In the face and cultural threat of the new definition AFROBEATS, it is necessary and urgent to reclaim the original nomenclature of AFROBEAT. In this age of social media and free self-expression, we run the risk of re-branding by people who don’t know and understand; aided by gullible bandwagon followers [zombies, as Fela rightly identified their type] to wake up and simplistically rebrand long-existing norms just for their convenience. Truth be told, just to cover up their ignorance!
Now, what’s with this terminology Afrobeats?
There is only one beat and that is AFRO-BEAT; defined and described by the learned and schooled African musicians who invented this very unique genre of world music. The elite group of African musical innovators who crafted and permanently defined this very unique genre of AFROBEAT include African master musicians like Fela, Peter King [African Dialects], Manu Dibango et.al and, their very many students and followers all across Africa – Osibisa, Monomono, Orchestra Polyrhythmo [Republic of Benin], