- Fri, 2012-06-08 10:20
Over the last month, I have been delving back into my afrobeat collection (it went especially well with the recent bout of nice weather) and I thought that this was as good a subject for my opening post here as anything else. Having suffered from a debilitating bout of phone theft, I went crawling back to my iPod. Resigned to the back of a drawer, its dusty click wheel outdated like the rotary dial on a bakelite phone, it whirred as I coaxed it back to life. There waiting for me on the screen was my entire afrobeat catalogue. Hundreds upon hundreds of tracks. One glorious thing about the genre is that it fills the ‘Artist’ section of your library with a plethora of fantastic names. How could Orlando Julius & His Modern Aces not make you smile? I may have lost my beloved phone, but now I was packing a pocket full of dynamite.
It’s not something I have always felt so favourably about, though. I’ve only really been a fan for the last five or so years. It often falls under the uselessly vague blanket term of ‘world music’, which I think still puts a lot of people off. It doesn’t help that afrobeat itself is not the most strictly defined of genres - made up of elements of highlife, funk, Jùjú, Yoruba music and jazz, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what afrobeat is. I think it’s a term that has become diluted, and that afrobeat is really the music pioneered by Fela Kuti and Tony Allen in Nigeria, whilst a lot of other genres have been crowded under the same umbrella (especially in Europe by labels and audiences) over the years.
My path to the heart of afrobeat was through Joe Tangari’s Africa 100, which for me is the indispensable afrobeat compilation. Put together in 2005, it is the perfect introduction to all facets of the music. From the straight-up James Brown funk rips, through the psychedelic organ jams, loose jazz and 70’s cop show soundtracks, to the percussive, tribal and ceremonial carnival dances, it’s a thorough journey through all that has been grouped under ‘afrobeat’ and most usefully demonstrates the diversity of the influences that allow the music to be so broad and vital. It may be a daunting tracklist to look at, but for me it was an essential, information-rich textbook as my relationship with the music grew.
It would be foolish not to mention Paul Simon’s Graceland. Not only is it a constant favourite of mine, but it was also the only contact I had with African music for a long time. As with many other people, it offered me a way into the style and traditions of South African music, whilst still containing enough familiar western popular music that it didn’t feel daunting. Looking back, it surprises me that I didn’t look into the inspiration for Graceland earlier, having known the album since a young age. The Next Stop... Soweto compilation series on the excellent Strut (their recent catalogue also includes Fela Kuti live in Detroit 1986 and several Ebo Taylor records) is well worth exploring, and a great place to start for fans of Graceland unacquainted with its genealogy.
I think it’s fair to say that Simon more than borrowed quite a lot of the music on Graceland. Listening to many compilations over the years, tracks sometimes pop up that just sound like instrumental versions of his songs, and indeed there have been controversies (see ‘Further Reading’ below). As with other things in life, though, I can forgive Graceland these alleged misdemeanours because it’s just so damned beautiful.
This is not a history of afrobeat - I’ve not even touched on the socio-economic or political landscapes that facilitated most of the best examples, and I’ve mentioned Fela Kuti once (akin to an article about the New Testament barely referencing Jesus). I have also managed to leave out Remain In Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, two albums which channel a lot of the spirit of afrobeat and that I love dearly. I suppose it’s more a remembrance of my romance with the genre. It is a truly joyous form of music, fit for dancing, relaxing and escaping, and if you have not yet discovered it I cannot encourage you to do so enough. Just make sure your mind is open.
Fela Kuti - Zombie Spotify, YouTube
Melotone Sisters & Amaqola Ban - I Sivenoe Spotify, Web
Mahotella Queens - Wozani Mahipi Spotify, YouTube
Paul Simon - Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes - Unreleased Version Spotify, YouTube
Red Bull Music Academy Lecture Podcast: Tony Allen (Toronto 2007) Soundcloud
Africa 100 - The Indestructible Beat by Joe Tangari, 2005
Rhymin' Simon: Not Welcome in East L.A. (Original interview by Scott Caffrey, 2006)
‘He was in a godlike state’ - Fela Kuti by Alex Hannaford, 2007
This reminded me of a stage manager I once worked with who, after I put on Fela Kuti, expressed his disgust by saying “I hate all of this stuff.” When I asked him what he meant by ‘this stuff’ he said “You know, ‘worldy’ stuff. Percussion.”
Parallels can be drawn with Radiohead, who combine left-field music with more traditional rock sensibilities (maybe most notably on the electronic, Warp-inspired Kid A) in a setting where people feel comfortable enough to process it. I’ve always felt that a less followed and trusted artist would have had far more trouble succeeding.