Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Last night Kate and went to see a local band, the Baltimore Afrobeat Society perform. The group has somewhere between 12 and 16 members, most of which play trumpets, saxophones drums and percussion. And last night, as a special show they played nothing by Fela's music. It was pretty amazing.

About 15 years ago or so my friend and old bandmate Dave and his brother (and also former bandmate) Luther introduced me to the music of Fela, and and African music in general. It was a perfect fit at the time, and it's spawned in me a strong affection for the genre. But Fela is a particular favorite and is a perfect character for this blog.

Fela pioneered a style of music he called, "Afrobeat." It was a fusion of African Jazz, American Funk, and certain local African regional styles of music. It was characterized by a powerful horn section, repeating groove elements on the drums and guitars, and a lot of call and response between Fela and his large vocal backing element. Much of his later music was written in pidgin English to play to a wider audience but some was also written in his native language. And his music was highly politically charged.

After coming into contact with the Black Panther movement during a trip to the US in 1969 Fela began a process of radicalization that would ultimately influence the entire African continent. He repeatedly clashed with the military governments in power in his native Nigeria during the 70's and 80's. His compound was attacked repeatedly by government, culminating with a attack that was motivated by the release of "Zombie" an album scathingly critical of the corrupt Nigerian establishment. During the attack Fela was severly beaten, his studio, home and performance space were burned and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, resulting in her death.

But by then Fela was extremely popular with the Nigerian public and across the entire continent. He used his bully pulpit unrelentingly against the government, African subjagation and the decline of African culture. He fought hard for a African unity and a continent-wide Democratic African government. His dreams were never realized fully, but his dedication created a consciousness in the African people, one that continues today. Fela died in 1997, enourmously popular in Africa but without a significant following elsewhere in the world.

That's about to change. The Broadway stint of the musical "Fela!" will bring the story of his life and his music to a world audience that would have never been exposed otherwise. Afrobeat is already experiencing a revival with bands like Antibalas, and the Baltimore Afrobeat Society which we say last night. Fela's son Femi has also taken up the torch, bringing Afrobeat to a new generation of fans.

I can write about this all I want, but until you hear the music you won't have an appreciation of what Fela's music is all about. So...samples.

This is the song "Zombie" of the album of the same name. It uses the zombie metaphor to refer to the mindlessness and ruthlessness of the Nigerian military.

"Black Man's Cry", another favorite.

"Lady". It's only an excerpt, but it gives a good taste.

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