuti since his first album. Containing Nigerian jazz funk rhythms with a touch of hip hop, Femi collaborated with American rappers such as Mos Def and Common, and soul singer Jaguar Wright, creating an album of universal critical acclaim.

After three years spent between studio work and touring, Femi Kuti returned to the roots of a musical and political movement of which he is, as of now, the unique symbol and only representative. He decided to invest his success in the reconstruction of a new Shrine, a musical temple, erected, displaced and rebuilt by Fela Kuti following repeated attacks against the old ones by a corrupt military power.

Just as his father before him, Femi Kuti and his Positive Force continue to make of this place a space in which music is the weapon of the future. For this heir to afrobeat it’s a turning point. Having achieved recognition on the international scene since the 1990s, Femi Kuti could have chosen to live in a western city such as Paris, London or New York City, all cities which have taken him to their hearts. But it’s in Femi Kuti’s hometown of Lagos, one of the most explosive cities in the world, he has decided to pursue the fight.

Discography:

No Cause for Alarm (Polygram Nigeria, 1987)

M.Y.O.B. (Melodie, 1991)

Wonder Wonder (Motown, 1994)

Shoki Shoki (Barclay, 1997)

Fight to Win (Barclay, 2001)

Africa Shrine (P Vine, 2004)

The Best of Femi Kuti (Wrasse, 2005)

The Definitive Collection (Wrasse, 2007)

Day by Day (Wrasse Records, 2008)

Africa for Africa (Wrasse Records, 2010)

No Place for My Dream (Knitting Factory Records, 2013)

Videos

Femi Kuti – Live at the Shrine (Palm Pictures, 2005)

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Artist Profiles: Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti - Photo by Bernard Matussiere
Fela Kuti – Photo by Bernard Matussiere

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, previously Ransome-Kuti, was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1938. His family belonged to the Egba branch of the Yoruba tribe. His father, like his grandfather, was a minister of the Protestant church, and director of the local grammar school. His mother was a teacher, but later became a politician of considerable influence.

As a teenager, Fela would run for miles to attend traditional celebrations in the area, already feeling that the authentic African culture of his ancestors ought to be preserved. His parents sent him to London in 1958, but rather than study medicine like his two brothers and his sister, Fela chose to register in the Trinity School of Music, where he was to spend the next five years.

While still a student, he married a Nigerian girl called Remi and had three children. In his spare time, Fela played in a highlife band called Koola Lobitos with other Nigerian musicians living in London. Among these was J.K. Bremah, who had previously influenced Fela by introducing him to African music circles in Lagos at a time when Western music predominated there.

Fela returned to the Nigerian capital in 1963, three years after independence. Soon after, he was playing highlife and jazz, fronting the band with those of the musicians who had come back from England. Over the next few years, they performed regularly in Lagos and then in 1969, in the midst of the Biafra war, Fela decided to take Koola Lobitos to the United States.

In Los Angeles, he changed the name of the group to Fela Ransome-Kuti and Nigeria 70. At the club where they were playing, he met an African-American girl, Sandra Isodore, who was a close friend to the Black Panthers. She introduced Fela to the philosophy and writings of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and other Black activists and thinkers, through which he was to become aware of the link existing between Black peoples all over the world. Through this insight, Fela also gained a clearer understanding of his mother’s fight for the rights of Africans under colonial rule in Nigeria, together with her support of the Pan Africanist doctrine expounded by Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian Head of State, who had negotiated independence for his country with the British.

While in Los Angeles, Fela also found the inspiration he was seeking to create his own unique style of music, which he named AfroBeat. Before leaving America, the band recorded some of these new songs.

Back home, Fela once again changed the name of the group, this time to Fela Ransome-Kuti & Africa 70. The Los Angeles recordings were released as a series of singles. This new African music was a great success in Lagos, and Fela was to open a club in the Empire Hotel, called the Afro-Shrine. At that time, he was still playing the trumpet, having not yet changed to the saxophone and piano. He started singing mostly in Pidgin English rather than Yoruban, so as to be understood all over Nigeria and in neighboring countries. In his songs, he depicted everyday social situations with which a large part of the African population was able to identify.

Young people from all over Nigeria flocked to hear his songs, which developed themes relating to Blackism and Africanism, encouraging a return to traditional African religions. Later he was to become satirical and sarcastic toward those in power, condemning both military and civilian regimes for their crimes of mismanagement, incompetence, theft, corruption and marginalization of the underprivileged.

