Fela, 25 years after… untold legends of an enigma and his Afrobeat

The enigmatic creator of Afrobeat music, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti transmogrified to ancestor-hood 25 years ago. To remember his legendary contribution to world music lexicon, three separate excerpts from DIS FELA SEF… The Legend(s) the definitive textual documentation on the life and career of the legendary creator of the Afrobeat genre and cultural icon, will make interestng and relevant read this season. First published 2016 to commemorate the 80th birthday anniversary of the veteran broadcaster and renowned music writer, Idonije, the book has now been repackaged with added chapters on Fela’s fascinating but hitherto unknown times while studying in London and other exclusives, including on his wife, Remilekun, will be released on Amazon and other online platforms this month, and republished in print in the next quarter of the year.

Fela’s Afrobeat-Jazz Fusion

For Fela, Afro Beat was message music of the political type, but these messages were communicated through jazz themes of the avant garde type (where melodies no longer became definitive) on which his saxophone improvised profusely: and the fact that his tunes usually opened with ‘intros’ that lasted for as long as 20 minutes of instrumental ramblings was to satisfy the urge to play jazz.

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MAKE an attempt to sample the opinions of Nigerians randomly for the purpose of finding out why they think Fela was a great musician; and they would immediately mention the potency of his messages, most of which continue to speak to our existential situations today in terms of coming to pass.

The intellectuals in our midst might like to take this realisation a step further by situating their own viewpoint within the perspective of a pan-African ideology. Still, others like the university professors would anchor the icon’s musical success on radicalism — as if this in anyway has any connection with musicianship.

 While the distillation of all these viewpoints may provide the necessary enhancement, the basic ingredient, the force behind the propulsion of Fela’s music is jazz, its fusion with African music. Jazz is the creative element that has left behind for him, a legacy of music whose claim is enduring, brilliance is captivating, appreciation is irresistible -even more than a decade after his demise. As a matter of fact, unknown to many, Fela’s Afro Beat is jazz fusion of the new wave type — on the same parallel as the music of Weather Report, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chic Corea, Chucho Valdes, Joe Zawinul who are some of today’s intriguing giants of jazz fusion.

The two crowned princes of Afro Beat rightly describe it as politically motivated music, particularly of the protest type. This is only as far as lyrical expression goes. But without jazz, which is the music machine that powers the lyric, these messages would not travel. They would not move. They would not attract anybody’s attention.

At the 2010 Art Stampede powered by the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), Yeni, the Afro Beat icon’s daughter who turned 50, was honoured for taking ‘dance’ to a significantly high level within the context of Femi Kuti’s Positive Force outfit. From the arguments put forward by a panel of highly informed discussants, it became obvious that Fela did not see dance as a necessary element; and did not integrate it into the dynamics of his music — the way Positive Force did, for example.

Dance in this context may be described as a physically articulated attraction intended to add entertainment value to a band’s performance. But the truth is that Fela did not set out from the beginning as an entertainer. He began his career as a jazz artist, playing ‘art’ music for people to listen to and appreciate. Flashing back to the exploits of the Fela Ransome Kuti Quintet which played jazz extensively from 1963-1964, what gave Fela joy and fulfillment was the acknowledgement he got from the shouts, yells and deafening applause elicited by the regular appreciative audiences at Cool Cats Inn, Apapa Road Lagos which offered a residency for the band at the time. This was upon taking solos of interminable choruses on his trumpet which was wedded in the Miles Davis tradition in terms of tonal conception but cast in the Thad Jones mould in the area of style.

Even with the coming of highlife which was played by his Koola Lobitos from 1965, the essence of the music was jazz, straight-ahead jazz. The melodies were Nigerian and highlife-oriented, but execution was in the jazz fashion. The band started with ‘intros’ for Fela to come in and sing the melodies. Then, solo opportunities began with Fela himself on trumpet and Isaac Olasugba on alto saxophone. The ensemble did not come back to the song until after an exciting intervention within riffs that effectively established ‘question-and-answer’ sessions. This was the jazz treatment and pattern that characterised all the songs beginning with such early compositions as Ojo (Rain), Orun (Sun), and Ololufe (Lover) among many others.

