If you were to look for an Afrobeat record in a shop, you’d probably find one filed away in the ‘World Music’ section, a catch-all genre that miraculously manages to capture all music made by people from the non-English speaking part of the world.
Afrobeat is a response to a particular moment in African history. It emerged from Nigeria in the 1960s, matching the mood of the country, and the continent, in its attempts to reconcile the traditional aspects of African societies with the push towards modernity. This is a fact plainly evident in the structure of the music, which fuses together traditional Yoruba percussion and vocals, with new musical styles. The result is complex, energetic and vibrant, bringing together indigenous, polyrhythmic African music with big band jazz and funk. The genre has enjoyed a revival in recent years. The National Theatre just completed a successful run of Fela!, a musical based on the life of Fela Kuti, the pioneer of Afrobeat. A biopic directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger and Shame) is also currently in production.
A multi-instrumentalist, composer, band-leader, musical-pioneer, and political radical once described by a journalist as a cross between Bob Marley and Che Guevera, Fela is surely one of the coolest figures in music history. In his life he was a supporter of the Black Panthers, a human rights activist who challenged military dictatorships, a founder and leader of the Nigerian Movement for the People political party, as well as an unashamed polygamist who once married 27 women at the same time! ( The divorce process was a gradual one up until his incarceration, although upon his release he decided to simultaneously divorced his twelve remaining wives.) He lived in Lagos, studied in London, spent time developing his style in Accra, and worked illegally with his band in Los Angeles (before being deported for not having work visas.) His diverse background and eventful life are reflected in the sound he created, which is a melting pot of his traditional African musical background as well as the various influences he picked up along the way. He was an extremely prolific musician, releasing over 40 records. Delving in to the discography may be daunting – very few songs are less than 10 minutes and some of his longer stuff is 30-45 minutes – I haven’t included anything that epic in this short introduction – below are just a few tracks to help you get a feel for this monumental back-catalogue.
Fela Kuti – Mister Follow Follow
Off the album Zombie, this was an attack on the brutality of the Nigerian military. The army were not pleased and responded by beating Fela Kuti half to death and throwing his elderly mother out of a top floor window. Recorded with his band Africa ’70, it features some of the best backing vocals on any of Fela’s work.
Fela Kuti – Water Get No Enemy
This is one of the most well-known Fela tracks, featuring that characteristic ‘endless groove’ (the subtle and repetitive guitar melody and percussion that forms the base of most of his songs) and Yoruba vocals, all set off with a latin-tinged saxophone and organ.
Fela Kuti – Gentleman
Gentleman is a harsh criticism of African elites who were still enamoured with the white colonials, and emphasises the need to ‘re-Africanise’ Africa. This is a recurrent theme in Fela’s songs and is part of the reason he was such a strong advocate of polygamy. The flurry of saxophone at the beginning is courtesy of Fela himself who, at this time, had been playing for only a couple of months and was entirely self-taught.