In 1974, pursuing his dream of an alternative society, he built a fence around his house and declared it to be an independent state: The Kalakuta Republic. To the chagrin of the bourgeois section of Nigerian society, this act of defiance was soon to spread throughout the entire neighborhood as more and more people were inspired by Fela’s stance. The authorities remained vigilant, fearing their potential power of his ‘state within a state.’

Fela Kuti - Photo by Bernard Matussiere
Fela Kuti – Photo by Bernard Matussiere

On countless occasions, Fela was to suffer the consequences of his scathing denunciations with arrests, imprisonment and beatings at the hands of authorities. With each incarceration and violent confrontation with the powers that be, Fela became more outspoken, changing his family name from ‘Ransome’ to ‘Anikulapo’ (‘he who carries death in his pouch’). His notoriety spread and his records began to sell in the millions. The population of the Kalakuta Republic grew amidst mounting criticism, particularly of the young people, many of whom were still in their teens, who left their families to live there.

During the Festival for Black Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in Lagos in 1977, Fela sang ‘Zombie,’ a satire against the military, which was to become enormously popular throughout Africa, bringing down the fury of the Nigerian army upon him and his followers. As Fela relates in ‘Unknown Soldier,’ a thousand soldiers attacked the “Kalakuta Republic,” burning down his house and beating all of its occupants. The song tells that, during the course of this attack, his mother was thrown from a first floor window and later died from her injuries. Homeless and without his Shrine, which had also been destroyed along with the entire neighborhood, Fela and his group moved to the Crossroads Hotel.

A year later, Fela went to Accra (Ghana)to arrange a tour. Upon his return, to mark the first anniversary of the destruction of the Kalakuta Republic, Fela married twenty seven women in a collective ceremony, many of whom were his dancers and singers, giving them all the name Anikulapo-Kuti. After the wedding, the whole group set off for Accra where concerts had been planned. In a packed Accra stadium, as Fela played ‘Zombie,’ riots broke out. The entire group was arrested and held for two days before being put on a plane bound for Lagos, banned from returning to Ghana.

Upon his return to Lagos, still with nowhere to live, Fela and his entire entourage squatted at the offices of Decca, where they remained for almost two months. Soon after, Fela was invited with the seventy member-strong Africa 70 to play at the Berlin Festival. After the show, almost all of the musicians ran away. Despite this catalog of set-backs, Fela returned to Lagos determined to continue.

The King of Afro-beat and his Queens went to live in Ikeja, in J. K. Bremah’s house, a new Kalakuta. There, Fela, more political than ever, went on to form his own part, “Movement of the People” (M.O.P.). He presented himself as a Presidential candidate in the 1979 elections that would return the country to civilian rule. His candidature was refused. Four years later, at the next elections, Fela once more stood for President, but was prevented from campaigning by the police, who again rampaged through his house, imprisoning and beating Fela and many of his followers.

Any further presidential aspirations were crushed, however, when a coup brought Nigeria back to military rule. In 1984, with General Buhari in power, Fela served twenty months of a five year prison sentence on trumped-up currency charges. He was only released when, under General Babangida, the judge confessed to having sentenced him with such severity because of pressure from the previous regime. The judge was dismissed from office and Fela was given his liberty.

Over the next decade, with an entourage of up to eighty people, now called Egypt 80, Fela made several visits to Europe and the United States. These tours were to receive tremendous public and critical acclaim, and made an important contribution to the worldwide popular acceptance of African rhythms and culture. Considering himself to be the spiritual son of Kwame Nkrumah, the renowned Pan Africanist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a virulent critic of colonialism and neo-colonialism.

Fela Kuti - Photo by Bernard Matussiere
Fela Kuti – Photo by Bernard Matussiere

For over twenty years, he became famous as a spokesman for the great mass of people, in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa and the African diaspora, disenchanted with the period of post-independence.

Fela’s sad death in August 1997 was mourned by the nation. Even those who did not agree with him were among the million people or more who attended his funeral. Even the many governmental letters of condolence sent to his family were eloquent testimonials to a great man. His death was attributed to an AIDS-related heart failure, though a more popular diagnosis was that, as a result of the countless beatings at the hands of the authorities, his system was sufficiently weakened to allow disease to enter.

Throughout his life, Fela was sustained by the unconditional love and respect offered to him by the millions of people whose lives he touched. In death, he retains the legendary status to which he was elevated by the throngs of people who came to pay their last respects at his laying in state in Tafa Balewa Square: ‘Adami Eda’ – (Chief Priest). “He will live forever!”

