May 25, 2011

Australian Afrobeat: The Shaolin Afronauts - Flight of The Ancients + interviews


The mysterious afro-soul of The Shaolin Afronauts first echoed across the dance floors of Australia in late early 2008. Heavily inspired by the sounds of 1970's West Africa, Ethiopia and the pioneering avant-garde jazz artists of the same period the Shaolin Afronauts draw on the this highly innovative and sometimes volatile era in music, using it as inspiration to create music with the same fire and intensity. Their spirited performances have fast gained a reputation as some of the most exciting live shows around. Though there is something refreshing and original about the Afronauts, their music could be described as somewhere in between the heavy Afrobeat of Fela Kuti and the Ethio-Jazz of Mulatu Astatke. The key to the Shaolin Afronauts unique sound is the line-up, which comprises of a three piece horn section, 5 piece rhythm section and three percussionists, and this polyrhythmic approach layers the groups sound with a mesmerizing and hypnotic texture. Kicking off with Journey Through Time (also released as the A side of the limited edition 12 inch vinyl single: FSR091) the multiple layers of percussion and rhythms indeed unleash an unstoppable groove, which is nicely balanced against the albums slower, more introspective moments, such as Rise With The Blind which along with haunting, mellow Scarab prove that contemporary afrobeat rooted music doesn't always have to be an unrelenting, uptempo assault on the senses and can provide moments of sheer beauty and reflection. This added element of subtlety sets The Shaolin Afronauts music apart from much of the recent crop of other bands with similar influences, that said, these guys are still a collective capable of burning some stone cold classic and killer grooves, The Shaolin Afronauts are the band to watch out for in 2011!


Interview No. 1

In the lead-up to WOMADelaide, LUNA was given the opportunity to chat with Ross McHenry of the Shaolin Afronauts, a mystical and quirky local eleven-piece dabbling in the sounds of afrobeat, who will feature in the festival’s line-up.

Like other members of the band, McHenry also plays for The Transatlantics, an eight-piece with an affinity for soul and funk, which has already experienced success domestically.

However, the focus of the interview was on the Shaolin Afronauts, as LUNA received an insight into the band’s influences, style and philosophy, as well as a look into the music of afrobeat, which features heavily at WOMADelaide.

Can you give the readers some background information about the Shaolin Afronauts?

Absolutely. The Shaolin Afronauts were formed a couple of years ago, I guess with the intention of playing afrobeat music in the city of Adelaide. The core of the musicians joined from a band that a lot of us are a part of, called The Transatlantics, and I guess when I started writing for the group it was just natural to share the music with the people that I played with the most. Also, I think The Transatlantics have been big record collectors and fans of afrobeat and various other soul music from around the world; it was very easy to do it in that way. So in a couple of years it has grown to kind of an eleven-piece original instrumental afro band. We’ve just been signed to Freestyle Records, that are based in the UK, so hopefully you’ll see a lot more of us. We’re doing a lot of touring at the moment and we’re playing at the incredible WOMADelaide festival on the 12th of March.

How did the name come about?

How did the name come about? That is a question that every single interviewer asks me. It’s difficult to… it wasn’t… Let me rephrase that; I’ll try and say this succinctly. Although the name I guess is important, it wasn’t something that was the most considered part. The music is foremost important and the name, the Shaolin Afronauts, is really just drawn from the fact that we play on stage wearing hooded cloaks and try to keep our identity a little bit obscure. And the music we play is afrobeat, so certainly “afronauts” comes with the sort of spacey, mysterious vibe of the music, with its roots in 1970s afrobeat and some elements of free jazz that we really enjoy and that we like to draw parallels to the group with.

That pretty much flows well into the next question: can you name the band’s musical influences?

Musically, the main influence is afrobeat, particularly the music of Fela Kuti and the Africa ’70. Then, I guess the secondary influence is the avant-garde jazz movement of the 1970s, particularly artists like Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders; now, I don’t want people to get freaked out by that. That’s not in terms of the lesser enjoyed elements of that but the pretty spirited intensity of that music. I guess the other primary influence is always going to be, if you enjoy that music and you’re from my generation, you’re most likely to have started out listening to it through hip-hop. Certainly, jazz and afrobeat are very important to the music of hip-hop. I think it’s now in this generation that you’re starting to see hip-hop directly influencing the making of that music and not the other way around.

So, does any of your music employ hip-hop styles in it?

No. I don’t mean directly in terms of the heavy kind of grooves that are traditionally associated with hip-hop, but I think through sampling and through artists like Madlib and J Dilla, it’s one way that people of my generation were actually exposed to those sounds early on in our musical development. I think it’s also the thing that encouraged lots of people who would be soul music or hip-hop music collectors to explore the music of Africa. I think that the textures and the way in which people like Madlib and others compose and create music now draws on the influences of jazz and afrobeat. I think that all those musics are intrinsically linked, whether it’s directly or indirectly, so that’s more where I’m talking about the influences coming from, rather than the direct stylistic influences.

How did you guys stumble upon afro-beat? Have you always liked it or did you one day find it and become enthralled by it?

Ever since I first heard afrobeat, I loved it. I guess, for me it was through exploring a lot of jazz, because when I read about it, it was directly influenced by afrobeat, and then exploring Fela Kuti and artists sort of similar to that, as well as being exposed to samples of stuff by J Dilla, amongst others. I think that in Adelaide we’re lucky enough to have festivals like WOMADelaide. Afrobeat has become an important part of that festival; there seems to always be someone who’s doing it on the line-up. So, I think from a young age, if you attended that festival – which I think pretty much every member of the band did – that had a big impact on us young people. I think 15- or 20- piece bands, with dancers and singers and stuff like that, when you come from a culture which doesn’t have many bands that are that big that perform with that kind of intensity, that colour and excitement, it’s bound to make a pretty strong impression on you. I think for me it was in the ‘90s growing up and seeing that and then when I became a musician myself and got into jazz and soul and collected that in my early teens, I rediscovered it. I was inspired by it in the past, I was just too young to understand it. I think that was pretty similar for the other people involved in the Shaolin Afronauts.

You alluded before to the mystical, obscure aura that you guys have. Is this to complement the mystical element of the Afro-beat you play?

I think so. We’re trying to, at the end of the day, express ourselves through music and the music we are most inspired by is borne out of quite serious social comment or a motivation for political change. And although we’re not trying to necessarily directly advocate any of those things ourselves, we’re trying to invoke the spirit of that. In order to do that, we don’t necessarily want it to be the jazz thing, with the individual person soloing and the focus being on them. We like to keep it a little bit anonymous and have some sort of mystique about it, in order to be able to absolutely go for it on stage. It’s kind of hard when you’re just from Adelaide; you love this music more than you could possibly say but it’s not part of your cultural identity, directly. So in order to do that, we want to create something on stage a bit mysterious, or a bit special, in order for us, ourselves, to be able to break out of the cultural boundaries (that we may have created for ourselves); to be able to perform with the intensity that respects the music, in the way that we want it to be respected.

Do you guys have a particular philosophy about your music then?

Well, the music itself is inspired by great artists of the past. I’m not trying to write music that is retro – that cops that music. It is afrobeat, but I like to describe it as futurist afrobeat, because we’re not from Nigeria or Ghana and we’re 20-year-olds who are just trying to express ourselves through music. I guess that our philosophy is to be able to pay tribute to the people that we most admire but move on with music and allow the influences of hip-hop and jazz and other music that we love to come through it, in order to create music that doesn’t necessarily confine itself to certain cultural boundaries but expresses us in the way that we feel is important as musicians.

You guys are playing at WOMADelaide, as we’ve already discussed. What are you expecting from it?

We’re excited to be playing at “WOMAD”. Like I said, it’s been a big influence on all of us. Seeing the incredible talent that gets brought to Adelaide now on a yearly basis, it’s very fortunate. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest festivals in Australia and across the world. And we’re excited to play to a large group of people who specifically come to a music event to hear music that they may not have known or heard of before. That’s a special environment, right? Most people go to festivals because they love the headliners, most people go to WOMADelaide because they haven’t heard of half the bands playing and that excites them. So, that’s a massive opportunity, and it’s a massive opportunity to expose your music to people who are really receptive. That’s what we’re looking forward to, as well as just attending the festival and seeing all the other artists.

Are there any artists or bands you’re looking forward to playing alongside of or meeting?

I’m looking forward to being out and meeting every band playing. What other festival are you going to like 70 other countries represented? There are so many great artists, I don’t want to single anyone particularly out. I’m looking forward to the hang and just playing and being part of such an event.

For the readers interested in going to “WOMAD”, how would you describe your set?

