Review: Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent

Book image taken from Africa World Press books

Here’s a review I did a couple of weeks ago for my Anthropology of Music and Art class. The main text for our class is a book about Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician and activist. Having had no previous exposure to Fela and his musical style of Afrobeat, this text, along with clips I’ve seen on his music performances have been quite enlightening. My husband who plays bass was helpful in explaining some of the more technical musical structures discussed in this book. Aside from these challenges, I’d say it’s a great read for both music and anthropology interested minds.

In his book, Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent, author Sola Olorunyomi explores the life and impact of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, creator of the musical genre, Afrobeat. More famously and simply known as Fela Kuti, Olorunyomi provides and in-depth look at the activist behind the musician. Olorunyomi begins his narrative with an overview of Nigeria’s restive socio-political climate during their newly gained independence in 1960. The introduction of Nigeria’s socio-political climate offers a backdrop and catalyst to understanding Fela’s search for a native African musical form and a lyrical and philosophical message. When paired together, these two mediums became Fela’s platform for musical activism.

Beginning with a vivid and well-articulated memory of his first encounter with Nigerian unrest, Olorunyomi sets the stage for his readers to grasp how discordant the times were. His drive to seek out Fela’s Kalakuta Republic residence as a haven during those unstable times sets the tone for understanding the “Ideological Education” Fela’s ideology provided. It is where the author was to find like-minded revolutionists. Though Nigeria had won it’s independence from Britain in the 1960’s, the nation suffered social and civil unrest. Governed by an imbalance of political parties which represented the dominant ethnic groupings, Nigeria was spilt between conservative and liberal parties, each vying for control of the nation. Acts of corruption, violence and military coups subsequently followed.

In his first chapter, “Tradition and Afrobeat”, Olorunyomi describes the cultural and traditional history in which Afrobeat is rooted. He initially gives a description of the genre of African music called Highlife, a term coined by the people who could not attend the clubs in which it was popularly played due to their inability to afford the entrance fees. The word Highlife became associated with both the style of music and the social status of the people who could afford to frequent establishments in which it was played. It’s here that we begin to glimpse the social division that would be later discussed in subsequent chapters where Olorunyomi discusses the political background of the emerging Nigerian state and the class division which Fela Kuti’s music railed against.

Highlife music provided the roots of what was to become Fela’s own Afrobeat. Because of this, Olorunyomi goes into detail about structural patterns as well as inherent Yoruba Nigerian ways of singing, dancing, and performing. Importance is placed on vocal presence, emphasizing that Yoruba music itself had always been rooted in being a form of communication. For example, the author gives us a tale about the traditional Nigerian practice of using trees that grew close to man-made roads to make skin drums. These trees, being in proximity to passing people, were thought to have overheard much of human communication, and were thus the only truly suitable materials with which to craft drums, as it was believed that they could closely reproduce human language (p.5). These drums became, in a sense, repositories of a language for Africans. They are associated with the aesthetic and religious deities of native Yoruba religion, creating a relationship that is not only functional, but spiritual, adding to their “cultural addiction of talking through musical instruments.”

Throughout Afrobeat, Olorunyomi points out the underlying philosophy and ideology that influenced Fela’s own “Felasophy”, most notably, the works of Frantz Fanon, an Algerian revolutionist whose post-colonial and critical theories helped shape both Fela’s societal views and musicianship. Fanon, a luminary figure in his own right, inspired Fela’s activism through his theories on race, violence, oppression, and the struggle for a national liberated state.  Fela’s Nigeria was situated similarly to Fanon’s Algeria; both nations echoing a social history wrought with government corruption, pre-bendalism, and the shrinking of a public sphere.

It is in this atmosphere that Fela created his initial phase of Afrobeat, first as a reformer and later evolving Afrobeat into a musical style that subverted the rules and restrictions set forth by the ruling government. In essence, Fela conforms to Fanon’s theory of the “three stages of native intellectual”, in which the first phase consists of the native’s acceptance of and assimilation into the over-ruling colonial power (a blind embrace). The second phase consists of the native’s realization of his oppression which incurs a “romantic retreat into a native cocoon”; a re-embracing of the traditions of a pre-colonial era and native society. The third and last stage is the native critically reassessing his current national society and engaging and inciting his indigenous group to help undermine it (p.44).

Musically, Olorunyomi points out that this is exactly how Fela’s Afrobeat develops and progresses. The beginning phase of Afrobeat, as pointed out by the author, shows Fela’s music within the framework of high African-American Jazz (p.44). Applying Fanon’s second phase to Fela’s Afrobeat unveils Fela highlighting the authentic native with songs like Keep Nigeria One, etc. It isn’t until Fela is in the grips of the third stage of the native intellectual that we see him aggressively move to capsize the ideology of the ruling class through changes in his song texts. For example, his song Zombie, which was written in direct counterpoint to the Nigerian government’s military tactics and which speaks to their military’s automated and mindless sense of duty, encompasses the height of Afrobeat elements; being vibrant, jazzy, funky and yet sung in pidgin for accessibility. The Zombie album and song was a revolutionary success as well as a confrontational message to the ruling class. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the reaction of the military was one that did not favor the song’s strong message. Reactively, the military burned down Fela’s Kalakuta Republic, pillaged his commune and raped the women living there, among other horrors.

Olorunyomi goes on to describe and explain the social and cultural context in which Afrobeat evolves as well as the more technical aspects of the music’s construction, including call and response techniques, theme and meaning behind Fela’s songs. He writes on about Fela’s re-adoption of Yoruba spirituality and its incorporation at the Afrika Shrine. The retreat to a native religion enabled Fela to once again undermine what the majority of Nigerians practiced during his time, Christianity, and it allowed Fela to employ native Yoruban musical techniques as well as Yoruban meanings to his songs.

Finally in the last chapters, Olorunyomi addresses the concept of alternity. We find that Fela learns to live within the limitations set upon him by creating a commune, emphasizing humanism, and the ideologies of a republic, all ideas opposed by a government which did not want to lose its power to the people. Olorunyomi then describes the performances and fandom that were part of Fela’s influence. He goes in-depth to explain the different levels of fans and their loyalties to Fela’s music. These various groups, Olorunyomi believes, formulate bonding experiences, collectively creating resistance groups in the face of an opposing class as well as continuity of Fela’s legacy.

Overall, at the end of Olorunyomi’s narrative, we learn that, “as conceived by Fela, Afrobeat is primarily a cultural and political musical practice – better still, aesthetics of cultural politics” (p.173). As with other forms of revolutionist musical styles, and in accordance with Fanon’s theories, Fela’s Afrobeat continues to speak to people on a variety of levels, enlightening them with personal truths and realizations and engaging them in a discourse of the power of music as a weapon.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent

  1. Pingback: Been a long time since I rock and rolled… « Ugly Bass Face

  2. Pingback: Musical Assault!!! | ontheshelves

  3. Pingback: Musical Assault!!! « Ugly Bass Face

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