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The birth of the rare sound, Afrobeat

*As Idonije earns Lifetime Achievement Award at ARTAmiabo

TODAY, May 1, the distinguished writer on music and media, and veteran broadcaster, Benson Idonije, would be conferred with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the closing ceremony of the ArtAmiabo, a week-long fiesta of arts and cultural expressions with a large focus on the visual arts.

The event holding from 6pm at the Grand Ballroom of EbonyLife Place in Victoria Island, Lagos, is expected to be attended by eminent personalities, some of whom had been part of the story of afrobeat — and its latest variant afrobeats – as a musical genre and popular cultural movement.

Idonije, renowned for his epochal programmes on radio such as the Big Beats and Stereo Jazz Club, is revered as Fela’s (then Ransome-Kuti) first manager, who was managing the musical affair of the Afrobeat creator at the time they recruited the first seeds for the band that eventually became the fulcrum of Afrobeat.

In his memoir, “DIS FELA SEF: The Legend(s) Untold”, now fondly referred to as the Grandfather of the afro-pop mega star, Damini Ogulu aka Burna Boy, the Grammy award-winning musician, had documented the process that led to the birth of the sound that was eventually titled “Afrobeat” — even though Fela himself had christened it “African Classical Beats.” the book was forst published in 2014 to mark his 80th birthday anniversary, and is about to be reissued this June.

An excerpt from the book is reproduced below:

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The birth of the rare sound, Afrobeat 2

Jeun K’oku… the birth of Afrobeat

IT cannot be exactly true to say that Afrobeat 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 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 K’oku merely put the final polish and commercial seal on the music; and signaled the popularity of Afrobeat.

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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