Hopefully, our set is going to embody everything that I just said. Every time we step on stage, we try to approach it with creative music that’s new and exciting and special. All the guys in the band are phenomenal musicians, who I’m fortunate enough to play with all the time, so I’m very lucky. There’s the element of virtuosity, but there’s also this combined group effort to create a sound that really connects the people. There’s a kind of rhythmic intensity to it, which I think is infectious and encourages people to dance as well.

Will you be wearing your robes?

I hope so.

So I’ll just tell the readers to go look for the band wearing robes…

Correct, yes. I mean there’s going to be a few robes at “WOMAD”, but ours are either black or red and velvet. So, I’m not going to say anymore. I probably don’t need to say anymore having said that.

You were talking about your album which is about to get released. I read that you recorded that in one day after one rehearsal. Is that right?

That is correct, yes. It sounds ridiculous but, whatever music you’re playing you need to pick the musicians that are best going to represent that. Like I said before, we’re very lucky to play with a group of incredible musicians. I think it does translate on the record. It’s got an element to it like everyone’s a little bit on-edge. It’s not over-rehearsed. There are mistakes on the recording if you listen closely but it’s got a kind of intensity to it that can only be present in music that’s, I don’t know, a bit live, a bit raw – which is one of the things I enjoy most out of it.

And, finally, what’s on the horizon for you, with both the Shaolin Afronauts and The Transatlantics?

Hopefully we’ll be able to do another album with the Shaolin Afronauts this year. There’s going to be another Transatlantics album this year. A lot of touring! Both bands are signed to Freestyle Records in the U.K. So hopefully we’ll be able to go over there and do some touring this year. We’re just working in the studio of a very important person to The Transatlantics and the Afronauts, Tom Barnes, that we’ve built together, which has enabled us to increase our output of music quite significantly. I think we’re just trying to document as much music as we possibly can over the next year or so and to play and tour as much as we can, so we can evolve and move forward as musicians, for both groups. I see exciting times ahead and I hope that everyone who has listened to or enjoyed our music is as excited as we are about what the future holds.


Interview No. 2

What's your name… and the name of your band…

"My name is Ross McHenry and my band is called The Shaolin Afronauts."

And what do you do in the band?

"I am the bass player."

Who else have you and your band closely worked with?

"We are a reasonable new band so we haven't worked with anyone as such."

When did you form the band or did it just stumble upon you?

"The Shaolin Afronauts were formed a couple of years ago, I guess, with the intention of playing Afrobeat music in the city of Adelaide. The core of the musicians joined from a band that a lot of us are a part of, called The Transatlantics, and I guess when I started writing for the group it was just natural to share the music with the people that I played with the most. Also, I think The Transatlantics have been big record collectors and fans of Afrobeat and various other soul music from around the world; it was very easy to do it in that way. So in a couple of years it has grown to kind of an eleven-piece original instrumental afro band. We've just been signed to Freestyle Records, who are based in the UK, so hopefully you'll see a lot more of us."

What was the driving force behind the idea?

"The driving force was my desire to play Afrobeat music in Australia! Musically, the main influence is Afrobeat, particularly the music of Fela Kuti and The Africa '70. Then, I guess the secondary influence is the avant-garde jazz movement of the 1970s, particularly artists like Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders; now, I don't want people to get freaked out by that. That's not in terms of the lesser enjoyed elements of that, but the pretty spirited intensity of that music. I guess the other primary influence is always going to be, if you enjoy that music and you're from my generation, you're most likely to have started out listening to it through hip hop. Certainly, jazz and Afrobeat are very important to the music of hip hop. I think it's now in this generation that you're starting to see hip hop directly influencing the making of that music and not the other way around."

Where has the name come from?

"Although the name is important, I guess, it wasn't something that was the most considered part. The music is foremost important and the name, The Shaolin Afronauts, is really just drawn from the fact that we play on stage wearing hooded cloaks and try to keep our identity a little bit obscure. And the music we play is Afrobeat, so certainly 'Afronauts' comes with the sort of spacey, mysterious vibe of the music, with its roots in 1970s Afrobeat and some elements of free jazz that we really enjoy and that we like to draw parallels to the group with."

Do you think that you have achieved what you set out to do?

"Yes I think what I love about this music translate in our live shows."

If you weren't playing music you would be?

"Skiing in North America!"

What makes you happiest about what you're doing?

"Playing Afrobeat music is a pretty intense and exiting experience. Such a large band playing music with such fire, when you come from a culture which doesn't have many bands that are that big and perform with that kind of intensity, that colour and excitement, it's bound to make a pretty strong impression on you. It's just being involved with something so powerful that makes me really happy."

How do you all find time to work with so many musicians?

"It is that hardest part of what I do. I'm not sure how it happens but it does. I guess everyone just tries their hardest to be accommodating because they love music."

When are you doing your thing next?

"We're playing Bar Open this Friday February 11, and then at the incredible WOMADelaide festival on March 12 and are pretty exited about that. I think that in Adelaide we're lucky enough to have festivals like WOMADelaide. Afrobeat has become an important part of that festival; there seems to always be someone who's doing it on the line-up. So, I think from a young age, if you attended that festival - which I think pretty much every member of the band did - that had a big impact on us young people."


01. Journey Through Time 6:25
02. Rise With The Blind 4:52
03. Flight Of The Ancients 5:36
04. Shaolin Theme 6:08
05. Kilimanjaro 6:35
06. Shira 7:55
07. The Quiet Lion 6:21
08. The Scarab 5:16

Fela Kuti - Alagbon Close (1974)/ Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1974)


Though preceded by the more-than-promising Gentleman and Afrodisiac in 1973, Alagbon Close, with the benefit of hindsight, marks a quantum leap for Kuti, Allen and Afrobeat. Most of the elements which make the disc so compelling can be heard on earlier albums, but on Alagbon Close Kuti and Tony Allen pull them all together to devastating effect, in the process creating the definitive Afrobeat paradigm.

Well recorded (and excellently remastered), Africa 70 plays with unprecedented fire: the four-piece horn section was never more majestic; the nagging riffs and ostinatos of the tenor and rhythm guitars never more insistent. Allen is a lithe-limbed colossus, his soon-to-be signature rhythms at times pushing the band forward with extraordinary percussive power, at others drawing it back like a coiled spring, only to unleash it again. Three conga drummers support him. Kuti's screaming multi-octave glissandos on the organ climax an incantatory solo, and the track's concluding drums and horns passage is Africa 70 at its most epic.

In what was becoming Kuti's trademark lyric writing style, the title track—sung in the Broken English he adopted to communicate beyond only Yoruba speakers—highlights a particular social injustice to make a broader point. On the title track he bravely exposes the brutality going on in the Alagbon Close police cells. "Dem no get respect for human beings," he sings. "Dem no know say you get blood like dem. Dem go send dem dog to bite bite you. Dem go point dem gun for your face. The gun wey dem take your money to buy. Dem don butt my head with dem gun. Dem go torture you and take your statement from you...." After more in the same vein, Kuti concludes with the observation: "Uniform na cloth na tailor de sew am. Na tailor de sew em like your dress. Nothing special about uniform."

Lyric writing like this, in a country beset by thuggish police and soldiers, provoked ongoing harassment of Kuti and Africa 70. In 1977, during the army's biggest and most shameful assault on Kalakuta, his elderly mother, a revered anti-colonialist, was thrown out of a first floor window by soldiers, hastening her death. Beatings and rapes of band members were common.

Alagbon Close is one of Kuti's greatest discs, establishing a benchmark for subsequent 1970s' classics like Zombie (1976), Sorrow Tears And Blood (1977) and V.I.P. Vagabonds In Power (1979). In late 1975, around the time he rebranded Africa 70 as Afrika 70, Kuti changed his middle name from Ransome to Anikulapo.

Why Black Man Dey Suffer is a more formative affair. It's one of a series of early 1970s' albums which made the transition between the highlife and jazz blend of Kuti and Allen's first band, Koola Lobitos, and the turbulent magnificence of mature Afrobeat. Trumpeter Tunde Williams, baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun and first conga player Henry Kofi, from later line-ups including that on Alagbon Close, are also in place. But Afrobeat's signature tenor guitar has yet to be introduced, and, crucially, Allen didn't play on the session, making way for Ginger Baker.

Baker does a creditable job on Why Black Man Dey Suffer, although Allen's absence means Africa 70 lacks the singular rhythms that would come to define Afrobeat a couple of years later. But the album is worth hearing, with powerful lyrics and some strong instrumental performances. A valuable snapshot of Africa 70's foetal stage.

Read the full article at


Alagbon Close represents one of the first times anyone had directly taken on the Nigerian authorities in such a brash manner. Why Black Man Dey Suffer: This album, recorded in 1971 with Ginger Baker behind the board, was originally deemed too controversial for release by his label at the time. The title track is a history lesson on the oppression of the African man - detailing the litany of abuses they have suffered from being taken as slaves to having an alien people impose a new culture upon them, take their land, fight them, and set them against one another.


Those familiar with my reviews on Amazon know of my love for Nigerian Afro-Beat icon Fela Kuti, and of my happiness earlier this decade when MCA decided to reissue seemingly the entire Fela back catalog as two-albums-on-one-CD to the tune of nearly 30 discs (see my reviews of at least a dozen of them). Then a few years later these volumes began to drift out of print, only to be rescued once more by Wrasse Records, who is licensing them from Universal. So you can imagine my delight this fall when I decided to do a "Fela Wrasse" search here on Amazon and discovered that there was one title that had been reissued by Wrasse that for whatever reason was neglected in the original MCA series. "Alagbon Close" (with its B-side "I No Get Eye For Back") and "Why Black Men Dey Suffer" (with its B-side "Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality") is more classic Fela, with its pulsating grooves, lengthy instrumental build ups, honking horn riffs and the leader's booming baritone. There is no recording date information in the liner notes, but as the album cover recognizes Fela as "Fela Ransome Kuti" my guess is "Alagbon" is from 1971, and also it sounds very similar in style to "Open & Close," "Shakara" and "Lady" also of that year. (Of course it could be as late as 1974 when Fela dropped "Ransome" in favor of "Anikulapo.") But no matter, regardless of when it was made, having one more Fela CD to treasure is priceless!


Answering to the review below: Alagbon Close has been recorded by Fela on 1974, and released on Lp on 1975. This work belongs to the "minor" Fela's works, but it's great anyway. I'm giving to it 5 stars just because until some time ago this album was available just on Lp, and a re-printing of it is a very important new and a great pleasure. My rate for this album is 4/5: it isn't one of the best Fela ever. "Why Black Man Dey Suffer" (1977) was even more rare. Now we're waiting for the re-printing of the full version of "I go shout Plenty", maybe with "Perambulator" as bonus track (which is available at this moment just on the Fela's hits album "Jazz & Dance")...

All reviews above from


Fela Kuti was a gifted saxophonist and bandleader, and an indisputable musical genius whose incendiary fusion of African rhythms with jazz improvisation and funk percussion gave birth to an entire musical genre. He and his crack backing outfit, the sprawling Africa 70, cut an overwhelming number of seminal recordings in the `60s and `70s, but these two LPs from 1971, ALGABON CLOSE and WHY BLACK MEN DEY SUFFER, are amongst their finest achievements. These albums were released soon after Fela's life-changing `late `60s apprenticeship on the London jazz scene, and though they outline musical and lyrical themes that Fela Kuti would revisit ceaselessly throughout his long and fruitful career, they burn with the intensity of Fela's newfound inspiration. The massed horns, relentless grooves, and bold improvising that would come to define Fela's aesthetic sound positively revolutionary on these essential early recordings.


The tracks on this album commemorate his passing, celebrate his musical legacy and perfectly encapsulate his life's work: Alagbon Close graphically describes the goings-on in that infamous Lagos police station and jail. Why Black Man Dey Suffer, railing against colonialism. Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality, lambasting the attitude of the African bourgeoisie. I No Get Eye For Back proclaiming that we may not be masters of our own destinies.


Alagbon Close (1974)

Fela wrote Alagabon Close to lampoon the police after he was detained at the police station — which, not coincidentally, is located in a cul de sac of the same name. In this deeply anti-establishment song, Fela describes the harsh tactics that the police employ to control society, detailing their favoritism of the wealthy elite and their mistreatment of the poor. In Alagbon Close, Fela tells us, you can be detained indefinitely, you will be brutalized, you will be treated as an animal — the police have no respect for human beings. The song represents one of the first times anyone had directly taken on the Nigerian authorities in such a overt, brash manner. “I No Get Eye For Back”, a song emanating from a lyric in “Alagbon Close”, is a more melodic, instrumentally focused piece.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu


01. Alagbon Close
02. I Know Get Eye for Back

Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1974)

Why Black Man Dey Suffer, recorded in 1971, was originally deemed too controversial for release by EMI, his label at the time. Having recently been schooled in the American black power movement and having taken on a new Pan-African worldview, this album served as one of Fela’s first musical soapboxes on which he challenged the colonial injustices and corruption of the ruling elites of his time. The title track “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” is a history lesson on the oppression of the African man. It details the litany of abuses the black man has suffered — from being taken as slaves, to having an alien people impose a new culture upon them, take their land, fight them, and set them against one another. The following track, “Ikoyi Mentality”, firmly expresses Fela’s identification with the downtrodden masses and his rejection of the ways of the ruling class inhabitants of the Ikoyi neighborhood in Lagos.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu


01. Why Black Man Dey Suffer
02. Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality

Interview from 2002: Salifou Kaba from Bembeya Jazz National

While Bembeya Jazz was rehearsing to record their comeback album, "Bembeya," in May 2002, Banning Eyre had the chance to sit down with lead singer Salifou Kaba to discuss his nearly 40 years with the band. Here is their conversation.

The Interview

Why don't you start by introducing yourself?

I am Salifou Kaba, cabinet maker and musician by profession. I was born in Kankan in 1943. I went to Koranic school, French school. In the end, I was oriented towards an apprenticeship center and cabinet making. I spent four years there and I emerged as a cabinet maker. That was how I went to Beyla, two-hundred and some kilometers from Beyla to work making tables, chairs and cabinets. I had my brother there who had done his studies in Havana. He came back with lots of Cuban records. I sang along with those records. At my workshop, I sang lots of Cuban songs. [SINGS] Things like that. During my vacations, I went to Kankan to buy wood. I had studied carpentry with [Aboubacar] Demba Camara. But when I went back to Kankan, he wasn't there. I went to his family. His father was a train conductor, and he was in Mamou with Demba. Demba had abandoned carpentry and was repairing bicycles. I telephoned his father to say, "Your friend has left Beyla to find you in Kankan. Can you come to Kankan and meet with him?"

He came and found me in Kankan where I had bought my wood, and we went to Beyla together. When we got to Beyla, my diploma said that I was an engineer. On his diploma, it was written, "passable." The head of the workshop saw that I was an engineer like him and demanded proof for Demba. We [did something to the diploma] and he was hired at the same salary as me. As we had been accomplices in Kankan before arriving in Beyla, the Cuban songs I was singing, we would bring them home and sing them together. We knew them already. So there was a tourist hotel in town called Relais. Every night we found Bembeya already in place. But there were no real singers. There was a girl, Nome Djenne (?), who sang, but it was not really the thing. Everyone was singing.

Was the group already called Bembeya Jazz?

Yes, the group was already called Bembeya. But there weren't any real singers. They had called it Syli Jazz. But six months after they changed the name to Bembeya, we came.

So what year was that?


So that first record made by the American, Leo Sarkisian…

We were not on it.

B.E.: You and Demba.

No, no. We weren't there yet. After this record, we came. So as I say, everybody was singing--the drummer, the bass player. Then we came. Sekou, the guitarist, he had passed by our workshop and seen us working and singing. He asked us to come by the Relais that night. "We are going to form a little group." That night we went to the Relais at about 8:00. Sekou had his acoustic guitar. The tourists were there, eating. We introduced a song and we started to sing. As my voice was softer than Demba's, they took me. My voice was higher, more feminine--right up to the present. Demba was a tenor. But I said, "I can't come into the group if Demba doesn't come also." That's how it happened. They said, "Okay, if that's how it is. Demba will come too." That's how we started.

We started working--one month, two months. Then the wood was finished again and I took a truck and went to Kankan again to look for wood. Demba stayed behind in Beyla. As he was staying behind and he had nobody to care for, he stayed at my place. After awhile, he got bored. He wasn't being well paid, so he left for Nzerekore, and when he left there, he went on to Lola. But Bembeya had now got used to having singers. But we had left. I was in Kankan; Demba was in Nzerekore. The band was worried. They sent the drummer Mangala to Nzerekore to find Demba. But he didn't want to come. A week later, I got home to Beyla. I wrote to Demba and sent the letter with Mangala. When he saw my letter, he decided to come back, and that's how the band continued.

After that, Demba went on to become a huge star.

Yes, after that, we sang together. Bembeya started to have success at festival after festival. We went to Havana together.


In '64.

Wow, and you were such a fan of Cuban music. What was it like to go there?

We saw the Cubans and they were good. We sang in Manding, but before leaving, we had learned a song by Abelardo Barrosa. [SINGS] This song was called "El Guantanamo." We sang this song. You know that the Cuban musicians used written music. But we had nothing like that. We came, we played. And Abelardo Barrosa was astonished. He said, "Is this song known in Africa?" Demba laughed and cried. He said, "If you come to Africa, they are going to eat you alive, because everyone loves you there." Old Barosa cried also. He said that Demba was his son now.

