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Cover Story

Fela’s children

The rise of Afro-beat from Nigerian roots to Detroit & your ringtone

Photo: Leni Sinclair
Fela Kuti performs at Detroit's Orchestra Hall in 1986.
MT photo: Doug Coombe
Nomo's sound is crowded with rhythm.
MT photo: Doug Coombe
Odu's Adeboye Adegbenro and Kevin Callaway.
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Published 5/31/2006

In a current TV ad campaign promoting downloadable music for your cell phone, regular folks cut impromptu rugs to the latest pop hits. In one spot, a doughy middle manager frantically emulates the fluid hips of Colombian pop sensation Shakira, broken out of his workaday spell by the hitching rhythms of her hit duet with Wyclef. A different clip features a college student who transforms a drab department store changing room into her personal dance floor with the help of Nelly Furtado and Timbaland's incalculably catchy jam "Promiscuous." The track's booming percussion is laced repeatedly with silvery ribbons of synthesizer as Furtado and Tim exchange lines. She hits moves right along with them, turning her 4-foot-by-5-foot square into the ultimate VIP room party. Her shoulders go vertical, and her hips don't lie.

Nobody's cell phone has a speaker that powerful. But besides the latest download fun, what the ads are really selling is joy. Pure, unadulterated, beat-supported joy, available in an instant, whenever you want it. No time-release here, no waiting for the right moment to get it on. It's better than any decongestant or drug. It's rhythm, and it's going to get you.

That's a notion Fela Kuti knew well. In the early 1970s, working from contemporary African musical forms like high life and juju as well as the influence of American jazz, funk and soul, particularly James Brown, Kuti developed the striking, all-encompassing sound known as Afro-beat. As much a musical movement as a political one, Fela's music buttressed its busy, lengthy arrangements of interlocking polyrhythms and blazing horns with fervently nationalistic lyrics that railed against the rampant corruption in Nigeria's halls of power. Fela's rallying political views endeared him to the Nigerian underclass, but he was also a real live pop star — mercurial, charismatic and fueled by a seemingly insatiable machismo, he was a hero on stage. Conceived of and led by Fela, and transmitted through the inescapable rhythms of his band, Afro-beat became a true cultural movement, and transformed Kuti into a rebel visionary.

Afro-beat's roiling grooves were impossible to ignore. When Fela and his band Africa 70 released Zombie in 1977, its indictment of the blind followers of the Nigerian government's policies made it an anthem in Lagos, Nigeria. But its syncopated brass retorts and Tony Allen's percolating, brilliantly funky drumming ricocheted through the music world, influencing Western acts too. How could it not? Classics like "Zombie," "Water Get No Enemy," "Gentleman," and "Expensive Shit" — all from a hot streak that lasted throughout most of the 1970s — envelop you in a sweltering blanket of rhythm. Put them on the turntable, and it's as if the bandleader himself poured cold milk down your back and handed you a tambourine.

Like that doughy guy in the cell phone ad, you can't help but slip a backbone. And neither could the musicians listening in his era. Fela's legacy burns all over, from the music of German avant-gardists Can (the blurting horns and muddled underpinnings in 1976's Unlimited Editon) to the gristly funk of Kool & the Gang's 1973 album Wild and Peaceful ("Hollywooooood swinging!") and the 1980 Talking Heads classic Remain in Light, with "Crosseyed and Painless" and "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)."

But it's also true today. Contemporary pop music regularly embraces the same type of hybridism that informed Afro-beat, whether it's Wyclef and Shakira weaving Caribbean and Colombian rhythms together for "Hips Don't Lie" or Timbaland's consistent use of left-field production elements to craft his hit-making string of hip-hop bomb tracks. A portion of Afro-beat's global appeal rests on Fela's legacy as a showman and visionary. But in its syncopated heart the music includes you — wherever you're from.

Fela Kuti died in 1997. But almost immediately there were musicians ready to shoulder his legacy. Fela's son Femi Kuti has upheld his father's sound and vision, performing a streamlined version of Afro-beat and fighting for social justice. He believes Afro-beat's very nature as an uplifting force is threatened by governmental apathy toward change. "People ask me, do I like the American government?" he told an NPR interviewer in 2005. "I'll be straightforward with you — no. Because they have the power to solve the problems of the world today, and they aren't doing it. It's a problem for every individual, even the artist. Because then we can't even play good music. Life is killed. The joy of life is killed."

The struggle for equality continues. But in addition to the activism of artists like Femi and New York City's Antibalas Afro-beat Orchestra, who infuse their purist sound with similar social aims, many contemporary Afro-beat groups — including Detroit-area acts Nomo and Odu Afro-beat Orchestra — are sprawling musical collectives that draw members from a multiple of ethnic backgrounds and musical genres. Jazz, funk and soul musicians, certainly. But also punk-rock rhythm sections and indie music devotees.

They've found something inviting in Afro-beat's enveloping rhythms, something more real than any of the increasingly slivered subgenres of contemporary music, because Afro-beat's singular aims — to make you move, think and sweat — aren't products of demographic research. And that makes the music even more rewarding to perform.

The same can be said for the listeners. Antibalas, for example, performed at the 2003 Bonnaroo festival, the rural Tennessee event that has expanded from its core of jam band fans to book everything from the post-rock of Tortoise to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. The notion seems to be, "If it's worth hearing, let's have it, and forget about the genre subdivisions."

Afro-beat will always have sway for the true believers, the listeners who remember that Fela's music was about struggle as much as it was sweat. But there's been a recent swell of interest in old Afro-beat sides from music nerds normally obsessed with the latest Scandinavian songbird or underground metal band. There's a collector's angle they're responding to — often pressed in limited quantities or barely released at all, Fela's recorded output is valuable even when it's mildewed or dog-eared. But it's undeniable that these new listeners are uncovering intangibles similar to the musicians performing Afro-beat today. From both sides of the microphone, participation in Afro-beat's groove has become another form of activism.

The Detroit connection

Nomo's Elliot Bergman agrees. The Ann Arbor group's founder is reached on the phone from New Orleans, where the ensemble is touring with His Name is Alive in support of New Tones, Nomo's second album. Bergman has a few stories to tell about his music reaching a cross-section of everyday people. "We've had an amazingly diverse turnout at the shows," he says, and mentions a recent gig in North Carolina where a group of retirees danced the night away. "They just loved it. It was one of our more adventurous sets, too. But it still ended up being something they connected with."

Bergman loves how Nomo's blend of Afro-beat, jazz, funk and pop erases the would-be arbitrary lines of genre and listener. He knows that, at the base of it all, there's a great beat. At Nomo's Chapel Hill show, the oldsters were getting down next to college-age indie rockers like it was the most natural thing in the world. Which, of course, it was.

On July 10, Nomo will perform at Detroit's Magic Stick with Konono No. 1, a Congolese group that woke up and shook the music world in late 2004, when recordings of the group's captivating sound started surfacing all over the Internet. At the center of the collective's hypnotic, almost otherworldly groove is the likembé, also known as the mbira or thumb piano. Essentially a wooden board to which hammered metal rods of varying lengths are attached, it's often fitted into a resonating chamber to amplify its distinctive buzzing tones. The instrument, in its various forms, is thousands of years old. But Konono No. 1 launched it into the modern world of experimentalism and groove through an amazing accident of pure necessity. It was impossible to perform in the bustling, chaotic streets of Kinshasa without proper amplification. So they built resonators, microphones and entire sound systems out of materials scavenged from the streets. Car parts, rebar and fossilized electronics were reborn as amplification, with the fantastic side effect being a union of Konono's traditional ethnic trance with the euphoria and electrified improvisation associated with contemporary electronic and experimental music. In honor of their gig together, Bergman says he and Nomo have constructed and are selling miniature electric thumb pianos at their merch table.

Odu Afro-beat Orchestra is another local ensemble exploring the legacy of Afro-beat while bringing listeners to the dance floor. Its lineup sees jazz players alongside vets of such rock-oriented local groups as His Name is Alive and Human Eye. Led by saxophonist-vocalist Adeboye Adegbenro, the 15-piece group includes drummer Kevin Callaway, bassist Joel Peterson, guitarists Chris "Crispy" Fachini and Chad Gilchrist, conga players Akunda Brian Hollis and Bill Hafer, saxophonists Michael Carey and Marco Novachcoff, and trumpeter John Douglas. The lineup mixes freely across age, race and musical background.

Adegbenro actually learned the ropes from Fela Kuti himself while still living in Lagos in the late 1980s, regularly performing with Fela's band at a club in the same neighborhood as the bandleader's legendary, long-shuttered Shrine nightclub. Though Fela had a reputation as a notoriously harsh leader, Adegbenro found the experience of performing with him liberating.

"It certainly cured my stage fright," he says, sitting at the Cass Cafe with Callaway.

After Adegbenro immigrated to the United States in 1990, he made stops in New York City, Florida and California before finally settling in Detroit. And while he'd hoped to start an Afro-beat group since moving to the United States, he didn't find the right mix of players until he arrived here.

It started with the rhythm, of course. Adegbenro, Callaway and Peterson began sketching out the tunes, and the early going was like any new band — stops, starts and periods of inactivity. But they kept at it, and suddenly it clicked. "One day we were working on a tune," Callaway says, "And Chad [Gilchrist] looked over at me and just said, 'This is ridiculously funky.'"

The group is currently recording its debut album. Though the musicians are committed to Afro-beat's original sound, incorporating dance songs as well as the Odus — a series of divine spiritual laws rooted in an ancient West African belief system — they also see their ensemble as a bridge to something new.

Callaway describes the interest Odu has received from Detroit's electronic music community, particularly electro duo Ectomorph. There's talk of potential split 12-inches, since the typical Afro-beat song is most rewarding at album-side length, much like the techno tradition.

"Masses of people support electronic music for a reason," Callaway says. "But over time, as they become content with that sound, they begin to search for something else that's going to move them in a different way." Different, but similar. It's all movement, after all.

He and Adegbenro relate a particularly memorable recent gig, when they performed at one of People's Records owner Brad Hale's funk parties at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID). It took some finessing from Callaway to convince Odu's 15 members that a post-2 a.m. set in the back of an art gallery was a good idea, especially when the place was nearly empty at midnight. But sure enough, "There were so many cycles of people who came, a really diverse crowd, and we ended up playing till almost 4 in the morning." At a recent Majestic gig in support of roots reggae legend Burning Spear, they were nearly as popular as the headline act.

The ability of undiluted rhythm to effect change in people's lives was central to Fela's Afro-beat concept. There's a reason his bands featured such a scary amount of percussion. But those grooves live on in the collaborative spirit of today's Afro-beat musicians, as well as the pulsing beats driving the latest pop hits. "I think rhythm is the first thing people hear when they come into a room," Elliot Bergman says. "It's more visceral, more immediate, and frees [the band] up to do different things melodically, harmonically and texturally." Besides, "It's cool to get people in a space they're not used to, dancing next to one another." When the genres are removed, what's left is joy.

 

See Also:

Rebel’s rhythm
by W. Kim Heron

Johnny Loftus is Metro Times music editor. Send comments to jloftus@metrotimes.com.

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