 Certainly, the music of the Koola Lobitos was quite danceable, and indeed some people danced, but Fela would not ask you to come on the floor and dance. He knew that if you were not dancing, you were listening appreciatively to the music into which he was investing a whole load of creativity. Like Miles Davis who continued to be himself even with the integration of popular music and rock elements into his music in later years, Fela would not compromise his trumpet within the context of the highlife of the Koola Lobitos and the Afro Beat years. He took his solos along well-defined chord progressions and established all the changes with strict adherence to sequences. Fela would not compromise his jazz-oriented music; he would not play for an audience for the financial consideration.

 I still remember what happened to the Koola Lobitos with the management of Tam Tam Hotel on Lagos Island in the ’60s. This was the venue where calypso man Godwin Omabuwa performed regularly. But the Koola Lobitos was invited to perform on Friday nights for a handsome amount of money — much higher than what the band earned from other clubs and night stands. The fee was sizeable enough to pay the salaries of the boys that were usually owed for lack of funds. But Fela rejected the offer after the first gig. Why? Tam Tam was patronised by an exclusively white audience of men who loved Nigerian women.

These women of easy virtue benefitted considerably from their white clients who paid them good money. And for this reason, the women swarmed the place like bees. While the Koola Lobitos performed, they did not dance; neither did they listen to the music. They were preoccupied with love making and negotiations while the music became ordinary background stuff. A few of the men attempted to dance with their women after getting drunk on alcohol; and they all were dancing off-beat — so much that it affected the band through the drums of Tony Allen. All through the session, the drummer was missing the beat because he was playing to the off-beat rhythm of the dancer whom he watched as he played.

Fela would not tolerate any such scenario, no matter what the club paid. Dance was introduced to the music in 1969 through Dele Ohenhen because the Koola Lobitos was preparing for its first ever tour of America; and it was in America upon the Africanisation of his music with ‘My Lady’s frustrations’ that real dancing began. He had been exposed to entertainment. But even at that, dance was not choreographed.

 He allowed his dancers to express themselves freely and individually the way he himself did. He refused to shed completely, the culture of art music. Indeed, a lot of attention was paid to the music which became jazzier with time, eventually assuming the classical African music mould in content and categorisation from Beasts of no Nation whose rhythmic concept was adopted by Branford Marsalis, one of America’s living legends of the saxophone.

For Fela, Afro Beat was message music of the political type, but these messages were communicated through jazz themes of the avant garde type (where melodies no longer became definitive) on which his saxophone improvised profusely: and the fact that his tunes usually opened with ‘intros’ that lasted for as long as 20 minutes of instrumental ramblings was to satisfy the urge to play jazz.

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Koola Lobitos 1965

Jeun K’oku: The making of Afrobeat

‘After months of experimentation, Fela finally watered down the music for mass appeal, introduced rock and funk elements without losing the quality — in the James Brown fashion. The music became less adventurous but had an increase in the rhythmic power, a simplification of elements such as the bass line, which rather moved along repetitively, and the complication of others such as his saxophone solos and arrangements, which assumed a progressive approach.’

IT cannot be exactly true to say that Afro Beat began from Jeun Koku, just as it cannot be said, either, to have started from the embattled highlife days of 1968 when Fela labeled his own jazz-influenced version ‘Afro Beat’. The music was merely evolving even though it actually set him apart from the others.

The true sound identity came while Fela was in America with the discovery of the structure and form of My Lady’s Frustrations, composed, first performed and recorded in the US. The song paved the way for the controversial Los Angeles recordings which also included Ako, Wayo, Mi o le Jobe, Funky horn, Witchcraft and others.

Jeun Koku merely put the final polish and commercial seal on the music; and signaled the popularity of Afro Beat.

Prior to this time, the band was playing highlife music from the extensive repertoire of the Koola Lobitos generally structured in the jazz format; they were songs of Nigerian melodic frames. The ensemble took the melody together and gave way to Fela to sing, after which he (Fela) and Isaac Olasugba shared solo concessions on trumpet and alto saxophone respectively. The ensemble then went into riffs that established question-and-answer sessions before the band finally came with the theme again, to conclude the song.

