Posts Tagged ‘afrobeat’

Fela Kuti: A Beginner’s Guide

Posted on August 18th, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .

Nigel Williamson introduces Fela Kuti – a true original: ‘Never have life, politics, art and music been so inextricably linked together in one incendiary, insurrectionary and highly danceable package’

In Nigeria, 1977 will always be remembered as a year of musical revolution. While in the UK the Sex Pistols continued to gain notoriety for ‘Anarchy In The UK’, Lagos was rocking to ‘Zombie’ by Fela Kuti and Africa 70, a far more dangerously subversive record with a feral riff, thunderous brass and lyrics in pidgin English, satirically lambasting the Nigerian military and the corrupt junta it sustained.

The Sex Pistols got themselves banned by the BBC. Fela’s musical insurgency sparked a more violent reaction from the Nigerian establishment. Enraged by his performance of ‘Zombie’ at a festival in Lagos which sparked street riots against the government, on February 18, 1977, Nigeria’s military dictators sent more than 1,000 soldiers to attack Fela and destroy the commune which he had named the ‘Kalakuta (Rascal) Republic’ and declared independent from the Nigerian state.

Fela was severely beaten and his elderly mother thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. His Kalakuta compound was burned to the ground and his studio destroyed along with it. Fela’s response was to record yet more uncompromisingly provocative songs about the incident and its aftermath, such as ‘Coffin for Head of State’ and ‘Unknown Soldier’.

It was just one of the many turbulent episodes in the volatile, tempestuous story of Fela Kuti, but it goes a long way to explaining why more than a decade after his death in 1997, he’s still revered as the most iconic musical figure Africa has ever produced. Never have life, politics, art and music been so inextricably linked together in one incendiary, insurrectionary and highly danceable package. ‘His songs went much further than the usual round-up of protest singers such as Bob Dylan, James Brown or Bob Marley,’ writes John Collins in his book Fela: Kalakuta Notes. His polemic and his music were indivisible and he laid his life on the line in his struggle against injustice, corruption and the abuse of power.

Fela’s personal and musical revolution had its seeds sowed several years earlier, on his first trip to the US in 1969. His band Koola Lobitos had spent the previous half dozen years in Nigeria playing an appealing mix of highlife and jazz. In the US, however, he met Sandra Smith, a member of the Black Panther movement. They became lovers and she introduced him to the radical philosophy of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and other black activists, persuading him to begin writing his own ‘conscious’ lyrics. In Los Angeles, he changed the name of his band to Africa 70 and, inspired by a combination of the black power movement and the funk music that soundtracked it, he formulated his own unique musical vision, which he named Afro-beat.

He made his first recordings in the new style before leaving Los Angeles. Once back in Lagos, he opened a club called the Shrine, started singing in pidgin English rather than in Yoruba – so that his message could be understood all over Africa – and in 1974 set up the Kalakuta Republic as an alternative ‘state within a state’. Despite harassment, beatings, arrests, imprisonment and the distraction of marrying 27 of his backing singers and dancers in a collective ceremony on the same day, he wrote and recorded prolifically – so prolifically that it has become notoriously difficult to negotiate one’s way around his vast back catalogue.

In all, he recorded more than 50 albums of great but often sprawling and radio-hostile music. In the tumultuous 1976-77 period alone, he recorded and released some 15 LPs, mostly containing just one or two uncompromisingly long numbers each. The sheer length of most tracks has also made the compilation of ‘Best of Fela’ and ‘Greatest Hits’ packages problematic, to say the least.

Yet in Afro-beat, and its unique fusion of jazz, funk, traditional African chant and call-and-response vocals, all underpinned by a mighty and endless, trance-like groove, he left behind a legacy that’s unrivalled. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Lagos for Fela’s funeral in 1997 and his beat lives on. But we shall surely not see his like again.

Recommended recordings

fela-kuti-69-sessionsKoola Lobitos The 69 LA Sessions

(Knitting Factory Records)

A fascinating insight into the genesis of Afro-beat, coupling half a dozen previously unreleased jazz-highlife tracks recorded in Lagos between 1964-68 with his first band, Koola Lobitos, and ten visionary tracks recorded in LA in 1969 as he began to reshape the future of African music.

fela-expensive-shitExpensive Shit

(Knitting Factory Records)

Funky, hypnotic trance-like grooves, Fela’s soulful keyboards and propulsive horns on just two long tracks of typically mordant Fela political satire in ‘Water No Get Enemy’ and the title-track, on which he declares ‘I be black power man’. The CD reissue is coupled with the He Miss Road LP, also from 1975.