So we stayed there for a couple of months, and afterwards, we came back to Guinea. We continued home to Beyla. At that point, we were not yet a national orchestra. We were still a Federal band. We stayed there and we kept competing in the competitions, because at that time, every year, there were competitions among the regions. Best band. Best theater group. Best football team. Even writers. They would choose the best. So in Beyla now, in the band competition, there were two runners up. There was Kébendo Jazz of Gékédougou, another Federal district, and there was Bembeya Jazz of Beyla.

Afterwards we went back to Beyla, but we were angry. We didn't want to be runners up. We want to come in first. So when we got back to Beyla, we started looking hard. We went to the griots, the old people, in the moonlight where the children sing and clap. We went and listened, and we took these things. It's like [SINGS "Akukuwe"] We took these things because they were popular. So now, at the second competition, we were first!

And Kebendo Jazz?

Second place! So that's how we got to Conakry as a national orchestra. With us, when you are national you have become truly professional. After we arrived in Conakry, we did nothing other than music. We were paid by the government and every morning, we rehearsed from 10:00 or 11:00. In the evening, everyone went to meet their friends, their girlfriends, parents. We had become professional now. But at night, starting at 9:00, there was dancing in the capital. We started at 9:00, right up until 2:00 in the morning.

Every night?

Except for Friday, because on Fridays in Guinea, there were the neighborhood meetings. People would meet to discuss the problems they were having in the neighborhood. So there was no music on Fridays. Monday also. That was the day of rest.

So that's how things went. Now Sekou told me about the death of Demba [Camara], and how it broke the spirit of the band for awhile.

Very much so! His accident happened like this. We were invited to Dakar by an association called Les Daganois. They are Peuls. Before leaving, the Minister of Youth invited us to his place. He said, "You have been invited by the Senegalese. What must we do?" He told us we must play very well. Demba listened to his words and then said, "M. Minister, we must go, but we have no instruments."

At that time, in Africa, there were no sound system rental companies. None. Every band had to travel with its own instruments. It was not like now. So Demba said, "We will go to Senegal, and present ourselves with our broken instruments. Truly, this will not make me happy."

The minister said, "Okay. The government has ordered new instruments from Italy. They will come. But as the date is close, you must go as you are. When you return, you will find the instruments waiting." He said, "Don't worry," and everyone went home. The next day, Demba came in his motorcycle. It had a sidecar. We were rehearsing at the Jardin de Guinea. Before the rehearsal, he told us, I am going to visit a woman in Coya, 50 km from Conakry. This woman had told him that Bembeya had to make a sacrifice, that there would be an accident. …. After the rehearsal, he called us together and told us this. This woman in Coya, she threw shells and said that there would be an accident, that Bembeya had to make a sacrifice. When he said that, each member of the band gave 100 francs, 100 francs each to buy kola nuts. And we prayed with them and gave them away.

After we parted, Demba took his motorcycle. In turning in front of the dancing [club], he crashed into another car. We said, "Ah! Demba was right. If we had not made this sacrifice, it would have been serious." It was two days later that we traveled to Dakar. We took the plane and we left. In the airplane, he and I were together. We had a thing when we travelled. We always took a little money of the country we were traveling to and after the plane landed, we went to the bar and had a coffee. This time, it was my turn to buy the coffee. So when we landed, I bought the coffee. Demba used to drink coffee three times a day. He loved that. I said, "Demba, I've bought the coffee," and he said, "Ah, really, I don't feel like coffee now." He had a novel with him, "The Count of Monte Cristo." Even on the plane he was reading that. So now he said, I don't feel like drinking coffee. He said he was tired and wanted to rest.

We got our baggage and left the terminal. There was a car from the embassy there to meet us. Now, as I was both a singer and the sound engineer, Sekou told me to go in that car and go to the venue to listen to the amplifiers and make sure everything is okay. I said okay and got in the car. Demba followed me with his book. I said, "Demba, stay here." He said, "No, no. You will drop me at the hotel, and then you can go on to the see where we're playing." That's how he got in.

We took the cliff road. The driver was very happy. He did not have the price of a ticket. He told us he would leave us at the hotel, go and find his girlfriend, then come and find us at the hotel and go dancing! He was happy, pumping, pumping. I saw the speedometer rising. 80, 90, right up to 110. I felt something rising in my mouth, but I could not say it. I could not tell him to slow down. So it was me, Demba and Sekou. Sekou was in front with the driver. I was in the back with Demba. Demba was to my right. So as the car reached full speed, we saw another car approaching. The chauffeur veered and then he couldn't get control of the car again. We hit the sidewalk and the car rolled. I saw the streetlights above, below, above, below. The door flew open and Demba was projected out. His head hit the sidewalk. He was curled up like that when we found him.

That is terrible. Thank you for recounting that.

When Demba was gone, we trained three singers. There was me, Nagna Mory Kouyaté and Moussa Touré. We named this trio Bazoka. Bazoka was like the guns used in the military.

So that was the vocal sound for the group after Demba died, three voices.

Voila. Trio Ambiance Bazoka.

Interesting. Demba Camara was not a griot, right? But Nagna Mory Kouyaté was.

That's right. That was the first time a griot sang in Bembeya Jazz.

But you had already done "Regard Sur le Passe" by this time.

Yes. Demba sang that. But Nagna Mory redid it after the death of Demba.

And he also did one of the songs you're recording now, "Akukuwe."

Yes. That was his song.

So this was the group that went to FESTAC in Nigeria.

Yes. In 1977. That was something. Where were staying as artists, 300 meters away, there was Fela's place. And there, with Fela, we met Bob Marley.

Naturally you knew Bob Marley's music by then.


And Fela too?

Yes, him too. I slept at Fela's place.

But was Fela's music known generally in Guinea at that point?

Of course. His music was known in Guinea. Bob Marley too. His music was also known in Guinea. So, there had been lots of festivals, but this one in Nigeria was the biggest. It was really good. All the African musicians, Europeans, Americans. It was full. Everyone was there.

So tell me about meeting Bob Marley.

There was me, the current chef d'orchestre Achken Kaba. We had a trumpeter, Sekou, the fat one. He's in business in Guinea now. He doesn't play music anymore. We went also with Barry of Khaloum Star. He was there too, but not with us. He was working with a childrens' theater, but as he was a musician, he was often with us. So we went to Fela's together. Because Fela really liked Sekou Touré. Fela in his bar had posted the photographs of African heads of state, Sekou Touré and everyone, even Idi Amin.


[LAUGHS] Yes, even Idi Amin. Well, we can't condemn him. That's what he did. So Fela, when he came to sing at midnight, he took the microphone and he said, "There are musicians here from Guinea who are happy to come to our bar. Bembeya Jazz." And he cited the names of the musicians. And Bob Marley came and said, "I want to meet the musicians of Bembeya Jazz." We went. He spoke in English and I understood a little. We spoke in French and he understood a little. That's how we talked. He presented his wife, Rita. In the end, he left me with his wife and he went, I don't know where. I thought he had gone to [MAKES SMOKING GESTURE].

With Fela.

Voila. They went. So that made me happy to meet him. We stayed there until 7:00 in the morning.

So after that, Bembeya's success continued for awhile.

Yes. We toured Africa, a little bit everywhere.

Things got harder after the death of Sekou Touré, I understand. You had Club Bembeya, but not as much work as before, right up until the last recording in 1987. What did you do during those quiet years?

It was a bit difficult. Before the death of Sekou Touré, he explained that the government had a lot of problems. He wanted the national artists to be payed as public functionaries. He said, as there is Bembeya Jazz, Keletigui and his Tambourinis, Horoya Band, Bala et ses Baladins, you are all going to have your autonomy. Keletigui stood up and said, "M. President, we want to stay as public functionaries." But we in Bembeya, we did not. We wanted to be independent.

The president said, "Try. You must try. If it's not good, the government is for you. We are your brothers. You can come back, but first, try." They gave each group a "dancing" with some money. I think it was 60,000, for the building, to get chairs, to paint a little. The government gave us this money along with a complete set of instruments. We had to manage from there. So each group worked its corner. Club Bembeya was for us. Paillotte was for Keletigui. Jardin de Guinea was for Bala. Miniere was for Horoya Band.

But soon, this coincided with the death of Sekou [Touré]. The military rose to power. They verified everything. The musicians? They just left us like that. Up to this moment, they have just left us as we are. We have our bar. We have no instruments now. No sound system. But we have our place. So if Bembeya remains like that, we have to struggle. If not, we will just sink.

Mangala told me that the bar provides a little income for the band, but not much, I imagine.

