When death left Fela Kuti’s pouch and his body passed in 1997 his greatness was yet to be globally digested. Now approaching two decades on, has the potency of his visions and innovations diminished? Who carries his music and Felasophy forward today?
The dedication Fela Kuti’s youngest son Seun has inked on his back can be read as a touching tribute to his father but also as the cross children of famed parents have to bear. An inescapable shadow to live up to.
When introduced on stage by Baba Ani to front Egypt 80, continuing the yabis tradition, or blowing his sax, Seun is the closest we have to a living Fela. As anyone who’s seen him perform can testify, his on-stage energy is to be applauded; crowds dance, sing and sweat along, however there is the lingering feeling that originality is not Seun’s strong point.
That said, to write Seun off as only a lesser version of his father is unfair. It took Fela decades of musical study and experimentation to surpass his peers (such as Geraldo Pino) and as the title of Seun’s latest album, A Long Way to the Beginning, suggests the Kalakuta boy is continuing to try and find his own voice.
In this album of Seun’s (his third), there is the recurring lyrical focus on oil, gender issues (from a patriarchal viewpoint) and (so-called) corruption. Themes that again echo his father’s vast commentary. In a 2009 interview for SHOOK magazine, Seun rebuked the view that he should move away from continuing to give attention to these realities, rather it’s the modern nuances that make it relevant: “It’s still happening to us, so they are new things to talk about.”
Whereas Fela had his weekly Friday night rituals at the Shrine to interact with audiences, Seun’s blog is the place to read his attempts to provoke change with (for what they’re worth) associated hashtags. As well as be directed to further analysis of his lyrics.
But what of Femi?
Twenty years older than Seun, Fela’s first born son, Femi has become something of a go-to-celebrity or ambassadorial voice to speak out about Nigerian affairs. Witty he may be and adept at writing catchy choruses but Femi’s positive force has always lacked the punch of his father’s music.
Retrogressively, the majority of Femi and Seun’s music also conforms to pop music formulas that their father vehemently rejected. Note the length of songs: on average Seun’s are decreasing while Femi’s have been grounded around a radio-friendly 4-minute mark for some time. Add to this frequent use of collaborations with “in-trend” acts. Do these improve the music or just appeal to publicists as a way of “broadening audience base” in the hope of increasing sales?
Afrobeat man, original
Burna Boy can strut in his underwear and Wizkid may mount the New Afrika Shrine’s stage singing “She go say I be Lady-o” but autotuned afropop is far too bling and stuck in capitalist realism craving “cars from Germany…” instead of challenging vagabonds in power to be considered a continuation of what Fela came into the room to do.
Beyond Nigeria’s borders, numerous bands across the globe, particularly in France, the UK and the US, imitate Fela’s music, however it is two of Fela’s former band members who remain some of the most thrilling live afrobeat performers: Tony Allen and Dele Sosimi.
Without Tony Allen afrobeat as we know it may well would not be. The drive and polyrhythmic force that Allen’s drumming provided as Koola Lobitos transformed into Africa/Afrika 70 and then his subsequent bands or projects continues to mesmerise crowds. How can four limbs operate on their own metronome? 2014 sees the release of Allen’s tenth LP, Film of Life (on French-imprint, Jazz Village) following on from two reissues on Kindred Spirits (a label out of Amsterdam).
Having joined Egypt 80 as a teenage, Dele Sosimi has grown into a cult performer in London. In a city with a shortage of genuinely enthralling and cutting-edge live music performances despite it’s volume (don’t be fooled by British arrogance), and where those shows that are noteworthy tend to be wrapped up before midnight, Sosimi’s Afrobeat Vibration nights guarantee good, heavy-grooved times until the early hours. Does it matter if his band is mostly oyimbo?
Ayetoro, at home
“Deeply torn between the imperative of rejecting a legacy of subordination and the need to affirm a new libertarian future for his land and people, Fela ended up creating a body of work that is incomparable in terms of international popular music that expresses the cosmopolitan – and ‘cosmopolitical’ – spirit of the second half of the 20th century.” Gilberto Gil sings in the foreword to Cassava Republic Press’s 2010 edition of Fela: This Bitch of a Life, the biography by Carlos Moore that remains the definitive book on Fela’s life.
With this spirit in mind, one artist exploring afrobeat’s origins and possibilities does bring the necessary elements together: Funsho Ogundipe.
When still in a profession more financially lucrative than experimental music, Funsho was a regular at the Shrine, learning first-hand from Fela in the mid-1990s. A remarkable individual, composer, pianist and band leader, Funsho embodies much Felasophy as well as additional (musical) influence from visionaries Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. His collective, or arkestra, Ayetoro have a fluid line-up and their Afrobeat Chronicles often ride a groove in tune with the African classical music Fela orchestrated with Egypt 80 in the latter stage of his career.
Bands attempting to play afrobeat have every right to give it a go but as listeners, before choosing to pay for a record, it is worth look/listening through the hype to consider if we’re hearing imitators or innovators. Funsho Ogundipe’s new “directions in music” offer a shape of afrobeat to come (and now) although have we already listened and engaged with all Fela’s original material? All 77 albums and 133 songs? Let’s start!
Felabration, the annual festival of music and arts commemorating the life and times of Nigerian’s foremost musical icon, is underway and runs until the 19th of October