Apr 14, 2010

Ayetoro - An article from 2009

Reinventing Afrobeat the Aiyetoro way

I was taken aback when midway into our conversation, Funsho Ogundipe, with a straight face declared that, "Afrobeat is dead!" Surely, I thought Ogundipe, leader of Ayetoro who in the late 90s, released a piano-driven, blues-flavoured Afrobeat hit album with gems like ‘Something Dey' and ‘Tribute to Fela', must be deliberately putting me on. Here was the man many music lovers and critics rightly considered as the new mature voice of post-Fela Afrobeat, literarily biting the finger that musically fed him.

To my relief, Ogundipe then proffered reasons why he felt that Afrobeat was ‘dead.' "How many people are playing Afrobeat?" he asked rhetorically "If Afrobeat, like Jazz, wants to be relevant," he continued "or does not want to become museum music, it has got to incorporate the modern sounds, whether hip hop or fuji. In Jazz there was much more onus on the musicians to play their own beat and then improvise." "We must remember" he recalled, "that Fela brought musicians from various tribal groups; a mixture of African nationalities; Nigerians, Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Beninoise and Congolese, and they all brought the rhythmic impetus of their people to create Afrobeat music."

Time for change

In essence, Ogundipe's concern is the modernisation of Afrobeat and the need to permanently situate the music as a lasting genre on the fast-changing competitive international popular music scene. According to him, Afrobeat has to change! "Early Afrobeat musicians did not want the music to expand in terms of sound and colour," he observed, "to use it for cartoons and romance. It is almost ironical that Afrobeat should only be about open protest. We have to improve on our use of irony, satire, social meaning and have oblique lyrics."

In the light of such views, Ogundipe, predictably, is concerned about the negative mindset that associates Afrobeat with hemp-smoking - an excuse for putting the music down. "Winston Churchill did opium, Obama claimed use of cocaine. It has cost Fela and Afrobeat dearly to be portrayed as a drug-crazed, sex-addicted music; turning it into a monster and depriving the music from the blood that originated it. Afrobeat at its best is African classical music. People should not forget that all the revolutions in music have been rhythmic. Remove the beat from Afrobeat and, it is not there!"

Popularising Ayetoro

It is obvious that Ogundipe's articulate views on the state of health of Afrobeat and its future survival and sustenance are based on further learning, experimentation and continued experience. He left Lagos and lived in London from 2000 to 2007 and, for the past two years, has spent six months in Accra, Ghana and the other six in London. "I left Nigeria to become a better musician and face more challenges. Nigeria was stifling and I needed to play with better people, see better people play." And with his children now in secondary school in England, he could afford to relocate to Ghana, "because it is close to home and it is frightfully expensive to come home to Nigeria."

Why? "I play the piano for five or six hours everyday. The overheads in Accra in terms of electricity, security, petroleum, make more sense than Lagos."

He -as a major shareholder, and his Ghanaian friends, own a digital production house, Atta Productions, which provides equipment for movie and music producers. What has been his musical direction and development over the last decade?

"I simply took the name Ayetoro with me and started playing with that name. As a keyboard-accentuated Afrobeat musician, I have matured more as an arranger, composer and piano player, and this reflects the way my music is arranged. My models are Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, Sun Ra and Miles Davis. I strive for a group sound; using individual sidemen who have their own sound. They contribute through improvisation and they also have to be good ensemble players and must be sympathetic to other musicians. Up until now, the best musicians were not attracted to play Afrobeat. It may have been for social reasons but I am changing all that now!"

To the credit and influences of ex-Fela drummer Tony Allen and keyboardist Ogundipe, many more bands in Europe and America are now playing music with distinct Afrobeat roots. In London, Ayetoro developed a reputation for live shows. His first gig in England in 2002, was the Africa Oye Festival; the biggest world music festival in Europe held in Liverpool. He has also played at the famous 100 Club on Oxford Street, London.

What are the new flavours in his music? "I do not know what name to give my music. Not Afrobeat; maybe ‘Naija Blues' which is the title of my first album. The music I play now satisfies my yearning for structure and improvisation at the same time. Not one-chord music like old Afrobeat; which was restrictive. I use the structure of 12-bar blues, diminished chords and whole tones to improve the musical colouristic choice available.

I strongly believe in discipline in music. My old album ‘Something Dey' involved tension release."

Ogundipe has grown into a musician that straddles many worlds. In Ghana, he was appointed musical director and principal composer of the Culture Caravan Initiative of the French Embassy and Vodafone that took concert parties, live band and a play on stage across Ghana. "I had to create atmospheric sounds, not just sweet sounds, but music in totality," he recalls. He then took a 14-piece band called Afrobitten that included dancers and singers to the Alliance Francaise in Accra.

Exciting generation

What is his opinion on the calibre of young musicians now on the scene in Nigeria? "There is an exciting new generation of young musicians in Nigeria from the Muson Music School, who have the discipline of classical music training and can play and improvise. Since 1998, half of the musicians I worked with in Nigeria were from the Peter King School of Music. I think it will be musically rewarding to have Nigerian hip hop singers play with learned musicians."

Ogundipe's recently released albums successfully demonstrate his immense musical growth in one decade as well as show in energy and musical diversity, the futuristic directions of the ‘new' Afrobeat. He directs the music with maturity and confident expertise from keyboards, piano, Wurlitzer electric piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano. ‘Afrobeat Chronicles' (Vol 1) subtitled ‘The Jazz Side of Afrobeat' features Byron Wallen, a prominent non-American jazz trumpeter in the Diaspora. ‘Afrobeat Chronicles' (Vol 2) subtitled ‘Omo Obokun' in reference to his Ilesha roots, features a choir of expatriate Cuban bata drummers and percussionists who play two rhythms; one for ‘Iyesha' [As Ijesha people pronounce it] and the other for twins.


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