Nov 17, 2009

The Afrobeat Diaries ... by (Pt.V)

Revival & Revolution

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When Fela Kuti died in 1997, it seemed, for a while, as though Afrobeat might have died with him. So colossal was Kuti's role in the music, and so few were the young pretenders to his throne, that the vacuum left by his passing appeared unfillable. In the immediate aftermath of his death it was left, not to a young pretender, but to the drummer Tony Allen, who had helped Kuti create Afrobeat in the late 1960s and who had remained the foundation stone of his bands until 1979, to pick up the baton. Which he has done magnificently, starting with Black Voices (Comet, 1999) and continuing up to Secret Agent (World Circuit, 2009). In 2009, Allen is well into his second stride, and his follow-up World Circuit album promises to be something special.

Along the way, Allen, who has since the mid-1980s been based in Paris, France, was joined on the post-Fela Kuti stage by Kuti's Nigerian-based son Femi and his band, Positive Force. Femi had been recording under his own name since the late 1980s, with a string of workmanlike, but somehow ultimately underwhelming albums. It was Allen, open to other influences, most notably reggae-inspired dub, but retaining the original Afrobeat vibe, who made most of the running.

It wasn't until 2008 and Fela's younger son, Seun's, gloriously authentic Many Things (Tot ou Tard), that the Kuti bloodline was properly revived. Less globally eclectic than Allen, Seun's Afrobeat has been to date more revivalist than revolutionary, but—helped by his father's last band, Egypt 80, and his last musical director, saxophonist Lekan Animashaun—Many Things was a convincing chip off the old block. Seun was fortunate in having Animashaun on his team; he'd joined Fela, along with Tony Allen, in the mid-1960s, and he has the original Afrobeat blueprint 100% down. (Animashaun's solo album Low Profile: Not For The Blacks, recorded in 1979 but not released until 1995, and available since 2004 on the British Honest Jons label, is reviewed in Part 3 of these Diaries).

Betraying a gobsmacking ignorance of West African musical tradition, some European and American observers have sought to belittle Femi and Seun's involvement in Afrobeat by suggesting that they are opportunists exploiting their father's name. To say such a thing is entirely to miss the point: in West Africa, and elsewhere on the continent, the role of professional musician is routinely handed down from father to son (and it is son, almost always, rather than daughter), with the inheritors preserving their forebears' legacies while, as they mature, adding more of themselves to their music.

But that's by the by. The good news is that not only are Tony Allen and Femi and Seun Kuti keeping the flame burning, but they have been joined by a host of other artists playing Fela-inspired Afrobeat. Many of these bands are European or American-based, and many of the musicians who play in them are white. It's generally presumptuous to attribute statements like "he would have loved it" to departed musical auteurs when describing the work of their inheritors; but it's safe to say Fela would thoroughly approve of this development, even if he might not be so enthusiastic about some of the bands.

Afrobeat Revival features ten different modern Afrobeat bands, including those led by Tony Allen and Seun Kuti. Allen's "Crazy Afrobeat," from Home Cooking (Honest Jons, 2004), and Kuti's "Think Africa," from Many Things, are, of course, highlights, but they're not the only ones. Another is the New York-based Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble's 13-minute opus "Fela Dey" (meaning Fela Forever), from the group's second album, P.D.P. President Dey Pass (Afrobomb, 2008). The horn section is a monster, the rhythm guitar precisely catches the magic of those skeletal but irresistible background riffs which were key to Fela's work from the early 1970s, and in Leon Ligan-Majek the band has a lyricist with something to say and a singer with the presence to drive the message home.

Akoya's isn't the only more-than-promising ex-North American track on the album. Antibalas' "Government Magic," Chicago Afrobeat Project's "Jekajo," Mr Something Something & Ikwunga The Afrobeat Poet's "Di Bombs" and The Superpowers' "Abbey Rockers #1" also nail it. Chicago Afrobeat Project's use of the kora, assertively played by Morikeba Kouyate, is a novel development which works well. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Toli Almasi's Brooklyn-based, all-female group Femm Nameless' "Ibajekbe (What If)" is another unusual and successful track, refreshingly for Afrobeat putting a woman's perspective up front and including wife beating and breast cancer among its references.

The least convincing track on the collection, and indeed the only unconvincing one, is "Trouble Come Trouble Go" by the New York-based Kokolo, whose 2004 album More Consideration (Full Cut) is included in its entirety as a bonus disc. The group constructs some solid grooves tempered by Latin influences, but are holed below the waterline by their vocals.

But nine boss tracks out of ten is an above average score, and so successful is Afrobeat Revival that's it been joined by a second volume, Afrobeat Revolution (Rough Guide, 2009), to be reviewed in a later Diary.


