The Genius of Fela Kuti and Afrobeat
Fela Kuti has inspired musicians from all over the world from Burna Boy and Beyoncé, to Miles Davis. Sound Field dives into the musical genius of Fela's cultural funk. Host LA Buckner speaks to Fela's son and grandson, Femi and Made Kuti about carrying on the legacy of Afrobeat.
- A global icon celebrated all over the world, check.
Leader of a political revolution, check.
Prolific composer for your own genre of music, check.
Oh, and Beyonce thinks you're amazing?
What musician could possibly be this incredible?
I'd like to invite you to the world of Fela Kuti,
and his music, Afrobeat.
Trumpeter Miles Davis said Fela Kuti was
a life-transforming artist.
Bassist Bootsy Collins said of Fela's band,
"We were telling them they're the funkiest cats
we ever heard in our life.
I mean, I play with James Brown's band,
but we were totally wiped out!"
Afrobeat roots itself in West African rhythms and melody,
textually on African verbal art,
particularly Yoruba praise poetry,
the harmonic backdrops of funk and soul,
and the improvised nature of jazz.
What makes Afrobeat music so special?
- Because of how much it's drawn from, you know,
cultural sounds with traditional rhythms,
traditional chants, and the horns,
the arrangements are so focused on groove and
rhythm, West African rhythm, instrumental interplay,
funk in the most cultural way is what Afrobeat I think is.
- I like, that was really well put.
Funk in the most cultural way, that's true.
I dig that.
I dig it.
- Even if you aren't familiar with Afrobeat,
it's likely that you like music
that couldn't exist without it.
From Vibraphonist Roy Ayers,
who toured and recorded with Fela.
Or even Michael Jackson and Rihanna,
borrowing vocal chants from Cameroonian artist,
- How about Beyonce loving Afrobeat so much,
she recorded an entire Fela Kuti inspired album
that was never released.
- Here's her song "End of Time",
which she says has a baseline, percussion, and horns
inspired by Fela's Afrobeat.
- Recently, Nigeria's Burna Boy, hit the global scene
notching two back-to-back Grammy nominations.
He's called Fela Kuti the greatest musician,
and you can hear the influence directly in his music.
- What do you think, in your words, what do you think makes
Fela Kuti so inspirational to musicians across the world?
- From his compositions, and his bravery, and his,
in never compromising,
never selling out.
- It was all things you need be a great composer.
So those ingredients are, is the foundation of the Afrobeat.
- So now that we've heard all about Fela Kuti's influence,
let's take it back to the 1960's
to learn about his musical origins.
By the sixties, the African popular sounds that went on to
form Afrobeat, had been established by musicians from Ghana,
and other West African countries.
The genre fused Yoruba music, highlife, and jazz,
and was brought to life in Nigeria with the help
of saxophonist, Orlando Julius,
and Fela Kuti's own band, Koola Lobitos.
Tony Allen was a legendary drummer,
who played in Koola Lobitos.
His unique style fused American jazz with highlife,
and Fela himself said, without Tony Allen,
there would be no Afrobeat.
Then, in 1969, Fela Kuti and his band
went through an evolution.
While living in Los Angeles, Fela's group held
down a nightly residency at Citadel 'd Haiti,
a small club on Sunset Boulevard.
The band did well enough to pack the club regularly,
playing covers of popular soul records and jazz standards.
But according to Sandra Izsadore,
his girlfriend at the time,
something was missing from their performances.
She pointed him toward a different artistic direction.
In an interview, Fela said,
"Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know.
Sandra was my adviser.
She talked to me about politics, history.
She taught me what she knew,
and what she knew was enough for me to start on."
This inspired Fela to use his talents
for the benefit of his people, just like his mother,
who was a women's rights activists back in Nigeria.
Fela didn't have the proper permits
to stay in the United States.
He recorded a live album called "Fela Fela Fela"
before returning to Nigeria.
This album signifies the point right before
his band came into their signature Afrobeat sound.
And compare that sound, to "Lady",
which was recorded just three years later.
Fela's evolution from club band leader,
to leading a musical and political revolution with Afrobeat
didn't happen overnight.
Returning to Nigeria allowed his sound to grow
to the Fela Kuti remembered today.
So you're probably wondering, what is the Afrobeat sound?
A large part of Afrobeat's magic is how it weaves tradition
with music to create its own fabric.
Call and response, improvisation, and short rhythmic phrases
are the common threads poured
from across the African diaspora.
While Afrobeat was influenced by American genres,
it also influenced them in return.
Listen for the tight harmonies in the horns,
and the syncopated rhythm in Fela's song, "Fight to Finish".
Many Afrobeat songs use a layering technique
by combining different rhythms together
to create the groove.
Most instruments are playing a one or two bar phrase
at any given moment.
When layered on top of each other,
they create one wide sound that's constantly moving.
Listen to the repetitive patterns played by the guitar,
the horns, and the bass
in Fela Kuti's song, "Yellow Fever".
The horns often play the melody of the song,
but are also used for call and response with the vocals.
Listen to "Shuffering and Shmiling",
where the singers are the call,
and the horns are the response.
You'll also find the horns, drums, and other instruments
going for long improvised solos.
Because of this, Afrobeat songs are long,
anywhere from 15 minutes to an entire hour.
Listen to Fela improvise on the saxophone
in the song "Power Show".
Fela Kuti's long songs are often broken into two parts.
The first half consists of a jam
filled with instrumental solos and no vocals.
Then, about halfway through the song, the vocals come in.
The lead vocal takes the helm,
and the background vocals
chime in with call and response chants
that reflect the energy of the lead.
Afrobeat music often incorporates political messages
into its lyrics.
Common themes are anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism,
and antiwar sentiment.
Putting a spotlight to the current climate of Africa
has been one of Afrobeat's strongest superpowers.
For example, in "Zombie", Fela sings about Nigerian soldiers
mindlessly following the commands
of their corrupt government.
What is one thing you remember most about Fela Kuti?
- I mean, he could be funny, he was a,
when it comes to being on the stage
he was a completely different person.
- He could stop the band in the middle of a concert too.
If anybody played the wrong note or was not, um.
- In tune.
- In tune, to restart the whole groove.
- He wasn't a conventional father.
- He wasn't at all.
- After newfound freedom from British Colonialism
and the civil war,
Nigeria was entering a new phase of its history.
By the 1970's, the Federal Military Government
assumed control of the country.
As a result of the civil war that ended in January 1970,
people went hungry,
families lost their homes,
and the after effects of colonialism ran amuck
with the military holding onto power
through October 1979, albeit with other coups.
Fela believed the people of Africa could fight against
an unjust military regime.
He sought ways to couple his music
with his newfound activism.
This led to the renaming of his band to "Africa 70"
and the creation of the Kalakuta Republic.
Created in 1970, the Kalakuta Republic
was a commune he declared an independent state.
The Kalakuta Republic was home base
for almost all of his 1970's albums,
including "Gentlemen", "Fear Not For Man", and "Zombie".
All of the political passion he held inside
was baked into his music here,
free from the outside influence of Nigerian government.
In his two part song, "Confusion", he states it plainly,
everything's out of control.
His ability to politically influence his growing audience
became a thorn in the Nigerian government's foot.
To slow down his momentum, he was thrown into jail
over 200 times.
The Kalakuta Republic was a safe haven
to all who chose to fight against the colonial mindset
plaguing Africa at the time.
In 1977, the Nigerian army burned down the commune
in a raid that resulted in his mother's injury,
from which she never recovered until her death.
Fela Kuti's legacy is in full effect today,
despite the absence of his original stomping grounds.
The yearly Felabration festival was created
by Fela's daughter, Yeni Kuti,
and it honors the father of Afrobeat.
In New York city, local music venue "Shrine"
is an American tribute to Fela's original performance space,
Fela's children have continued on his legacy
by evolving Afrobeat with their own musical talents.