(Knitting Factory Records)

Many feel the 13 minute title-track was Fela’s finest hour. In nominating it as the sexiest piece of music ever recorded, Damon Albarn described it in #23 as ‘one climax after another’. The CD reissue is augmented with two previously unreleased live tracks from the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1978.

fela-kuti-amsterdamLive In Amsterdam

(Knitting Factory Records)

With his band now renamed Egypt 80, this is arguably the best Fela live recording, from an Amsterdam concert in November 1983, the three elongated tracks stretched out to almost an hour and a half ’s worth of music. You can’t hurry genius.


For more information about Fela Kuti, visit 

This article originally appeared in Songlines #56 (November/December 2008). Subscribe to Songlines

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The Songlines Essential 10: Afrobeat Albums

Posted on November 21st, 2014 in Recent posts by .


Afrobeat is seeing something of a resurgence – with the release of a Fela documentary and new albums from two of the genre’s greats. Max Reinhardt gets into the groove and highlights ten of the best albums.

Click here to stream the full playlist.

Tony Allen – Film of Life (Jazz Village, 2014)
Tony Allen’s unique ‘highlife meets hard bop meets funk’ drum patterns underpinned and inspired Fela’s Afrobeat. This latest album finds Allen still an unstoppable force of rhythmic genius in his mid-70s. To quote my review in this issue: ‘an instantly enticing nu-Afrobeat groove, in which funky horns, squelchy synths, repetitive guitar and even ukulele catch you in a compelling slipstream’.

Antibalas – Antibalas (Daptone, 2012)
One of the finest fruits of Fela’s posthumous Afrobeat realm. From 1998 onwards, baritone saxophonist Martin Perna’s Brooklyn-based Conjunto Antibalas live the music, the sonics, the rhythms and the politics of Afrobeat. This CD is an eruption of tuff, brilliant songs, deliriously powerful playing and potent vocals from Amayo. Reviewed in #87.

The Fontanelles – Horns of Freedom (First Word Records, 2013)
The band that grew out of the onstage musicians for the London run of Fela! The Musical. This debut is an instrumental Afrobeat tour de force with a pile driving jazzy edge, to which they’ve added Caribbean and swinging Addis grooves. Its many highlights include ‘Afrocat’, ‘Pinprick’ and ‘Horns of Freedom’. Reviewed in #98.

Alhaji K Frimpong – Kyenkyen Bi Adi M’awu! (Ofo Brothers, 1976)
This album from Alhaji K Frimpong and his Cubano Fiestas is a mid-70s Ghanaian gem clearly influenced by Afrobeat grooves and rhythms though still very much a late period jazzy highlife album. ‘Kyenkyen Bi Adi M’awu!’ itself remains a dance floor classic.

Orlando Julius & The Heliocentrics – Jaiyede Afro (Strut Records, 2014)
Until Fela’s return from the US in 1970, Orlando Julius and his Afro-funk tunes were the summit of cool for young Lagosians. Then Fela’s Afrobeat, non-stop struggle and legend eclipsed Orlando for decades, but this album is his finest hour. In the company of London’s funky jazztronicists, The Heliocentrics, he creates an Afrobeat sound that you want to climb inside for a week at a time. Reviewed in #103.

Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70 – Expensive Shit/He Miss Road (Knitting Factory Records, 2013)
An explosive, musical and lyrical Fela peak, this is the CD reissue of two of his early 70s vinyls. Originally, the scatological, subversive Afrobeat classic Expensive Shit was backed with the haunting metaphysics and beautiful melody of ‘Water Get No Enemy’, while He Miss Road’s three tracks include the portrait of his city ‘Monday Morning Lagos’ and Tony Allen’s polyrhythmic tour de force ‘It’s No Possible’.

Femi Kuti – Shoki Shoki (Barclay, 1998)
This is the fourth album by Fela’s oldest son Femi, who over the last 25 years of non-stop touring has been keeping the flame of Fela’s legacy burning. This is probably his most memorable set of songs, from the sex with a smile on its face of the track ‘Beng Beng Beng’ to the accusatory ‘Sorry Sorry’.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 – A Long Way to the Beginning (Knitting Factory Records, 2014)
Seun’s angriest, most fiery album to date, leading the band he inherited from his father when just 14 years old. His ever improving voice, even wittier lyrics (‘lMF’) and catchier tunes (ragged highlife wonder ‘Ohun Aiye’), production by Robert Glasper and guest stars like Nneka, M1 and Blitz the Ambassador, make this a heady brew. Reviewed in #100.