In 2009, Fela Kuti’s legacy gained new significance and popularity. Knitting Factory Records, a new label, licensed the 45-album Fela Kuti catalog. Over the next 18 months, the label will release remasters of all the Fela Kuti CDs in unique digi-packs with the original artwork, as well as certain releases on vinyl for the first time in North America. Knitting Factory Records will also be giving the first official release to the entire Koola Lobitos catalog- this was Fela’s highlife band which he fronted through the 1960’s.

The first release in the series was a compilation set titled The Best Of The Black President. The Deluxe Version includes two CDs and a DVD. The DVD includes segments from “Music is the Weapon”, the Berlin Jazz Festival, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense,” and interviews with Bill T. Jones and Carlos Moore.

A Broadway musical titled Fela! opened in November at Eugene O’Neil Theatre, a follow-up to the highly acclaimed off-Broadway show. The musical is directed and choreographed by Tony Award-winner Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening), with a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones. Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo play the title character on alternate performances, while Afrobeat band Antibalas and other members of the New York City Afrobeat community, under the direction of Aaron Johnson, perform Kuti’s rousing music live onstage. Winner of 2009’s Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, Fela! was conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis and Stephen Hendel. Fela! had its world premiere at Off-Broadway’s 37 Arts in September 2008, where it enjoyed a sold-out limited run.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti Obituary

“Fela was sweet, perhaps not an adjective that would normally be used to describe this tornado of a man, but Fela was sweet to me. This sweetness that I perceived in him emanated from his love for humanity, particularly for those who had drawn life’s short straw.

Hundreds of people depended upon Fela for a living. Many more than he needed to run his Lagos club, The Shrine, or to play in his band. I saw him as a social engineer, concerned with issues of injustice, corruption, the abuses of power. He was ready to lay his life on the line in defense of such causes, which he did on countless occasions.

For his trouble he was beaten with rifle butts, endlessly harassed, imprisoned, vilified by the authorities, despised by bourgeois society (whose sons and daughters were captivated by him). His house was once burned to the ground by a thousand soldiers after they had raped and beaten his followers, thrown his mother and brother from a window, both of whom suffered fractures (his mother was ultimately to die from her injuries).

Each time they were to beat him, though, he always bounced back with a vengeance, stronger than ever. It is my view that the only thing that kept him alive, and the ultimate source of his strength, was the love the people had for him.

And his music – the rumble of thunder and the crack of lightning – layer upon layer of sublimely interwoven rhythm and melody, tangled in a delicious knot of divine inspiration. Deliberate conspiracies of hot brass woven around the intricately hypnotic consistency of bass and guitar lines, all driven by the dual forces of lavish percussion and Fela’s own passion for the precision of his musical vision.

Heaven help any musician who might stray from his given task. Fury would descend upon him until, in mortal terror, he would struggle his way back into the groove. The icing on the cake of a Fela performance was his singers and dancers, fabulous glittering unreal creatures from another world who would exude waves of sensuality and downright sexiness that you could cut with a knife.

All in all, thirty-something people on stage, each playing their part in what Fela called “the underground spiritual game.” In the center of the audio-visual feast for the senses, Fela reigned supreme. He was everywhere at once, playing keyboards, soprano or alto sax, the occasional drum solo, a sinuous dance from one side of the stage to the other and then it was time to sing, the ever-present spliff held in his elegant fingers. No moon and toon and joon for this articulate firebrand. Only eloquent, biting poetic social observation, expressed with a breathtaking clarity and natural authority which placed him firmly in an unsurpassed realm in which he had no equal.

Perhaps Pavarotti can break a wine glass at sixty paces, maybe Bono can make girls wet their pants with a flick of his sweat laden hair, but for sheer master, panache, style and guts nobody could or can beat this guy. To get a bead on who he was, once he had recorded a song, he would never perform it again on stage, no matter how record company execs may plead.

Recently, however, he had ceased his endless harangue of politicians, big business, organized religion, the military, police, etc. (Once, when running for President of Nigeria, he proclaimed that his first act upon being elected would be to enroll the entire population in the police force. Then, he said, “Before a policeman could slap you, he would have to think twice because you’re a policeman, too.” The authorities ultimately refused to allow him to enter the race. Too bad.) He now saw politics as “a distraction,” saying that our only task was to enter into contact with our own spirit, without which “we would not survive.”

His last years were spent in spiritual contemplation. He never left the house, except twice a week to go to the Shrine to play. He wouldn’t arrive until two in the morning. There would be fifteen hundred people waiting for him and he would finish at dawn. And now he has gone. AIDS they said. As far as I’m concerned it was one beating too many which had weakened his body sufficiently to allow disease to enter. He was a giant of a man, but a man nevertheless. The system can only take so much. I went to his funeral.