From My Lady’s Frustrations, the structure of the music took a different turn — an Africanised approach. Everything changed! 

The rhythm section became pronounced and energised with percussion in sympathy with a repetitive but prominently emphasised bass line. Instead of definitive melodies along well-defined structures, singing became loose, most of the time obeying the typical call-and-response pattern of African music.

Fela offered, on his return, to sell this recorded music to EMI Nigeria for release, but they were wary for two reasons: they were afraid of Fela’s attitude as a difficult, uncooperative artiste; and they did not believe in the commercial viability of the music which, in fact, still lacked the electro-rock edge that usually brings about mass appeal. It was predominantly jazzy even though African. They were not ready to take chances.

After months of experimentation, Fela finally watered down the music for mass appeal, introduced rock and funk elements without losing the quality — in the James Brown fashion. The music became less adventurous but had an increase in the rhythmic power, a simplification of elements such as the bass line, which rather moved along repetitively, and the complication of others such as his saxophone solos and arrangements, which assumed a progressive approach.

Jeun Koku was the immediate outcome.

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Epilogue:

Fela’s Afro Beat – Gateway to modern hiphop

‘Fela’s Afro Beat is so influential  in shaping the music of today’s generation of musicians that it has become  a major source of fusion and the gateway to  modern hiphop – as exemplified by such emerging performers as  2-Face Idibia, Burna Boy, P Square, D’Banj among many others. Indeed, Afro Beat is the music of the moment and the future.’

THE early years of Fela’s career with the Koola -Lobitos (1965- 1970) — were musically uplifting and fulfilling, to say the least. Executed from the jazz stand-point, his highlife music reached a high level of creativity. But brilliant and creative as the effort was, it did not translate to financial success.

No sooner had the release of Jeun Koku pave the way for considerable financial success and fame in 1971 than Fela began to confront the economic and political problems of Nigeria and Africa, inspired by a new cultural and ideological consciousness. Using his music as a weapon, he fought the corruption and injustices of succeeding military governments in Nigeria even at the risk of losing his life. The odds were overwhelming. It was an effort in futility. He did not succeed until his demise on August 2, 1997.

Notwithstanding, what he lost in his political struggle, he achieved through the internationalisation of a musical culture: he created Afro Beat, a whole new brand of music which has become a permanent part of world beat today.

True to the pronouncement made in 1988 by the foremost jazz trumpeter and musician, Miles Davis, (who is also the Afro Beat icon’s mentor) Fela’s Afro Beat has become “one of the major musics of the world,” and a cultural legacy that will remain with us for a long, long time. Coming from Miles Davis, a figure of substance and an astute judge of musicianship who was known for his critical views, this appraisal is significant and weighty: he rarely praised anybody in this superlative way. It is interesting to know that this accomplishment is also in consonance with the prediction I made in 1966 when I reviewed and provided the liner notes to Koola -Lobitos’ debut album.

On the face of it, however, Afro Beat appears to be more widely accepted in Europe and America than Nigeria where Femi Kuti’s Positive Force, the Seun Kuti-led Egypt ’80 Band and Funsho Ogundipe’s Aiyetoro are the frontliners and major exponents, followed by Dele Sosimi, Lagbaja, Kola Ogunkoya, Dede Mabiaku and others. But the truth of the matter is that the yardstick for measuring the music’s popularity and acceptance seems to  be solely limited to its big band treatment — in live setting when, in actual fact, focus for Fela’s vast achievement in terms of influence should mainly be shifted to today’s entertainment versions that are characterised by products of advanced technological devices. These efforts may be imitative and lacking in genuine musicianship and musical depth, but it is a welcome development that should be seen as a cultural revolution and  the beginning of a great future. It is a measure of the powerful influence of Fela’s music.

 Fela’s Afro Beat is so influential  in shaping the music of today’s generation of musicians that it has become  a major source of fusion and the gateway to  modern hiphop – as exemplified by such emerging performers as  2-Face Idibia, Burna Boy, P Square, D’Banj among many others. Indeed, Afro Beat is the music of the moment and the future.

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