May 3, 2019

Seun Kuti's Black Times: Ignored @ Home, Celebrated Abroad

Originally published

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One year after its release, we revisit Seun Kuti's Black Times album, its impact and how the Nigerian media has continuously turned a blind eye to it.

On March 2, 2018, the youngest son of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti dynasty, released his fourth studio album, Black Times, a critically celebrated body of work that enjoyed rave reviews largely from the international media.

Released in the first quarter of the year, the eight-tracker album went under the radar for the major part of the year, only gaining some buzz in the final month of 2018.

In the aftermath of his nomination at the 61st edition of music's most glamorous awards, Grammys in the 'World Music' category, which held on Sunday, February 10, 2019, the media ran amok with stories and eulogies of Seun Kuti's music.

The subsequent news that he had been selected to perform at the pre-award show [Which he, however, failed to attend] further served as juicy content and hot topics within the music community, celebrating 'one of their own' in the loudest of voices with a number of his records getting the occasional spin on radio programs.

However, before Grammy night, the industry especially the media had largely behaved in a manner non indicatory that of the very few really dope projects released during the year, that of Seun Kuti ever made the space and immediately after the Grammys, particularly with the album failing to bring home the prestigious prize, it has been 'same of the same,' forgotten and shut out of conversations or airplays.

A regular flip through the over 20 radio stations that control the airwaves in a metropolitan city like Lagos will have you listening to regurgitated music from some sizeable number of pop artists, with rarely any from the stable of one of the year's standout material.

If the Grammys consider the Black Times as one of the best albums out of the continent in the past year, an album that features the likes of international stars likes Yasiim Bey, Grammy winning R&B musician, jazz pianist and producer Robert Glasper and multi Grammy award winner Carlos Santana, how come the media and music circle back home make it seem so much like an anonymous project?

Outside a few blogs that mentioned it in its 'Album of the year' lists, it was not even considered for any of the notable awards.

While undoubtedly there is a cloud that surrounds his surname with Fela's music only occasionally remembered during a time of crisis or rebellion, the Black Times album is not all about activism as he also offers short, danceable music that will fit into any drive home playlist or music blog roundups.
Songs like 'Bad Man Lighter' is a high-energy, party starter providing a balance to others like 'African Dreams' or 'Theory of Yam and Goat.'

In an interview he had with Pulse's Ayomide Tayo earlier in the year, Seun pointed an accusing finger at the media when asked if he felt young Nigerians are beginning to appreciate his type of music.
''I think if they are exposed more to music they would appreciate it... it is a matter of exposure and visibility.

I think our entire media, and not only in Nigeria really, I think it is a global phenomenon that people that own and control the media and control the institutions of influence want the world to see things from their perspective. They want their narrative to dominate society. In all the media that they own, they want the things that represent them to be showcased.

I just feel that people in Nigeria, young people and old people, should be exposed to as many forms of music as possible especially music that represents us and generally elevates our consciousness. We shouldn't stay on one plane and one basic level.''

Considerably, there is a significant amount of work required to be done on the backend these days to promote one's project but the media have gone through a self-fulfilling cycle, where only popular songs ever get pushed, coupled with Payola still a leading factor in the order of things.

But quite unlike what they have you believe, most people's actual listening preferences are quite different and many of us enjoy a wider variety of music than most OAP's give us credit for, especially when the song is one worthy enough for consideration by the biggest music event in the world.

The impact of Black Times

On the impact of the album since it was released, it will be unfair to restrict Seun’s success solely to his Grammy recognition. [But it very rarely gets any bigger than the Grammys]

Shortly after its release, the album debuted at the No 8 spot on the Billboard world music chart, his very first album to achieve such feat and in the past year, Seun has performed at a number of festivals and concerts across Europe, Asia and America. 

In August, he was on stage at the Haldern Pop festival in Germany and the Blue Note in Tokyo, Japan, and also went on a tour of the United States performing at sold out shows.

The album also helped solidify his presence in certain areas where his music had previously not penetrated confirming his place as a worthy leader well able of carrying the torch of Afrobeat to the next generation.

Music journalists in Nigeria, from the broadcast, print to online, who are supposed to be the industry tastemakers, introducing the listeners to the music they don't usually get to hear have all failed in their responsibility to the audience.

Instead of providing a neutral platform, many have chosen to behave like gatekeepers, limiting the standards of acceptable and play worthy records, focusing only on what is trending, and unconsciously playing a role in the decline of other genres.