His youngest son, Seun Kuti, has taken on the lead role
in his father's band, now called "Egypt 80".
In their Grammy nominated album, "Black Times",
you can hear Afrobeat live on,
while Seun sings about justice for his people.
Fela's oldest son, Femi Kuti, continues to pair activism
with music, and has earned four Grammy nominations
of his own.
Fun fact, in 2017, Femi broke the record
for the longest note on a woodwind instrument
at 51 minutes and 35 seconds.
This year, Femi teamed up with his son, Made Kuti,
to release a joint album called "Legacy Plus".
In it, Femi preaches about the struggles of his community.
Made's music takes Afrobeat further
by blending it with more influence from jazz
and a psychedelic feeling that calls back to Fela's
1960's musical roots.
What is the album "Legacy +" about, and how do you intend
people to feel when hearing the new album?
- We show how passionate we are about the sound,
how passionate we are about the message.
Nobody helped anybody write anything and yet
the music and the message is so similar.
It shows how finely in tune we are.
And the legacy is very much, as you said,
it's the legacy with everything that has come before us,
Fela, my grandfather,
we've traced ourselves back to seven generations of music.
It's the plus to the legacy, is that it still continues.
It doesn't end with us.
It doesn't start or end with either of us.
- Other musicians outside of the Kuti family
have also made waves in Afrobeat music.
Artists like Tony Allen, Ebo Taylor, Antibalas, Dele Sosimi,
Lagbaja, Bola Johnson, and KOKOROKO,
a collective of star jazz musicians from London
creating Afrobeat music.
Funk's black positive messages from decades ago
gave way to the continued artistic and political awakening
of the United States.
Specifically, to the global phenomenon that is hip hop.
Hip hop has a special affinity for Fela,
name checking him frequently.
Today you might hear the term Afrobeats, with an 's',
sometimes referred to as Afro-pop or Afro-fusion.
Rather than a distinct genre, Afrobeats is now an
umbrella term to describe popular music from West Africa.
What are some things that some people commonly
misunderstand about Afrobeat music?
- The difference between Afrobeat and Afrobeats.
- I think that is the most common misrepresentation
because Afrobeats, it's far from,
very far from the Afrobeat.
- Afrobeat has more of a, of a political purpose
- I'd say so. Yeah.
- I hear that.
Afrobeats mixes West African rhythms and harmonic structures
with the melodies and sleek production
typically found in hip hop.
Sprinkle in a little extra influence from black music
from all over the world.
Techno, soca, dancehall, and trap music.
- I would say more, it really came out of hip hop,
but they took one of the beats of Afrobeat,
which is they take the snare drum from the Afrobeat,
which is a very popular groove of,
many of my father's tracks, or my track,
in the Afrobeat has become the beat of the Afrobeats.
- Afrobeats is a fusion of African traditions
from all across the diaspora.
You might remember Drake's number one hit,
"One Dance", from 2016.
Drake takes influence from dancehall and Afrobeats,
and even collaborated with Nigerian artist, Wizkid.
"Fem", which means shut up in Yoruba,
is a song by Nigerian artist, Davido,
that has seen heavy play as an Anthem
for the End SARS movement.
It's just one example of how the political fervor
of Fela's original genre is still alive.
Tackling the issues of the day as they arrive.
Fela Kuti hasn't just inspired pop stars of Nigeria,
but pop stars all across the world.
Beyoncé even paid tribute to Fela
in her legendary Coachella performance in 2018.
Fela's message of love and pride for his people still rings
through his life's works and all that they inspired.
What do you think the future of Afrobeat music looks like?
- How Fela has, his music has really gone further,
it has ventured much further than we would have thought
over the past few years,
and it seems every year that goes by
he becomes more popular.
It's a similar kind of trajectory, I think from, you know
Western classical music or jazz,
that the more time goes by, the bigger it gets,
and the more, the more all these sub-genres kind of pop out.
And it will just grow as a genre of music, and become
you know, one of the, the great,
great, you know, top genres.
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