Jun 10, 2010

Dele Sosimi - An article

“What the hell has this got to do with Fela?”

It’s a Saturday afternoon and the distinct sound of a reggae bassline is booming across the Barbican’s reception area towards the corner where I am trying – in vain – to conduct a quiet interview of the man who played keys for Fela Kuti for six years. My subject is due onstage in a quarter of an hour and this is the fourth time in five minutes that our interview has been ground to a halt by friends, fans and family; this time by a band member annoyed at the inclusion of a reggae band – albeit a good one – on a roster of musicians and DJs gathered at London’s Barbican arts centre to celebrate the life, art and legacy of afrobeat pioneer, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Dele Sosimi shrugs his shoulders and smiles at his friend with the air of a man who has seen it all before. The talented composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist was born in Hackney (just down the road), before going to Nigeria where he went to music school and taught himself how to play piano and guitar. By the time he was a teenager, he was already touring all over Europe and the United States as a key member of Fela Kuti’s band, Egypt 80 (formerly Africa 70).

For anyone living in Nigeria in the ‘70s, afrobeat was the sound; deep funk blended with traditional Nigerian/West African highlife accompanied by a heady dose of African percussion, jazz horns and vocals. Fela Kuti perfected and popularised the genre, but when I put it to Dele that another West African artist, Geraldino Pino of Sierra Leone, is said to have actually invented afrobeat, he is quick to set me straight:

"I had the privilege and pleasure of playing with Pino and he was basically a James Brown afficionado. Fela though… Fela had vision. He went through metamorphoses as an artist. When he went to the US, it was a turning point for him. He came back different. His black consciousness peaked. He was influenced by Malcolm X, by the Black panthers, by Cleaver."

Listening to Dele talk it is evident that Fela is as much an inspiration to him now as he was when Dele taught himself to play his songs on his school’s piano. The man was legendary for having been an incredible showman and bandleader, but it is also for his audacious, revolutionary lyrics and contempt for authority that Fela is revered by a fan base that includes artists as diverse as D’Angelo, Ty, Masters at Work, Taj Mahal, Osunlade, Brian Eno, Burning Spear, Kerri Chandler and Jorge Ben Jor.

By 1984, the Nigerian military government had had enough of Fela and they incarcerated him for eighteen months on trumped up currency laundering charges, leaving his son (Dele’s childhood friend) Femi Kuti to lead Egypt 80 on their American tour. Dele became the band’s musical director and for two years he recruited and trained new band members, arranged and orchestrated Afrobeat masterpieces.

In 1986 Femi left Egypt 80 and took Dele with him. Dele became the musical director and bandleader for Femi’s new group Femi Anikulapo-Kuti and the Positive Force. During these years Dele explored and developed his own musical skills, stretching himself between Positive Force, the Afro Jazz Quartet/Quintet and by working with a French Bassoon Player called Alex Ouzounoff, to produce the CD, ‘Made In Nigeria’.

By December 1995, he had decided on his own musical path and he left Positive Force, moving to London where he started playing as a resident musician in some of London’s Nigerian venues. He formed a new group, which he called ‘Gbedu Resurrection’. “Gbedu” he says, “is like hunger, a summons that you cannot ignore”. It also used to be the name of the Shrine, the legendary nightclub on the outskirts of Lagos that Fela made famous. Gbedu Ressurection featured six or so artists and went on to play several London venues including the Africa Centre and, somewhat poetically, The Shrine (London). Things really took off for Dele however at the beginning of 2002 when he successfully released his debut solo album, ‘Turbulent Times’ in which he manages to demonstrate the piano as a centrepiece afrobeat instrument to rival the drum and horns.

When I ask if he was surprised by the album’s reception, he shakes his head and says, "Afrobeat is becoming more and more accessible, more listened to. People who didn’t originate it are playing it now. Groups like Afrodizz and Kokolo Afrobeat Orchestra in New York." Dele acknowledges the role of his former bandmate, Tony Allen, in raising afrobeat’s profile. "Tony's crossed over a lot. He is more household now. That’s the thing about afrobeat: when you want to cook, he’s like water. Tony is like water - the essential ingredient. Especially to many hip hop DJs." We talk about some of the artists using Tony’s beats, including rappers Common, Ty and Breis, the last of whom will be performing on the last day of the Barbican’s Freestage performances. Dele animatedly starts playing a Tony Allen drumbeat using his arms for effect and his mouth for sounds before adding that Allen played a central role in the development of the music. Referring to the more subdued sound of Egypt 80 in comparison with Africa 70s danceable funk grooves, Dele says that “After Tony left, [Fela] did not seem to trust the drummer's role too much anymore. The drums became more subdued. When Tony played you could hear him accentuate Fela's sound. There was a rapport". I ask Dele if there has ever been a reunion of Africa 70/Egypt 80 members. He responds in the negative: "It hasn't happened yet... but I'm praying that it will. It would be nice to jam with them again."

At the moment, Dele is releasing his second album ‘Best Bet’, and he mentions an EP of six Afrobeat poetry tracks he is producing for a poet named Ikwunga. He has just finished compiling the 3-CD Essential Afrobeat compilation for Family recordings. The compilation features all of afrobeat’s central players, such as Tony Allen, Femi Kuti and of course Fela, while also highlighting modern interpretations of afrobeat by the likes of Quantic, Masters at Work, and Daft Punk, as well as featuring work from newer afrobeat outfits like Afrodizz, funk masters like James Brown, and numerous funky Africans including Manu Dibango and Salif Keita. As Sosimi puts it, "The compilation is authoritative. This is where Afrobeat has come from, where it has been, where it is going."

As was the case when he was with Positive Force, Dele splits his musical time between three outfits: the Afrobeat Acoustic Trio, the six-piece Gbedu group, as well as an Afrobeat Orchestra of with a ever-changing line up of at least ten players. In 2003 the Orchestra was fourteen men strong and they played to audiences at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, and at the X.traX showcases in Manchester.

Our 15 minutes are up and Dele proceeds to the stage to show me what he is all about, delivering a performance that his mentor would surely be proud of; engaging the audience, dancing behind the keys, singing, laughing and drawing out impressive performances from his band. By the end of their set, he has everyone on their feet. It is very difficult not to get caught up in the man’s passion and enthusiasm for his music.


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