A hundred and fifty thousand people or so gathered in Tafawa Balewa Square to pay their last respects. Bands played, people queued endlessly to file past his glass coffin. We then ran with the coffin to a hearse (there were still thirty thousand people queuing up) to make the 20 mile journey to the Shrine, where Fela’s children were to carry out a private ceremony for family and friends.

In a cavalcade of vehicles we rode through Lagos City behind a band in the back of a pick-up truck playing Fela tunes. The road was thronged with tens of thousands of people, until we came to the brow of a hill. I looked down across the valley to the distant horizon. The road was filled with people from one side to the other and as far as the eye could see.

A million people or more, and even more came as we passed through each neighborhood. Seven hours to cover 20 miles and the band never dropped a note. As we came nearer to Ikeja, we began to worry. What would happen when we reached Pepple Street, a small side street in which The Shrine was situated. How, in fact would we reach The Shrine with a million people in front of us? Night fell as we drew near. We turned in to Pepple Street. There was hardly anyone there. One million or more people had decided that it was not appropriate for them to be there.

Fela was my friend for the past fifteen years. Our fourteen year working relationship had grown from that friendship. I regret his passing but celebrate his life. He will live forever through the incredible legacy of more than 50 albums of music which he has left up and through the love and respect of the millions of people who knew him, from near or far. He was finally laid to rest in front of his house, Kalakuta, in Ikeja on the morning of Tuesday, August 12, 1997. His son, Femi, played a plaintive sax solo. A gentle rain fell like perfume.

By Rikki Stein. Courtesy of MCA Records.

Discography:

Aigana (1960)
Onifere (1966)
Yeshe Yeshe (1966)
Mr. Who Are You (1967)
The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions (1969, Stern’s, released 1993)
Blackman’s Cry (1970)
Viva Africa (1970)
Fela’s London Scene (1970)
Lady (1970)
White Man to Suffer (1970)
Wayo (1970)
Who Are You (1971)
Nai Poi (1971)
Shenshema (1971)
Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971)
Open and Close (1971)
Live! (1971)
Stratavarious (1971)
Alijon-Jon-Ki-Jon (1972)
Egbe Mi O (1972)
Shakara (1972)
Na Poi (1972)
Afrodisiac (1973)
Gentleman (1973)
Alagbon Close (1974)
He Miss Road (1975)
Fela’s Budget Special (1975)
Expensive Shit (1975)
Noise for Vendor Mouth (1975)
Everything Scatter (1975)
Confusion (1975)
Jealousy (1975)
Kalakuta Show (1976)
Ikoyi Blindness (1976)
Yellow Fever (1976)
Upside Down (1976)
No Bread (1976)
Before I Jump like Monkey Give Me Banana (1976)
Again, Excuse O (1976)
Zombie (1976)
J.J.D. (1977)
Sorrow, Tears and Blood (1977)
Opposite People (1977)
Stalemate (1977)
Fear Not for Man (1977)
Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1977)
Observation No Crime (1977)
I Go Shout Plenty (1977)
No Agreement (1977)
Shuffering and Shimiling (1977)
Unknown Soldier (1979)
Authority Stealing (1980)
Music of Many Colors (1980)
Coffin for Head of State (1981)
Original Sufferhead (1981)
Parambulator (1983)
Live in Amsterdam – Music Is the Weapon (1984)
Army Arrangement (1985)
Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (1985)
Beasts of No Nation (1989)
Overtake Don Overtake Overtake (1989)
Confusion Break Bones (1990)
Just Like That (1990)
Underground System (1992)
The Underground Spiritual Game (Quannum Projects, 2004)
The Best Of The Black President (Knitting Factory Records, 2009)

Bibliography:

Fela, the Life and Times of an African Musical Icon by Michael E. Veal. Temple University Press, 2000. ISBN: 1-56639-765-0.

Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent by Sola Olorunyomi. Africa World Press, 2002.

Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway by Trevor Schoonmaker. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Arrest the Music!: Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics (African Expressive Cultures) by Tejumola Olaniyan. Indiana University Press, 2004. ISBN: 0253344611.

Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore. Lawrence Hill Books, 2009. ISBN: 1556528353

Fela: Kalakuta Notes by John Collins. KIT Publishers, May 2009.

Videos

Fela Kuti Live (Yazoo, 1995)
Fela In Concert (V.I.E.W. Video, 2001)
Fela Kuti – Music Is the Weapon (Universal, 2003)

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