Not much. I am still a cabinet maker. I have my workshop. I make bar decorations now.

Now, the music is starting again. This really is a new chapter for the band, isn't it?

We're counting on you now, the journalists. What counts in the world now is the media. We musicians we can play, but we are not in the media, it won't work.

We'll try! Let's talk about the songs here. Let's talk about "Sabou."

It's like I was just saying. The journalists are the cause. In Malinke, sabou is the thing that is the cause of your success. That's what we sing in "Sabou." If it weren't for that, I couldn't have done this. It was Sekouba Bambino Diabate who wrote this.

About when?

Ohhhhh… the date now…. 1982? He says in "Sabou," it was Bembeya that was the cause of my fame. I was in my village, Siguiri. It was Bembeya who brought me to the capital. If it weren't for Bembeya, I would not be known. He's telling his story. He was in the federal orchestra of Siguiri. And we took him to the capital to sing with us.

What year was that?

The date… His first song was "Telegram." After that, "Sabou." That was his second song.

Okay, let's talk about "Gbapie."

"Gbapie" is a song from the forest. We had a saxophonist who had been in Horoya Band before. A Horoya Band wasn't working much, he came to us. "I am a musician. I can't sit at home. I want to play with you." That's how he came. He told us he had a song called "Gbapie." He sang it for us and we took it. With us, when you are a national orchestra, your are obliged to sing in Pulaar, in Guerzé, in Soussou. You can go everywhere in the forest to play, so you have to be ready.

And "Gbapie" is in what language?

In Kono. That's a language of the forest.

And the saxophonist is Diagbe Traoré. When did he come to the band?

In 1987.

So what do the words of "Gbapie" say?

In a small village, as always, in the full moon, a young man has seen a beautiful girl. To have this girl, he sings this song, to charm her. "You, beautiful girl, you are perfectly formed, like a pear. When you speak, your teeth are also beautiful. You please me."

This song starts out slow and winds up with the rhythm of the forest.

There, you have the boy, after he has charmed the girl, and there is a dance. He takes the girl by the arm and he sings, "Hey mano-ye." Bam-Bam! "I want to bring you here." So in the musical arrangement now, we augment the rhythm and it becomes a popular dance.

"Bembeya International."

Bembeya left Beyla to come to Conakry [in 1966]. We had arrived in the capital. Now it was time to find clients. This song was a way of presenting ourselves, our band, to the Conakry public. "When you arrive in the capital, Bembeya Jazz greets you at the Jardin de Guinea….Horoya, liberty and fraternity!" Demba and I arranged that. [Salifou Kaba and Demba Camara. HE SAYS 1968. SEKOU BEMBEYA DIABATE SAYS 1965.] Every week, we tried to create new songs to attract the clientele. There was competition between the bands. We had to create. That's how it was.


It was me and Nagna Mory who arranged that one.

You told me that this came from a traditional song sung in the streets.

Yes, but it wasn't like that. We arranged it at my place.

So should I say it's a traditional song arranged for Bembeya Jazz by Salifou Kaba and Gnagna Mory Kouyaté. Is that right?

Yes, that's right. This is a popular song sung in the moon light. The girls sing with the boys. [SINGS] A "koukou" is a type of drum made with a calabash. When you hit it, it makes a deep sound: "Kou kou." So the song says, in the moonlight, I am going to tap this drum for my friend. [SINGS] This one came after the death of Demba, when we got Mory Kouyaté and Moussa Toure. I sang this with Mory Kouyaté.

So that would be about 1974.

That's it, a year after the death of Demba.


Lefa was with Demba. He wrote that. It was his wife's uncle who gave us the tune. It comes from Wassoulou. Wassoulou is shared between Mali and Guinea and Cote D'Ivoire. Demba's mother was from there. [SINGS RHYTHM] That's where the rhythm comes from, but we modernized it a little.

So what does the song say?

"Lefa" is a song sung when young girls were circumcised. In the neighborhood, every family, your neighbors, when your child had been good--she came to help you pound millet, or to help you wash clothes--the day she was circumcised, 15 days later, they take her to [Margot] to put on other clothes. Then at night, everyone came to bring a little gift.

To her.

No, to someone you like. "Lefa" is a fan. While dancing, each person put a gift into a small calabash--fabric, rice, even money and gold. She takes the fan here. We call it Lefa. "You must wave the fan. My first girl is circumcised today. There is friendship, and there is friendship. It is today that I will show that she has helped me." People gave the gifts during this song. There were lots of girls. There could be 15 girls. The one who helped you was the one you gave to. The person who created this song first sang it for the daughter of a neighbor. It was a person who had no children, but every day this girl came and washed her clothes and worked for her. So when this girl was circumcised, as she had no children, she brought gifts and sang this song. [in Malinke, for Bembeya in 1968.]

"Yelema Yelemansso"

That's in Konianke. A troubadour gave us that. He was someone who sang in the neighborhoods and small towns. We got that from him. When he sang, he sang the chief of the traditional canton who was there in the time of Samory. He sings about these people. "Where are they now?" Yelema Yelemansso. The world changes. We live in a world of changes. Youssouf Bah adapted the song to Bembeya Jazz in 1987

"Sanfaran Moussoukoro"

This is also a popular song. I sang this with Nagna Mory and Moussa in 1974. [Trio Bazoka: Salifou, Gnagna, Moussa] There is a small village called Safaran, and in this village there is a sorcerer. If you are having problems with your children, or you need a job, or your crops did not yield a good harvest, you come and he explains to you the necessary sacrifices you must make, and he gives you remedies. If you have problems, you must see Safaran Mousoukoro. Moussoukoro is an old woman. [SINGS] "Old woman of Safaran, you are right. No one must anger you. If you are angry, it is not good for us. You are our hope. We must not anger you."

So you are singing for the people of Safaran, that they must not do this.

That's right. They must not annoy her. It is not good for the village.

"Soli Wassoulou"

This is like "Lefa." There was one very impolite girl. When you greeted her, she would insult you. When she was circumcised, she even hit the old woman who did was doing that. That's what the song talks about. This is in a language of Wassoulou, but it's Malinke, the Malinke of Wassoulou. It's folklore, arranged by Bembeya Jazz. It was the mother of Demba who gave us that. I sang this with Demba. She told us that when she was a young girl, she experienced this. She and this rude girl were circumcised together. This girl had wounded the old woman. So now after 15 days, they brought the new clothes for the girls, and everyone brings the gifts. But as this girl was rude, he mother had died. Here cruel mother sang this song. The girl insulted everyone; she respected no one. So when it was time to give the gifts, the cruel mother came with her gift, singing that what this girl did was not right. It was impolite. She sings this as she gives the gift. [1968]

Thanks, Salifou. I look forward to seeing you in the United States.

And you must come to Guinea.

I will do that.

And when you come, we are going to dine on you! [LAUGHS], Interview by Banning Eyre

May 19, 2011

Fela Kuti - Gentleman (1973)/ Confusion (1974)


Given the enormity of the late-great Fela Kuti's output -- over 50 LPs, which even doubled-up in Universal Music's on-going reissue project, leave 25+ CDs to collect -- it's important for a new Fela collector to know where to start. While the case could be made that anywhere is fine, since Fela's catalog is uniformly strong, THIS 1973/1975 combo may be the single best entree for the uninitiated.

As much as any major artist of the rock-era, Fela's recordings work as a musical biography, telling the chapter-by-chapter story of this fascinating man's 25 year struggle to catalyze the pride of Black Nigeria as it moved beyond British colonialism. Yes, the intrinsic groove of Fela's "afrobeat" rarely fails to amaze and inspire (in short: funk of the FIRST ORDER), but the stories/messages/warnings which his lyrics contain are spellbinding, too. You can't read Rikki Stein's well-written Fela biography in any of the CD booklets without getting enthralled with the daring, !polemical, incendiary and often hilarious messages so expertly woven into the groove.

Confusion/Gentleman epitomizes the dichotomy of Fela: funk-avatar v. political rabblerouser. Confusion -- more-or-less a 20+ minute call to arms -- begins psychedelic in a Soft Machine-ish way, bores headlong into a sustained and super-swinging groove, and culminates in a fasinating and foreboding call-and-response warning that the European influence in Nigeria/Africa would end. Mesmering stuff!

Gentleman, the earlier of the two pieces, follows and lightens up the mood slightly. The groove is less menacing, but the lyrics remain provocative. The title track jeers the Anglo-fied black leaders of Nigeria's government and corporate world bluntly and mercilessly. The shorter -- i.e. 7-9 minute -- "b-sides" on Gentleman likewise plumb the funk whilst delivering some incisive barbs to the status quo.