01. TONY ALLEN: Crazy Afrobeat
02. ANTIBALAS: Government Magic
03. SEUN KUTI & FELA’S EGYPT 80: Think Africa
05. FEMM NAMELESS: Ibajekbe (What If)
06. KOKOLO: Trouble Come, Trouble Go
07. DELE SOSIMI: Ojoro
10. THE SUPERPOWERS: Abbey Rockers #1

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Some more additional information about the sampler

What can be said about the legendary Tony Allen, the bebop-informed rhythm machine, that has not already been said? Fela Kuti once stated that, ‘without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat’. Black Voices now stands as a milestone in the Afrobeat revival and Tony’s second album Home Cooking was made with the help of the Unsung Heroes production squad and featuring the likes of Ty, Damon Albarn and Eska.

The Kuti family has been making news in the world of music for some time now, but it may be Fela’s youngest son, Seun Kuti, who carries the torch for pure, unadulterated Afrobeat. Having been a member of Fela’s later band since the age of 9, the gravel-voiced Seun’s overall sound is closest to his father’s. The current unit is, in fact, Fela’s own group, Egypt 80, with alto saxophonist Lekan Animashaun as musical director. ‘Think Africa’ was recorded in Lagos in 2006 with Pidgin English lyrics concerning government corruption. Keyboardist, arranger, vocalist and educator Dele Sosimi’s ‘Afro-groove’ is quite a jazzy number, and in the musical spirit of Fela. In fact, Dele and his childhood friend Femi Kuti were leading players in Egypt 80, joining in 1979. In 1986 Sosimi and Femi left to form their own band, Femi Anikulapo-Kuti and the Positive Force, of which Dele was the musical director and bandleader.

Credited with introducing a new generation to Afrobeat is the Brooklyn-based collective, Antibalas, who has been making waves recently, delivering the soundtrack to the new musical, Fela!, showing Off Broadway. Also emerging from the contemporary Afrobeat revival scene in NYC is Kokolo. Their irresistible groove, conscious lyrics and powerful horns made such an impression that More Consideration became the stand-out bonus disc to accompany the Rough Guide compilation – allowing the listener to dig deeper into Africa’s greatest dance groove.

Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Toli Almasi founded Femm Nameless, an all-female group that is a welcome tonic to the most frustrating thing about the Afrobeat movement: a male-centric view of the world. ‘Ibajebe’ asks “What If” – what if the order were turned upside down, what if we had the courage to unite and ask the tough questions, see each other’s reflection in one another’s eye? We could challenge the status quo, question authority, fight injustice, eradicate inequality. Fela’s lyrics certainly commented on power dynamics, but Toli’s fearless questioning makes new statements about that subject in a feminine voice that carries a universal message.


This collection demonstrates that Nigerian icon Fela Kuti’s legacy is alive and well, the music he developed, an intensely political mixture of funk, hi life and African percussion with these trance inducing elongated instrumental parts, and call and response vocals still resonates in these difficult political times. Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen starts proceedings with his cheeky Crazy Afrobeat, taking a jazz funk angle that owes as much to Kuti as Herbie Hancock, given further weight due to the sleazy little instructions he murmurs occasionally as if Afrobeat is a hot new dance the kids will love. Move over Lambada, do “the Afrobreat,” instructs Allen. It’s a classic. Antibalas have been a long standing representative of the New York Afrobeat scene and their music is deep and funky with thick low horns and urgent tinkering percussion. Their 10 minute plus Government Magic whilst overtly owing much to Fela is also one of the highlights of this collection. Canadians Mr Something Something team up with Nigerian Afrobeat poet Ikwunga with one of the cleverest and overtly political songs on the album, whilst Massachusetts instrumental band The Superpowers highlight the funk aspects of early 70’s Fela, and it’s pretty food for white-boys. Almost without exception every track on this compilation is gold, though that’s what you get when you’re influenced by a musical deity. So special mention should go to the son of god, Seun Kuti who’s album Many Things is the most inspiring music I’ve heard this year, an angry slab of urgent Afrobeat that feels as raw and vital as any of his fathers work. Think Africa from said album, with Fela’s legendary backing band Egypt 80 attempts to highlight some of the social inequalities Africa is currently and possibly has always experienced. It’s intelligent aggressive and will no doubt make you go out and track down the album. Whilst the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree for Seun, Afrobeat has evolved and moved in new and curious directions and these artists are at the forefront and it’s an exciting time. This collection also comes with a complete bonus cd by the New York based Kokolo who integrated latin, reggae, Brazilian and dub influences into their unique take on Afrobeat.


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