Black Times may not in anyway be close to the popular sounds that millenials tune their dials in search of regularly, that doesn't deny the fact that this is a well polished and crafted collection of songs that finds Seun Kuti at the most matured state in his career.

This is his most accomplished album to date, one solid hour of vibrant music that is built on traditional Afrobeat sound with a lot of influence from contemporary styles, an album worth celebrating.

Perhaps his outspoken nature on recent social happenings may also be a factor but that hasn't stopped the radio from playing Davido who in the past few months has fully put on the political garb.
Seun, who heads the Egypt 80, a band he took over following the death of his father, may not have created the Afrobeat sound but he has succeeded in making it unique in his own way and even when we don't readily consider other genres outside the pop sounds, it helps if we indulge in these type of projects even if it is once in a while.

One year after it was released, 'Black Times' provides timeless music and it is upto the Nigerian media to do better and ensure its message widens to the ears of the young listeners.

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Originally published, written by Ehis Ohunyo

Apr 30, 2019

Omorinmade Anikulapo Kuti - An interview

Originally published

Omorinmade Anikulapo Kuti carries with him a graceful mien and being a Kuti naturally bears some weight of expectations on him, but he is unfazed, focused only on his music and living life as defined only by himself.

There is something about the Kuti clan that signals towards the rebellious and the enigmatic but as the descendant of one of Nigeria's most inspirational and cultural figure, Fela Kuti, made his way into the Pulse office, it appeared that he had become used to the cloud that hovers wherever he went especially in form of the curious stares as he exchanged pleasantries with a matured level of awareness and confidence.

''No, it has never been like that, maybe it is because of the kind of person I am, I don't move into spaces where I cause trouble for myself, so very rarely do you see my outside.'' Made explains when I asked if the attention ever gets overwhelming for him.

''In a way, you are aware of the attention and it governs your actions to a degree, you know the things you can't do and the ones you will be praised for and shunned for. 

On the other hand, it has its positives as well, it opens doors sometimes, it got me my place in my university, I don't want to speak like the fame or attention is something to feel burdened about,'' he shared.

He smiles robustly when I jokingly ask him to confirm the rumor that the light never goes off at the shrine.

For Made, music is his life, the great-great-grandson of J.J Ransome Kuti, great-grandson of Israel Ransome Kuti, great-grandson of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, grandson of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and son of Femi Kuti and Funke Kuti was born into a world surrounded by instruments, sounds and ideologies, but he says he is not in any way intimidated;

''It's not pressure, it is fuel. if you understand the legacy then, you understand what the individual from each legacy stand for, and it is not something that makes you scared if you share the passion, It is something that gives you inspiration.''

In this exclusive interview with Pulse, Made Kuti talks about setting up his own band, how he became a member of his father's Positive Force band, working on his solo album and his thoughts on Nigeria and the state of things.

How was growing up like for you?

''I grew up in the shrine and when you grow up in the shrine, you grow up around music."  

If you step in the shrine now, behind you have pictures of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Kwame Nkrumah, you have Marcus Garvey, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, you have Lumumba [Patrice], so the question is who are these people, what is this music speaking about. 

You grow up in that environment, you grow up very conscious of your identity as an African, even as a black man, so you ask all the questions that should eventually lead you to become an intellectual.

Why are black people the way they are? why do people look at the shrine that way? why are there so many false rumors even though we don't do anything bad.

Why do they associate members of the family with so many negative and positive things? so you ask so many questions, it leads you to become a very thoughtful person.''

How would you describe yourself?

''I think of myself as an intellectual, someone who is flexible enough to accept when he is wrong, flexible to adapt to changes, flexible enough to grow and to learn every day. 

You had to adapt in school, anywhere outside of shrine, there are not many spaces that allow you to think freely. 

I consider myself a pan-Africanist and I think I have had to adapt to many situations. When I went to University in London, being a pan-Africanist was actually a strong sign of my identity and they appreciated that.''

He describes his type of music as a fusion of Afrobeats and other genres.

Were there times you had to question some of your pan-Africanism?

''Recently I had. During our last European tour, there was always a point on stage when my dad would speak about global unity rather than African unity, but then he will always end it again by saying there cannot be global unity without African unity and African development and growth.
That's the only way for the world to reach that ideal that we so wish for. I am a pan-Africanist that wants the growth of Africa but wishes for a more diverse and united planet.''

You have been touring since you were eight, how has that been?
''That question is very tough to answer because I don't know any life except Kuti life.
When I was eight, I played two venues that musicians dream of playing. I played the Hollywood Bowl and I played Glastonbury and at the time I didn't appreciate it at all, that was just another venue.
Then I was about 19, I was going through YouTube and was watching one of my dad's shows at Glastonbury and who did I see, myself and I was like, what?

It is only now as an adult that I can look back and say because of my father I have had so many experiences, you can't buy that.''

How is it like playing alongside your dad?

''That is something I know that the only other thing I can experience that will be similar is when I play with my daughter or son, you can't describe it. 

With music, you transcend. It is something special and to feel that there is someone next to you that is doing it with the same amount of vigor, the same amount of passion, connected to you is very special and I am just glad I got the chance to experience it.''

Do you see him as a Dad on stage?

''Always dad and boss at the same time'', he smiles while recollecting their most special performances, ''The most special are the ones at the shrine.''

Tell us about you joining the Positive Force Band and why it took someone absconding for you to take your place?

Sometime in 2018, a member of Femi Kuti's Positive Band, Aghedo Andrew had absconded just minutes before the band took to stage in the United States leaving a void that has now been filled by Made and he explains why it took this long.

''It was never part of the plan. Like I was never supposed to actually play for him.
What happened was as soon as I went to Trinity College, I was supposed to immediately start my career, put a band together and start making an album.

I wasn't even a bass player, I just happened to be learning the bass on the side and he happened to hear me play. 

The first time the bassist ran away, he said Made, ''Can you learn 50 plus songs in one week, we are about to go on a one week European tour and I said yeah, the rule in music is you never let anyone know your weaknesses, so Yes is always the answer, so I said Yeah, I did it.

We played on Thursday and Sunday normally at the shrine, went on the tour for one week, came back, everything went smoothly, that was supposed to be the last time I played with him.

I went back to Trinity, then I graduated and another bassist ran away, I came back, golden opportunity and I am about to go on a four week European tour with Femi Kuti and the Positive Force in Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, you don't say No, that is life experience, it wasn't part of the plan but if that bassist didn't run away, I don't know where my place will be in the band. I probably would have just played sax solos, I won't have gone on tours.''

Will your band still come to life or that has been overshadowed by your place in your father's band?

''No, we are constantly still working on that. I have finished writing the album, we are unto the business phase of it, I am talking to people, it is going well, and I think I can do both, play my music and be part of the band.''

The album is expected to be released in 2020.

Members of the Positive Force band are placed on a pay scale depending on how long they have been members of the band and Made being the most recent member having joined less than a year ago is reportedly placed on the lowest scale and he explained;

''I am at the bottom of the payroll (He laughs). There isn't any family partiality, that is the type of person he is, he is too honest, the fact that he put me there is his decision, totally his decision.
First I am a musician that just started his career and is touring the country, that should be more than enough, so to be paid on top of that, I am just happy and Its a good salary.''

What instrument is your specialty?

''Under my dad, I learned the saxophone, that is what I played and what my identity as a musician is but I when I went to London for those seven years, the first three years, I focused on classical piano, I didn't even pick up the sax for two years. 

So I passed the grades in Piano and did the ATCL Diploma which made me quite confident that a part of my career will be as a classical pianist. Then for some reason, I found this love for the trumpet, then the bass, piano, sax and then I started playing the drums.

I would define myself not as a saxophonist or composer but a multi-instrumentalist composer, so in total, I play five instruments.''

If Made was not doing music, what will he be doing?

''Honestly, maybe Physics. I like Astronomy.''

You have been actively playing music for about 16 years, do you think you will ever get to a point where you are tired of this life and seek to do something different?

''Music is vast. I studied composition at Trinity Laban, I didn't actually do any instruments, so I studied how to write. 

So even if at any point, I tire out of touring, there is always film music, there is always advert, there is always orchestra, there is too much in music to ever get tired.''

Do you have the time to do something else outside music?

''Every day, I try to practice the trumpet, sax, piano and the bass. Now that my siblings are growing up, I am giving them Piano lessons and they come to me for Sax and Trumpet advice as well.

So most of my day is music, but at the end of every day, you play with your siblings, once in a while, I put a show on, my dad and I play FIFA every night for like one-hour straight, so I think that is our de-stressing activity.''

How long can you hold a note on the sax without taking a breath?

''Dad's record is 51 minutes, I am not going to say mine, it is long but it is not even half of that.'' he laughs.

Outside your father, who are your other musical influences?

''I have Coltrane, Miles, the popular ones Oscar Peterson. For Classical, I like Chopin and I really like Stravinsky and Bach.

In the electronic world, I like Aphex Twin and I like Japanese Rock.''

Your grandfather Fela died barely two years after your birth, what has been the most important thing passed on about his legacy to you?

''The most important thing is his integrity. He was a man of strong conviction. And even when he did things that were out of normal, he did things believing it was what he wanted to do, so I liked that confidence in him.

Do you have experiences of people saying negative things about your family?

''Very many times, my siblings are presently experiencing it. 

The way I dealt with it is I was very quiet by the time I got to secondary school, so I didn't say anything, it was like a task that I just had to complete to get to my next stage of life. You have to take it with strength, you can't allow yourself to be phased by words.

What I have learnt to accept is to live my life in a very clear way, very clear morals, very clear values, at any point it is forcibly challenged, I just go with the flow. When you remain uncompromising with your integrity, it just blows away.

Look at Femi Kuti today, I remember when I was young, they said he was mad, there was a paper that said he was running naked on the streets, can you imagine seeing that as a child. 

Then your friends ask you if this is true, eventually you become used to it. I don't feel the need to constantly make my reputation good, you should be uncompromising in the way you live your life.''

You have been exposed to this life from a very early age, now that you are your own man, would you have wished for certain things to be different?

''No, I think everything I have experienced has made me who I am today, I quite like who I am today. I feel more interested in who I become, I don't look at the past too much, I only learn from it and even more interesting than my own history is the history of the entire family. I look back to learn, I don't look back to try to change anything.

Tell us about life in the shrine

''I grew up there, I have always either backstage or looking at the shrine, so to be standing there and to be playing with as much energy as I can, that stage, in particular, is sacred to me.''

How is the crowd at the shrine like compared to other places you have performed?

''You adapt. In School, I have done a few concerts on the piano, So I have also adapted to an audience that is sitting doing actually nothing until you finish playing, I have had both extremes.
But then on tour, because they know they are watching Femi Kuti, they actually are ready to groove, but the vibe is different. It is not different bad but it is just different.''

You spoke about growing up in the shrine, do you ever feel like one who grew up in a controlled environment?

''Very wrong, because shrine was my home but I had to go to school and on excursions, I saw a lot of the outside world, and what I found out was what was normal was very contrary to what I experienced as normal. 

So you have that clash between your friends and your mates, basic conversations whether it is religion or politics talks about social issues, you find that growing up in the shrine makes you think about things slightly different from the normal and you accept that you are different and think differently.

In school, it is a box, you are controlled and the way you think, shrine allowed me to challenge those normal thoughts.''

Would you describe yourself as a religious person or an atheist?

''I am nowhere in that spectrum, I am just in between. I am not religious because no religion has yet to answer the questions that I have and I am not an atheist because I don't have the answers to the questions that I have, so I am just somewhere in between, asking questions and looking for answers.''

Tell us a bit about your Mum and how she has influenced you?

 'There is a lot. She has made me very fashion conscious. 
I am not good at fashion but she has made me aware of the way I look. She has the traits that a mother will have, support, love, kindness always there whenever you need a discussion relating to the challenges that you are facing.''

He also shares his thoughts on Polygamy, ''I think the problem starts to occur when we act as if there are universal laws dictating how you are supposed to live, whereas its culture based. 

It depends on your culture, the influences you have around you, I don't judge people and it is not my place to challenge you based or your personal decisions.''

The Kutis are also known for being vocal politically, what do you think about the nation presently, especially with the elections?

''My thoughts are I hope, that whatever happens, we are stable afterwards. I really hope that whatever the people are somehow able to maintain their calm irrespective of what happens.

 What do you think needs to change in Nigeria?

''First, who is a Nigerian? What does Nigerian really mean? We put a lot of importance to names and meanings and it is the same with every other culture in the country. If we put so much value in identity, what does Nigeria really mean? I hate the name I can't lie.

Coming to Nigeria from having a stable job in London or America is a sacrifice. You will be sacrificing possibly a lesser salary and on top of that there are bad roads, no light, why would you come back knowing that you will be happier outside but the only reason why you would is if you are socially conscious to want to contribute to Nigeria, there is no other reason. 

If you come back, I believe you are thinking as an African that wants to be part of the growth of Africa.

We need to up the standard of Africa starting from a hugely populated country like Nigeria and we will see a lot of people coming back home.''

What are your parting words to the Nigerian Youth?

''My message is specifically to the Nigerian youths, we have been failed, the generation before us failed us, they did their best but because of their compliance, because of their inactivity, we are where we are today and if we repeat the mistakes of those that came before us, our actions will affect the generations after us. 

It will never end, at some point, we have to think collectively, if we don't think as a people, as a closely connected generation, if we don't bounce ideas off each other, if we don't talk, then there is nothing for us.

The power behind this country is too strong for any one person to face alone, even a thousand people if the entire generation does not start thinking collectively, consciously and even progressively, we will still be here in the next 100 years, unfortunately.''

This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

Originally published

Author: Ehis Ohunyon 

Apr 1, 2019

Tony Allen & Jeff Mills - Tomorrow Comes The Harvest

Techno titan Jeff Mills has teamed up with the father of Afrobeat, Tony Allen, for a collaborative album titled 'Tomorrow Comes The Harvest'. The new project is Mills' attempt to " liberate himself from the tyranny of the sequencer" as told on the new duo's Facebook page. “We’re working together to achieve something bigger than the both of us,” says Mills. “It really is a pure collaboration, not just through music, but in our minds and spirit as well.”

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There’s a simple, age-old idea behind Tomorrow Comes the Harvest: Throw two luminaries from different worlds into the studio, roll tape, see what happens. 

In one corner, find Jeff Mills, whose credentials are unimpeachable — he co-founded Underground Resistance, the future-facing electronic Detroit outfit that created reams of charged, jazz-friendly techno and several house-leaning dancefloor classics. In the other, meet Tony Allen, the longtime drummer for Nigerian star Fela Kuti, who helped invent the commanding, endlessly adaptable afrobeat groove. This is not the first such pairing — for example, Allen played with German techno maven Moritz von Oswald in 2015 — but the scene is set for a cross-generational, cross-disciplinary and even cross-continental exchange; the potential energy is high.

The results are more pedestrian, though. It’s a testament to Allen’s indomitability that Mills largely defers to him. The drummer is everywhere, kicking up a recognizable vortex of pitter-patter, but if you didn’t know Mills was on this, his presence might go unnoticed. That diffidence is a missed opportunity — Tomorrow Comes the Harvest would benefit from a sense of more productive addition, or creative friction. 

“Locked and Loaded” comes closest to this: Low-toned electronics bounce and decay, adding a threatening undercurrent to Allen’s unrelenting pulse. This could lead to something genuinely nasty, though they don’t quite reach that point on Tomorrow Comes the Harvest. “The Seed” has the most melodic development, with incessant bleeping giving way to satisfyingly big sheets of sound. 

But mostly these four songs, four edits and two remixes sound like an energetic drummer enhanced slightly with the occasional squirting synth and percussive electronic chatter. If the drummer wasn’t Allen, that would be more of a problem.

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Back in 2016, legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen approached techno pioneer Jeff Mills with the idea of working together. A series of live gigs and off-the-radar studio sessions followed, with the first fruits of their joint efforts finally appearing on this must-have 10". As you'd expect, the duo's collaborative work combines Allen's traditional Nigerian polyrhythms, traditional Afrobeat instrumentation, and the far-sighted, sci-fi inspired electronic futurism that has always marked out Mills' work. The result is a quartet of cuts that could arguably be described as retro-futurist Afro-tech - all delay-laden beats, basslines and organs subtly sparring with gentle acid lines, Motor City electronics, beguiling deep space textures and shimmering, 31st century motifs. It's arguably Allen's stylistic contributions that dominate, but that's no bad thing.

Mar 28, 2019

The global legacy of Fela Kuti’s defiant dance music

Originally published @

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Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti has inspired Beyoncé, Brian Eno and Damon Albarn. On what would have been his 80th birthday BRIAN MORTON looks back on the time he was granted a rare meeting with the self-styled "black president" at his gated studio in Lagos.

In Lagos, it is the ‘sufferheads’ who party. You can tell a lot about cultures from their reaction to adversity and oppression. Some put on sackcloth and close the doors. Others celebrate. In Nigeria it tends to be the latter. Muhammadu Buhari, the former military leader and Fela Kuti’s sworn enemy, is back in power again, this time as president and in his own words, a “converted democrat”. 

It was Afrobeat pioneer Fela and his Africa ’80 group who provided the soundtrack to Buhari’s cruel early 80s regime; a body of extravagantly defiant dance music that masked anger and pain behind fierce joy.

After the extraordinary trilogy of albums Fela made in 1981 – Black President, Original Sufferhead, Unknown Soldier – there was a hiatus while he served a jail sentence for “currency offences” trumped up by Buhari’s lackeys.

When he emerged, he divorced his wives, all twelve of them, and went back into the studio to make first Army Arrangement and then the astonishing Beasts of No Nation. Perhaps no other album cover – or maybe just those for Sgt Pepper and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew – has been more widely discussed.

The artwork created by Lemi Ghariokwu shows Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and P. W. Botha, all horned, with Botha’s promise that “this uprising [against apartheid] will bring out the beast in us”.

The album cover for Beasts of No Nation features the likenesses of Mobutu Sese Seko, General Buhari, Tunde Idiagbon, Margaret Thatcher, P.W. Botha and Reagan.
Though his mother was no longer alive when I met him, it was her name that gained me unexpected access to Fela’s circle in 1985. My father had met her at the end of the war when he was still serving in Nigeria, albeit in a Northern Hausa-speaking town rather than Lagos.

The connection, which seemed improbable given Fela’s family’s anti-colonial politics, seems to have meant something, because a meeting was arranged. But it was made clear that there was to be no interview and no recording.

I was picked up in a car and driven at shocking speed through the streets of Lagos, over what was clearly an unnecessarily elaborate route, since we passed the same barber’s, with a tiny man in white shorts squatting outside, at least three times.

Neither the driver nor the man who sat in the back beside me spoke a word, and when we arrived at a small gated studio in a back street they simply got out of the car, leaving the doors wide and walked into the building. Not knowing where I was and fairly rattled, I thought I'd better go in.

There was Fela, slight, smiling but with no kindness in his eyes. Gradually the room filled. I was the only white face. There was a strong smell of hashish, but no one was smoking.

Fela didn’t so much rise from his couch as levitate. The only genuinely charismatic men I have ever met were Fela and the artist Joseph Beuys. He began to speak, fast, bending forward from the hips, wearing a patterned shirt open over a strangely concave torso. How did that little frame produce a voice that, like Bob Marley’s, sang redemption songs for the whole world? And how did he manage to blow his saxophones with so much force?

 What he said was a mixture of pidgin and Yoruba, strongly cadenced as if he were reciting an epic poem. I understood none of it. It reached some kind of climax and then one by one the others left the room.
I had about ten minutes alone with Fela, talking about mothers and fathers. He gave me a saxophone mouthpiece – hard Bakelite, with tooth marks – and then left without a goodbye. The journey back to my hotel was no slower, but somehow made more sense.

Fela Kuti would have been 80 today (15 October 2018). He was born Olufela Olusegun Oludoton Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, in the Nigerian south west. He was raised in an educated and deeply anti-colonial family.

Fela went off to London to study medicine, as two of his brothers were to do, but switched to music and went to Trinity College.

There are recordings of him in London playing a hybrid of jazz and highlife. But it was not until he had studied African music in Accra and spent an ear- and eye-opening 1969 in Los Angeles that he began to develop his distinctive sound and style of recording.

Fela did not so much make songs as whole albums. Beasts of No Nation (which plays in my house every day while supper is prepared) is a single LP-side of music, a dark chant over declamatory organ, saxophone and guitar, comparable in its darkness to Miles’s notorious Agharta and Pangaea albums.

Fela believed that his country was run by zombies. His paranoia was certainly fuelled by alcohol and drugs, but also by sustained trauma. A powerful brain began to turn in on itself, and his tragedy was that he began to believe his own legend and, all too literally, in magic. 
Having abandoned the Ransome name as “enslaving” and adopting the new middle name of Anikulapo (which is said to mean “he who has death in his pouch”) he turned his back on Western medicine, too. In 1997, his death was announced. His brother, who had served in government as a health minister, said that Fela died of AIDS. Some believe that this was propaganda, to highlight the HIV epidemic. It scarcely matters. Fela’s passing put the disease in the headlines.

More than a million people viewed his body, which seemed improbably tiny. He may have chanted "dem go worry me, worry me, worry worry worry worry" but like Marley and the great blues men, he made art out of pain and life out of a near constant contact with death. He would have been 80 today. Maybe even president.

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Originally published @

Mar 27, 2019

Ebo Taylor About "Yen Ara"

Ebo, Good to hear your voice. Are you in Saltpond now?

I’m in Saltpond now.

Ah, I wish I was there. It’s cold and snowing here in New York. But we’re surviving.

Well, I wish I was in New York.

I would like that too. I hope we can help make that happen. I’ve been listening to this new album. It’s beautiful work, once again.

O.K. Thank you very much.

Tell me the story of this record.

This recording took about one year to prepare. Some of the songs were from other works, earlier works, that we had to retouch and rearrange to suit the modern, the current trends of music. For example, “Krumadey.” It is about the history of people associating with a mad man through his music. In those days, there was not so much music around. “Yen Ara” says, “We, who are only 30, conquered one thousand. We did it. It is us!” The people of this village, a Fanti people, who were only 30, boasted of their power to conquer one thousand Ashanti warriors. So this has a history of the Asafo music that we play in this country.

Asafo. I remember this. This is music associated with the Ashanti wars.

You know, our music is unlike any other Western tune. It takes its roots from the Ghanaian Asafo music. We try to get it into a danceable form, while keeping its history and merit.

Speaking of the album overall, are all these traditional songs, or adaptations?

The ones I spoke of are traditional songs. “Yen Ara” is a traditional song of the military wing of every Asafo company. And it is sung to celebrate their victory over a thousand enemies. “Mumudey” also has a history. It’s about a dwarf who lived with some people, and who could play every type of music. He could play trumpet or sax, any type of instrument, and he dressed immaculately. The people thought he was very clever, so they honored him with a name and a song. They called him, “Abiouti Konfu.” So all these songs are historical music of the Fanti people of the west coast of Ghana.

You also have a couple of songs in English, like “Poverty” and “Mind Your Own Business.” Are these your compositions?
Yes. These are my compositions. Every song on this record that is not traditional is my composition. “Mind Your Own Business” advises everybody to stick to his own business and keep his nose out of other people’s business. I think it’s fair advice.

It certainly is.

Then I have “Ankoma’m.” This is an exhibition of the fear of a loner who has all his people dead, and is now walking on the edge, alone. But he is capable of keeping up with his problems. All these songs have variety. The recording is not repetitive. Every song is different, a different mood, a different form.

What about the lead track, “Poverty”?

Oh, “Poverty.” Nobody wants to be poor in this world. As a matter of fact, that is a statement that we can make, and we are definite about it. Nobody wants to be poor in this world. If you are poor, you won’t get married, you won’t get a car, you won’t get a house. So nobody wants to be poor, and the best way for you not to be poor is to work hard. To create. You don’t have to be rich, but only to be fairly capable of taking care of yourself. So nobody in this world wants to be poor.

So, Ebo, speaking of rich and poor, I have been reading in the newspaper that the economy in Ghana is doing very well right now. Do you feel that? Do you feel like less people are poor now?

Yes, certainly. But, people are still not very comfortable with what they have to live on. Because if the economy is good, it should show up in the living style of the people. But people are still paying for goods and for food, high prices that they can’t meet. And the worst thing is that the economy has hit the health system. You go to the hospital, and then the prescriptions in the pharmacy are very high prices, and obviously, people will die from it. It’s amazing that someone will have to pay about 1800 [cedi] to be given some medicines from the hospital for diabetes, and for high blood pressure. These are very high; the drug prices are high. And that is even more threatening than the food and other goods. Electricity as been brought down by about 30 percent and that might help people to solve some of their problems, but personally, I cannot say I am very comfortable with the situation.

That’s tough, Ebo. Let’s come back to the music. Where did you record this record, and who was the band?
Some of the musicians are my children. The guy who sang “Krumadey” is my son and also “Mumudey Mumudey.” Those are my sons, Henry and Roy Taylor. Others are Philip Arthur on percussion, Rim Akandoh, on the drums and Emmanuel Ackon is playing the bass. Then my two sons are on percussion and piano. These musicians have a clever way of playing my music. And I think they did very well in the studio in Holland, in Amsterdam. Though before that, we had a lot of rehearsals in Ghana, so they had found it very easy to record tracks. They were well rehearsed.

It shows. What about the brass section? The brass on this record is sensational.

The brass section is a duet of a trombone and a trumpet. Long John [Ntumy] is on trumpet, and he was very well prepared, playing classical and jazz for the past 15 years. Then [Benjamin] Osabotey, who is on trombone, has been playing trombone for about 30 years, since he was 15 years old.


Yeah, and they came out of recording room satisfied with what they did. I think they did very well recording internationally for the first time.

That’s so beautiful, Ebo. And once again, you’ve written such beautiful horn arrangements for these guys. Are these new arrangements you made for these recordings? Even for the traditional songs?

Yes, yes. Some came out right. Some came out not very right, but I hope we will do better the next time.

I think you did just fine. I really like this record, especially the brass. It’s fine work. And are you able to take band to Europe to do concerts?

Oh yes. We thought we needed to change our repertoire for the concerts. There are some songs that have been overplayed, and we want to change them, systematically, with these new grooves.

Well, we want to see you here. Because it’s clear from this recording that you and your group are going strong.

Yes. We will be there.

We can’t wait! Say, I hear you had an interesting time last fall in Nigeria, playing at Felebration in Lagos.

Yes, yes, yes. Mark LeVine invited us and I joined them in Port Harcourt, and then we came to Lagos. We really had a nice time being part of the celebration. Mark worked very hard to get us on the program, though the program was tight. I remember one night, I played for one minute. On the stage. That was it.

One minute? Oh my God.

Yeah, but Fela is a great man. I always wanted to follow him because he has done very well to take highlife in another direction, in a minor mood, and with that Yoruba feeling. He got across and was noticed. I’m glad that there are Afrobeat bands all over Europe.

And here too.

So I congratulate Fela for having done that. He was my contemporary in London whilst I went to the Eric Gilder School of Music. Fela was at another school; I have forgotten the name. But we met quite a lot and played a lot of highlife, infusing it with jazz and talking bigger about highlife’s achievement as an international music.   

When we were down there with you, you told us some wonderful stories about your times with Fela. You know, last month Tony Allen was here in town, and he’s still going strong.

Oh, Tony. Yeah.

He’s up to a lot of interesting things these days, making jazz records and more experimental things. He’s amazing.

Tony is a very exciting musician to work with.

So how do you feel about what’s happening with the newer music in Ghana these days? These young stars keep rising. The music is changing, but it’s doing quite well. Do you ever interact or collaborate with some of these young Ghanaian artists?
Yes I do. Last month I was in the studio with Okyeame Kwame, one of the rappers. He wanted to do some traditional highlife and I helped them to arrange it in the studio. I was very glad to have been part of that collaboration, because it’s a recognition of the knowledge of the older musicians. The younger ones are pulling the right strings. I like the situation where the industry is developing, even though the music is still low. Ghanaian musicians are very good musicians. I always say that. You can always find good musicians in Ghana, even though they don’t have any kind of formal training, like those who have been to Berklee or Juilliard. We need formal education in music. It’s unfortunate that the last government deleted music from the school curriculum as a subject.

Really? That’s terrible.

That has created a vacuum of music knowledge. These guys have no formal education, so they are using their brains and their intelligence, and I should say that if they were given the formal education that you get in schools like Berklee or Juilliard or other schools in Europe, there would be much greater musicians in Ghana. So the authorities will have to review their decision to delete music from the school curriculum as a subject.

It is a big mistake. Music gives people so many skills that apply in other areas as well.

Yes. Yes. There is music at university. I taught at Ghana University from 2001 to 2009. But I found it very sterile, because the musicians come with no basic training in music. They can hardly recognize intervals, hardly recognize chords. So they are just starting at university level.

That’s not good. You certainly serve as a good example of how important it is to study music, because you really did, and it makes your work so rich.

Exactly. These musicians who have no formal education in music, as I had a formal education in music, and Teddy Osei, who started Osibisa, also had a formal education in music. You can see that. We were able to go forward more than an uneducated musician.

I am glad to hear that some of the young musicians are working with you and recognizing that the old music has a lot to teach. Even if they don’t have a formal education, they can still learn a lot by listening to people like you.

Yes. I was happy that Okyeame Kwame invited me to the studio to impart some of my music on one of his tracks. In recognition of that, many of them would now like to take private study.

That’s good. You know, I was speaking with Fela’s son Femi a few weeks ago, and I asked him what he thought about the young musicians in Nigeria, and he said a similar thing. They mostly haven’t learned to play instruments. So they’re doing well now, but what happens when they get older and they’re not the new thing anymore? If they can’t play an instrument and don’t have skills, they will be nowhere.
Well, sure. Nigeria has great musicians, great songwriters. But I saw some guys in Port Harcourt who could play some very nice lines on their instruments.

Yes. You were at Chicoco, that wonderful organization started by Mark Uwemedimo and Ana Bonaldo and members of the community. Isn’t that a great thing?

Yes. I want to record with them. But the madame is still arranging. When she comes back from Brazil, she will be able to organize a recording at Chicoco.

I hope you get to do that. I would love to hear it. One last thing, I wanted to tell you that our radio program, Afropop, is turning 30 years old this year. We’ve been on the air for 30 years. Maybe for a vet like you, that’s not so long, but for us it’s a long time.

I’d like to be part of the celebration. You have to widen the scope! I am highly impressed by Afropop. This institution is helping to raise up African music. I wish Afropop a happy celebration of 30 years of existence. Bravo!

And bravo to you, Ebo, for another great album. Thanks so much.

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