With a dozen more Fela "two-fers" headed our way in late-July 2001, there will! soon be more Fela Kuti material to be dazzled by. Still, Confusion/Gentleman is one of the high-water marks of the Fela ouvre and it should be priority for all collectors who are seeking to compile a collection while this amazing CD reissue series is available!


You will never hear anything like Confusion. The opening is great and when it turns into the opening groove after the militant/psychadelic intro, it will blow you out of your socks. This is so good it makes me happy just thinking about the fact that music this good exists. The bass and guitar are unstoppable and Tony Allen's drumming is on time. I have to agree with the other reviewers, this is off the chain and those who don't appreciate this know nothing about music. It's killer, get it and you won't be sorry.


his CD is an excellent place to start a Fela experience. The two title tracks give a demonstration of the powers of Fela to move you. If you are not familiar with his music already, this CD is an easy place to get into it, and will appeal to a wide musical ear. This was the third or fourth Fela CD I purchased, and I currently own over 10 of them (I just can't stop it's that good). Other than Opposite People/Sorrow, Tears, and Blood, this is the CD that I would give to someone who has never heard Fela before, but shows an interest in Listening to music. I've listened to this innumerable times and am still not sick of it. Fela is really one of those artists you'll come to live with for many years to come. If you're reading this and are wondering... just get it.


You can argue that Fela Kuti's music mostly sounds the same, but almost all of it is incredibly well done. This CD is not completely typical, though, of his mid to late 70's work. The first track is incredible. Starts off very strange (but still cool), and takes about five minutes for the bass to come in and then you're hooked. The song slowly builds up in a very hypnotic effect. There are a few keyboard and horn solos. Then, he starts to sing, with powerful call-and-response/horn parts. The lyrics themselves are great as well and they effectively capture Fela's ideas. The other tracks are shorter and don't build as gradually as other songs. Of course, they are still well made and have memorable melodies and interesting themes/lyrics, especially "Gentleman". Also, art on the back of the CD case of the original cover for Gentleman is memorable and it says a lot--a monkey dressed in a suit (the song comments on how Africans would dress like Europeans, trying to be like them).

All from


Gentleman is both an Africa 70 and Afro-beat masterpiece. High marks go to the scathing commentary that Fela Anikulapo Kuti lets loose but also to the instrumentation and the overall arrangements, as they prove to be some of the most interesting and innovative of Fela's '70s material. When the great tenor saxophone player Igo Chico left the Africa 70 organization in 1973, Fela Kuti declared he would be the replacement. So in addition to bandleader, soothsayer, and organ player, Fela picked up the horn and learned to play it quite quickly -- even developing a certain personal voice with it. To show off that fact, "Gentleman" gets rolling with a loose improvisatory solo saxophone performance that Tony Allen eventually pats along with before the entire band drops in with classic Afro-beat magnificence. "Gentleman" is also a great example of Fela's directed wit at the post-colonial West African sociopolitical state of affairs. His focus is on the Africans that still had a colonial mentality after the Brits were gone and then parallels that life with his own. He wonders why his fellow Africans would wear so much clothing in the African heat: "I know what to wear but my friend don't know" and also points out that "I am not a gentleman like that!/I be Africa man original." To support "Gentleman," the B-side features equally hot jazzy numbers, "Fefe Naa Efe" and "Igbe," making this an absolute must-have release.

Fela Kuti's 1975 Confusion shows him and Africa 70 at the heights of instrumental prowess and ambiguous jibes (the stabs are about to get a bit more direct and heated with 1977's Zombie). "Confusion" begins with an unusual free jazz interplay between Fela on organ and drummer Tony Allen that has the presence of 2001: A Space Odyssey in its omnipresent drama. Then the group falls into a lengthily mid-tempo Afro funk that plays with a sureness that only comes from skilled musicians and a dictator-like leader; here is the formula that had made Fela a genius: Once he has the listener (or the crowd -- as all of his songs were originally meant to entertain and educate his audiences at the Shrine) entranced in his complex (and at the same time, deceptively simple) arrangements of danceable grooves, he hits them with what he wants to say. "Confusion" is a comment on the general condition of urban Nigeria (Lagos, in particular). Fela uses traffic jams, no fewer than three dialects, and a multitude of currencies that make trading difficult to complete the allusion to the general post-colonial confusion of a Nigeria lacking in infrastructure and proper leadership. Confusion is a highly recommended 25-minute Afro-beat epic.


Though in most cases, it requires a handful of artists or bands to properly give a complete definition of a given genre, there are one or two styles of music that both begin and end with a single group or individual. While many other artists may have attempted to duplicate the mood and style being played, in these few elite instances, the core artist in question is so far beyond their peers that the comparison simply holds no water. Though it is perhaps the most rare occurrence in all musical trends, one can easily understand the concept and how accurate it is when one considers the only artist able to be truly called a player of "afro-beat" music, the late great Fela Kuti. The way in which his music seems to soar in directions previous unheard, as well as the undertones to all of his compositions, Fela is beyond an icon, and his activism and personality outside of the musical arena only adds to his legendary status. Releasing a massive amount of music over nearly two decades, his playing influenced countless genres around the world, and the complexity of his arrangements is often so far beyond that of anything else from the era that it simply defies description. Though it is almost impossible to find a "bad" song anywhere in his catalog, there is simply no other track in Fela Kuti's career that defines his sound, as well as the "afro-beat" style in general than one finds in his 1973 masterpiece, "Gentleman."

While the opening section of "Gentleman" may seem like little more than a funky, uniquely beautiful saxophone progression, the truth of the matter is, this is in fact Fela playing, and he had only picked up the instrument a few months earlier. When the bands' previous sax player, Igo Chico, left the group, Fela decided that instead of finding a replacement, he would learn the instrument himself, and his performance throughout "Gentleman" is all the more breathtaking with this knowledge. When his sound blends together with trumpet player Tunde Williams, there is something amazingly powerful about the combination that cannot be found anywhere else in music history. The deep groove is made even more clear through the simple guitar playing, and it is also this element that gives the song an amazing amount of movement. However, still standing today as one of the greatest musical pairings in history, there is simply no overlooking the fact that the most important element to all of Fela Kuti's music was the presence of drumming legend, Tony Allen. Switching tempos and bringing some of the most uniquely complex fills ever recorded, there is no question that while Fela may have been the spirit of the band, Allen was its soul. Throughout "Gentleman," the instruments blend together in a manner previously unheard, and this upbeat, almost jazzy sound is the very definition of "afro-beat," and it never sounded as majestic as it does on this song.

Along with being one of the greatest composers of his generation, Fela Kuti also made his name as one of its most magnetic vocalists. Much of his music was inspired by the struggles he saw around him, and this, combine with his activism, led to some of the most controversial, unapologetic lyrics ever recorded. Within all of his vocals, there is an energy and allure similar to that of a preacher, and this is exactly what Fela was trying to do; to pull the listener into the song and inspire change within. Yet even with this element, there is a soft touch to his vocal work, and even almost four decades later, his work on "Gentleman" remains just as moving. It is within his vocal work that one can fully understand his mission to make his music accessible to all, as the lyrics beg for "call and response," and are written in simple terms that anyone could understand. Sending a strong message to take pride in themselves, as well as a shot at the post-colonial English powers, when Fela sings, "...I am not a gentleman like that, I be Africa man original...," one can feel the pride in self he is attempting to instill in others. Fela furthers this idea of self-identity when he rattles off a list of clothing that he sees others wearing that are clearly part of this English influence, and not the "true" dress that should be worn. These seemingly subtle, yet powerful statements of self-pride help to give the song a rebellious, yet oddly upbeat feel, and the words, and the commanding way in which Fela delivers them, is what makes "Gentleman" such an extraordinary moment in music history.

It is truly impossible to fully capture just how unique and important Fela Kuti was to the overall development of music across the globe, as there has simply never been another artist that was capable of creating music with the same skill and spirit that one finds in his songs. Due to this fact, one can argue that Fela stands as both the beginning and end of the "afro-beat" style, and those who claim this title in their music, while perhaps close, should be referred to by some different title. Regardless, there are few personalities in music history that come close to that of Fela Kuti, and on "Gentleman," one can quickly understand why he retains such a revered status. The way in which he blended together the bright brass sounds with the deep groove and found a way to fuse this together with a "native" sound is simply stunning, and the resulting product remains a true moment of musical genius. Not only can this be heard in the various instruments, but the catchy hook that the band creates is second to none, and even those unfamiliar with such sounds cannot help but be drawn in by the infectious groove and progression deployed throughout "Gentleman." Taking all of this and placing on top of it the almost scathing, scolding lyrics from Fela, there are simply not enough words one can say about this monumental achievement, and there is perhaps no other song in history that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated than one finds in Fela Kuti's 1973 masterpiece, "Gentleman."