Dele Sosimi – Identity (Helico Records, 2007)
Dele really is London’s Afrobeat catalyst. He learned keyboards from Fela himself, played with Egypt 80 for seven years, became their arranger and musical director and then did the same with Femi into the 90s. The complex but compelling arrangements of Identity, its songwriting and funkiest of keyboards, all testify to Dele’s finely honed skills and unstoppable dynamism. Reviewed in #55.

Various Artists – Red Hot + Fela (Knitting Factory Records, 2013)
A razor-sharp fundraising tool for AIDS awareness that also traces the spread of Fela awareness within the international musical community. The first album, Red Hot + Riot (2002), featured producer and activist Andres Levin at the controls and highlighted Fela’s compositional genius in the hands of a huge cast including Nile Rodgers, Baaba Maal, and Macy Gray. This follow-up moves further out and sweeps luminaries like Kronos Quartet, My Morning Jacket and Spoek Mathambo into the fold. Reviewed in #97.

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Album Review | Top Of The World | Tony Allen – Film of Life

Posted on October 20th, 2014 in Recent posts, Reviews by .


Words by Max Reinhardt

TOTW-TONY-ALLEN-COVERAfrobeat’s king of hitting stuff with sticks extremely well

The man who Brian Eno dubbed the finest drummer on the planet has made a string of intriguing albums in the 35 years since he left Fela Kuti, his partner in the creation of Afrobeat. This is undoubtedly Allen’s strongest 21st century album to date.

Film of Life is a return to his Paris studio habitat; the production, by the attractively named Jazz Bastards, captures Allen at yet another peak. It provides a punchy solid, dynamic sound both for his drums and also for Cesar Anot’s bass. ‘Moving On’ kicks off the album with an instantly enticing nu-Afrobeat groove, in which funky horns, squelchy synths, repetitive guitar and even ukulele catch you in a compelling slipstream. Damon Albarn joins Allen for a dub instrumental and for the single ‘Go Back’, in which a slow Afrobeat drum pattern catalyses a melancholy Albarn melody. Ignore the couple of synthy noodling Parisian filler tracks, which don’t take the shine and potency away from this fine album.

You can’t help hoping that Allen’s magnificent musicianship might soon take some other pathways: an album with a substantial jazzer such as Herbie Hancock, say, or one with an electronic music giant like Aphex Twin or Matthew Herbert. But while we’re waiting, Film of Life will remain a funky delight.

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New issue (Nov/Dec, #104) on sale now!

Posted on October 10th, 2014 in News, Recent posts by .


Tony Allen & Orlando Julius, Idan Raichel and Kassé Mady Diabaté

The November/December 2014 (#104) edition is on sale in the UK from today. The free exclusive 16-track covermount CD features ten tracks from our latest Top of the World albums and a guest playlist by Inspector Rebus author Ian Rankin.

Featured on the Top of the World CD are new tracks from Kathryn Tickell & The Side and Bangalore singer/songwriter Raghu Dixit, plus a track from Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen’s critically acclaimed new album Film of Life. We’ve also thrown in a 15-track bonus CD of music from Galicia for your listening pleasure.

This issue also includes…

• Giants of Afrobeat – Nigel Williamson talks to the two under-appreciated pioneers of Afrobeat, Tony Allen and Orlando Julius. Both are celebrating their 50-year career in the autumn with the release of their respective albums, Film of Life and Jaiyede Afro.
• Idan Raichel – Simon Broughton speaks to the prolific collaborator about working with Vieux Farka Touré and what it means to be an Israeli musician.
• Jyotsna Srikanth – The South Indian violinist speaks to Tim Woodall about her mission to highlight her Karnatic heritage and her journey so far.
• Kassé Mady Diabaté  – The Malian jeli or praise singer speaks to Daniel Brown prior to the release of his widley anticipated new album, recorded during a time of continuing uncertainty in his homeland.
• Anna Phoebe – Alexandra Petropolous talks to the violinist who has played with some of prog rock’s greatest about how she’s transformed from head-banging rocker to sophisticated fusionista.

• Beginner’s Guide to Rubén Blades: Chris Moss surveys the extraordinary career of the salsa superstar.
• Festival Pass: Timitar Festival, Agadir, Morocco.
• My World: A playlist and interview with best-selling novelist, Ian Rankin.
• Introducing… Namvula and Shammi Pithia.
• Spotlight on Ami Koita.
• Quick Fire: Jane Harbour, Dave Smith and Baqir Abbas.
• What’s New, including the release of Robert Plant’s new album and the 15th year of the WOMEX awards.
• Cerys Matthews reflects on the power of poetry and music, and delves into the world of Dylan Thomas.
• Reviews of the latest CD, book and world cinema releases.

Buy the new issue here.

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