Gentleman (1973)

The title track of this excellent album has often been hailed as Fela’s masterpiece. Musically innovative, melodically addictive, Fela got it all right in this politically scathing song in which he opposes Westernization and those who imitate Western ways. “I’m no be gentleman at all,” Fela sings, and then goes on to detail the ways in which he’s a “true African origina” — and therefore superior to those who wear three-piece suits and hold tight to their colonial mentality. Fela follows this track with Fefe Na Efe, which derives its name from an Ashanti proverb describing the beauty of a woman holding her breasts as she runs. Fela, who had many Ghanaian fans (and more than a few Ghanaian wives and girlfriends), sings this lush track as a tribute to Ghana. Finally, “Igbe” again shows the artist breaking cultural taboos by singing literally and figuratively about “shit”, as the word translates to, attaching the word to those friends who may betray you.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu


1. Gentleman
2. Fefe Naa Efe
3. Igbe

Confusion (1974)

This epic Afrobeat album contains just one eponymous track clocking in at just over 25 minutes in length, and beginning with a mysterious and psychedelic musical interplay between Fela on organ and Tony Allen on drums. As the song takes on a righteously funky groove, Fela evokes the chaos of Lagos – the multitude of regional dialects, the gnarly traffic jams, the absence of a policeman to take charge – as a metaphor for the larger problems of post-colonial Nigeria.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu


1. Confusion [Part 1 + 2]

May 17, 2011

Reflections on Fela

The first time I met Fela, he said something to me that I can’t repeat here, but I wasn’t offended. It was 1986, I was twenty-two years old and could well have been a ten-year-old girl in the presence of a black superhero. Fela was James Brown, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. He was “Palaver” on Sunday afternoons, album covers that looked like porn, and every swear word I was not supposed to use. On occasion, he was a revolution.

My husband, Gboyega, who was then my boyfriend, had taken me to Shrine for Sunday Jump. Gboyega had introduced me to Fela and laughed, as I did, at what Fela had said. Then as we walked away, Gboyega shook his head and with a smile said, “Man, why did he have to say that?” Fela was his uncle and he was embarrassed. It occurred to me that Fela was just a regular family member to the Ransome-Kutis, but at the Shrine that evening he was greeted like a god when he stepped on stage. The crowd cheered, “Baba!” and raised their fists. He called out, “Everybody say ‘Yeah, yeah,’” and after they responded, it was almost as if they were expecting a miracle instead of a show.

The smell of igbo was all over Shrine and Gboyega had once told me that growing up, he was called a mu igbo, a pothead, because of his family name, so he vowed to be a Ransome-Kuti who could categorically say he was not. He had good reason: he had just graduated from medical school and was working at Lagos University Teaching Hospital. He did not smoke igbo and neither did I, but anyone who saw me that evening would have thought otherwise.

Not many musicians could make me hold my head as if it was about to explode. Fela did throughout Sunday Jump. He and his band, Egypt 80, performed “Beast Of No Nation” and two other “tunes,” as he called them, that he regrettably never released: “Big Blind Country” and another whose title I forget, but the chorus went, “E no easy to be Nigerian.” I held my head and yelled. Fela had to be the only musician in the world that could blow a person’s mind with lyrics like, “A.P.C., Terramycin, Paracetamol, Nivaquine.”

To me, Fela looked energetic performing, but Gboyega told me Fela was not as strong as he used to be. He also said the atmosphere at Shrine was not as charged as it was during the seventies, in Fela’s heyday. Fela had recently been released from jail by Babangida’s regime and Gboyega’s father, who was once a professor of pediatrics at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, was working for the regime as Nigeria’s health minister. Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was an advocate for government reform as well, but in the field of healthcare.

After Sunday Jump, Gboyega and I headed back to Ikoyi where we both lived. Women from our end of town didn’t go to Shrine. My friends regarded me as risqué, also for dating a Ransome-Kuti, though I often teased Gboyega for being straight-laced. Whenever I suggested we go to Shrine after that, he would warn me about police raids, which I had to admit were a possibility, despite his father’s position in the government.

Fela continued to criticize military rulers, but it was his younger brother, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, a human rights activist, who was detained a few years later under the Abacha regime. During Babangida’s regime however, we saw Fela perform many times at Shrine, National Stadium and Jazz 38, run by Fran Kuboye, the daughter of his only sister, Aunty Dolu. Fela played highlife and jazz on the keyboard and saxophone at Jazz 38, and Gboyega and I were regulars there.

From the late eighties to early nineties, Gboyega and I lived in London and we went to Fela’s concerts at Brixton Academy. Fela came to our engagement ceremony in 1992, and though he had performed at Shrine the night before and was worn out, he led our guests in a song. He also made a brief appearance at our wedding reception and again stole the show. Once in a while, he dropped in on my in-laws and I got to see him as Uncle Fela, sitting at their kitchen table. In 1994, Gboyega and I moved to the United States and we learned that Fela was ill, then he recovered, then he fell ill again. We had just relocated from New Jersey to Mississippi when Gboyega’s father announced Fela’s death in 1997.

I was never a Shrine regular, but by then I was a huge fan of Fela’s music, which became more widely available after his death. I did not appreciate his genius until I started to write full-time in Mississippi. I was listening to his music as I was finding my voice. I began to understand Fela’s journey: how he’d freed himself from colonial mentality and reeducated himself as an African, his resistance and message, the poetry of his lyrics and the complexity of his compositions.

Fela created his own form of music, a language in which he alone was fluent. I started to see his music as a chronicle of Nigeria’s history and his autobiography combined. In his unique Lagos voice, he communicated with Nigerians first and then interpreted for the rest of the world. He protested about the trials that Nigerians faced, but never from the standpoint of a victim. Fela did not seek sympathy; he demanded respect. He was often irreverent—if his music was a weapon, his humor was a shield—and as an artist he always maintained his integrity.

These are qualities I aspire to as a writer and as a woman, though I have been uneasy about Fela’s relationship with his “wives,” I have also been moved by the bond he had with his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who is recognized as Nigeria’s foremost feminist. Her contribution to the nationalist struggle in Nigeria is an integral part of the family legacy. It is easy to forget she wasn’t actually born a Ransome-Kuti; she just married one.

On March 16, Gboyega and I went to see Fela! on Broadway with our daughter, Temi. Now, a Broadway show is really not long enough to accommodate an artist of Fela’s proportions, but the story was faithful, the band was tight and the cast and dancers were vibrant. Above all, Fela! was so much fun I disgraced myself while attempting to dance. Temi was mortified. She is more into hip-hop, so months before, when I’d told her there was a sh about Fela on Broadway, she’d mumbled, “Cool.” I’d then mentioned that Jay Z was a producer and she’d exclaimed, “Hey!” She is fifteen, about the age I was when I discovered hip-hop, and like hip-hop, Afrobeat is more than the music or a way of talking, dressing and dancing. It began as a counterculture.

It was strange to see Fela! on Broadway. Fela himself never courted mainstream. He turned away from his bourgeois Nigerian roots, for which bourgeois Nigerians never quite forgave him. Even when they remember him fondly, they don’t consider him a hero; he was more a troublemaker, a mischaracterization, which he seemed to accept with grace. He was one of a few Nigerians crowned by the people, the only Nigerian I’m aware of that transcended the nature of his death. Like many Nigerian writers, I pay tribute to him in my works and the spirit of his Afrobeat is on every page.

Written by Sefi Atta for the


Sefi Atta:

Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964, to a family of five children. Her father Abdul-Aziz Atta was the Secretary to Federal Government and Head of the Civil Service until his death in 1972, and she was raised by her mother Iyabo Atta.

She attended Queen’s College in Lagos and Millfield School in England. In 1985, she graduated from Birmingham University and trained as a chartered accountant. She moved from England to the United States in 1994 with her husband, Gboyega Ransome-Kuti, a medical doctor. They have one daughter.

Sefi began to write while working as a CPA in New York, and in 2001, she graduated from the creative writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals such as Los Angeles Review, Mississippi Review and World Literature Today.

Her debut novel Everything Good Will Come was published in the United States, England and Nigeria in 2005. Her short story collection News From Home was published in Nigeria in 2008, England in 2009 and the United States in 2010. Her novel Swallow was published in Nigeria in 2008 and in the United States in 2010. Her books have been translated into several languages.

Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage play The Engagement was staged at the MUSON Centre in Lagos in 2005.

In 2005 Sefi Atta won the International PEN David T.K.Wong Prize for Short Fiction for Twilight Trek. The award was judged by David Lodge (Chair), Caryl Phillips & Eva Hoffman and is accompanied by a prize of £7,500. In 2006 Everything Good Will Come won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, accompanied by a prize of $20,000. In 2009 News From Home won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, accompanied by a prize of $10,000.

Fela Kuti - Roforofo Fight (1972)/ The Fela Singles


It's true that Fela's early-'70s records tend to blur together with their similar groupings of four lengthy Afro-funk-jazz cuts. In their defense, it must be said that while few artists can pull off similar approaches time after time and continue to make it sound fresh, Fela is one of them. Each of the four songs on the 1972 album Roforofo Fight clocks in at 12 to 17 minutes, and there's a slight slide toward more 1970s-sounding rhythms in the happy-feet beats of the title track and the varied yet rock-solid drums in "Go Slow." There's just a hint of reggae in "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am," in the pace, vocal delivery, ethereal keyboards, and lilting yet dramatic minor melodic lines. The James Brown influence is strongly heard in the lean, nervous guitar strums of "Question Jam Answer," and the horns cook in a way that they might have had Brown been more inclined to let his bands go into improvisational jams. The 2001 MCA CD reissue of the album, retitled Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles, adds two previously unreleased bonus tracks from the same era, "Shenshema" and "Ariya."


"This is essentially a CD reissue of Fela Kuti's 1972 album Roforofo Fight, with the addition of two previously unreleased tracks from the same era. It's true that Kuti's early-'70s records tend to blur together with their similar groupings of four lengthy Afro-funk jazz cuts. In their defense, it must be said that while few artists can pull off similar approaches time after time and continue to make it sound fresh, Kuti is one of them. Each of the four songs on Roforofo Fight clocks in at 12 to 17 minutes, and there's a slight slide toward more '70s-sounding rhythms in the happy-feet beats of the title track, and the varied, yet rock-solid drums in "Go Slow." There's just a hint of reggae in "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am," in the pace, vocal delivery, ethereal keyboards, and lilting yet dramatic minor melodic lines. The James Brown influence is strongly heard in the lean, nervous guitar strums of "Question Jam Answer," and the horns cook in a way that they might have had Brown been more inclined to let his bands go into improvisational jams. The two bonus tracks -- "Shenshema" (from 1972) and "Ariya" (from 1973) -- comprised the segment of the CD titled "Fela Singles" a curious phrase given that they were previously unreleased. "Shenshema" is a nine-minute cut that is heavy on go-go-like percussion and cool, responsive chants from the band. The ten-minute "Ariya" is a real discovery, its urgent spy theme-like melody and Kuti's haunting, driven vocals making it a highlight even relative to the generally high quality of his recordings during this period. The same set was remastered and licensed to the venerable Wrasse Records label. The package is deluxe, in a slipcase. There is a biographical essay included and notes on individual songs by Mabinuori Idowu, the author of the excellent biography Fela, Why Blackman Carry Shit.

This is essentially a CD reissue of Fela Kuti's 1972 album Roforofo Fight, with the addition of two previously unreleased tracks from the same era. It's true that Kuti's early-'70s records tend to blur together with their similar groupings of four lengthy Afro-funk jazz cuts. In their defense, it must be said that while few artists can pull off similar approaches time after time and continue to make it sound fresh, Kuti is one of them. Each of the four songs on Roforofo Fight clocks in at 12 to 17 minutes, and there's a slight slide toward more '70s-s".


At Amazon:

Not much to say here other than this is an essential album for a world music collection. Drummers,percussionist, and any member of the rhythm section for that owner should own this, as they will no doubt find this inspirational. It is not coincidence that Fela Kuti was mentioned in the movie, "The Visitor" as an inspiration for the characters. The American audience might find this challenging with songs lasting well over 10 minutes, but the music can not be comprehended in a popular music framework and easily transcends that. I am quite surprised to see so few reviews for an album that should be a part of all modern musicians' collections.
I've been a fan of Fela for many years. I was unaware of this album, however, until I read a review on this site. Roforfo Fight is now my favorite Fela CD. PERIOD. Every song is excellent. No weak spots whatsoever. If you've never heard Fela, or if you are looking for that first Fela purchase, make this one the one.
PRAT - acronym for "Pace, Rythm and Timing". Surprised I'm the 2nd reviewer of this phenomenal recording. It is not an audiophile quality recording. Probably a conservative B on sonic excellence. The value is in the brilliant horn arrangements (accompanied by skillfully played rythm guitar, electric base and percussions) and the genius of the artist who is the innovator of Afro-beat. There are hints of jazz influences but Fela stays close to his African heritage. The music has hypnotic qualities but also can give the listener a great sense of self-abandonment and freedom. I agree with all the sentiments and comments of the previous reviewer - if you are new to Fela's music - this is a must. It is a safe buy to be treasured.
The only aspect of Fela's music that may be difficult for western listeners is the length of each track which may easily exceed 10 minutes. If you are not familiar with Fela, YouTube has some very interesting live concert footage that may be helpful.

Roforofo Fight (1972)


Roforofo Fight
Roforofo Fight is about human intolerance towards each other. Issues that could be resolved amicably usually end up in fist fights. Sometimes such fights end up bloody or muddy. Dramatizing the scenario that ensues before a fight, particularly in a muddy place. Fela says it usually starts with words like: ‘You dey craze! I no craze! Get away Who are you?’. These are two people who could quietly resolve their differences, screaming and yelling at each other. Unfortunately for both of them, the area where the argument is taking place is full of mud. Within seconds, they draw the attention of passers-by, turning into a crowd. ‘If you dey among the crowd wey dey look! And your friend dey among the two wey dey yap!…Tell am make him no fight oh!…’. Meaning if you are in the crowd watching, please advise your friend not to fight if he is one of the two arguing. Because human egos, instead of heeding the advise, walk away quietly. Both will feel disrespected and shamed. To settle score, the tow of them chose physical combat in the mud—a muddy fight follows. At the end of the fight, onlookers couldn’t differentiate the one from the other, both of them look like twins. They won’t get any sympathy from the people looking too: ‘…you don tell am before make him no fight! Roforofo dey for there!…’

Go Slow
Go slow is about the crawling Lagos traffic jam that symbolizes the confusion that reigns in Nigeria. Fela compares the traffic situation with a person in jail. He says: ‘you have to be a man in life!’. That is a natural instinct in man but when caught in Lagos traffic, all your aspirations and confidence as a man will wither away. You feel suddenly incapacitated, like a man in jail. Or how would you feel driving on a Lagos road and suddenly, in your front there is a lorry to your left a taxi cab, all vehicles in a standstill. Also to your right, a tipper truck and behind you a ‘molues’ passenger bus and above you a helicopter flying. To complete the picture of you imprisoned on the Lagos highway.

Question Jam Answer
‘When question drop for mouth! Answer go run after am! When question jam answer for road? Another thing will happen.’ Singing about human nature, Fela says when people pose questions at each other, they definitely get answered back — the result of the answer could result into something we never expect, such as: ‘Why did you step on my leg?’ ‘Didn’t you see my leg on the ground?’, these are questions that need answers. Quickly answer replies: ‘Why did you put your leg in my way? Don’t you see me coming?’. It is a song to those who like to pose questions to always bear in mind that they may not get the answers they expect to their questions.

Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am
Broken English translation of ‘Trouble Sleep Yanga Am’ literally means: ‘toying with a loaded gun’ or ‘playing with fire’. It is a song talking about the limit to human endurance. Mr. Trouble is lying quietly and Mr. Provocation (yanga) goes to play around him. What else could he be looking for except palaver. A good example of such trouble-shooting is that of a man who has just got out of prison and goes about desperately looking for work in order to avoid what led him to jail. While at it, a police man stops and charges the man for wandering. Fela asks what could the police man be looking for, but trouble. It is like when a cat is asleep and a rat goes to bite its tail. Or a tenant who has just lost his job, sitting quietly thinking of where his next meal will come from. His landlord comes knocking, demanding his rent. Of cause he will get trouble bigger than the rent he came to collect. Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am simply means there is a limit to any human endurance.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu


01. Roforofo Fight
02. Go Slow
03. Question Jam Answer
04. Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am

The Fela Singles


Sung in broken English, this song signifies different things. It could mean a shameful thing if addressed that way, and it could mean out of use or out-of-service if used to describe a problematic machine. A care you have to push to start is Shenshema. For a woman who has thirty-nine men because she feels thirty-six is not enough is regarded as Shenshema. A man who has thirty-three woman and complains he cannot get ninety-nine is regarded as Shenshema. A man or woman who uses chemical products to bleach her skin in order to lighten his or her skin is Shenshema. Same for the man or woman who wears a wig to cover his or her natural hair.

Ariya, in Yoruba language means ‘good times’. Fela, in Ariya, tries to convey the celebration of good times-saying: ‘…we are having a good time! It is no one’s business!’ What we get high on doesn’t concern them. It is a party song for everyone to get together and have good times.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu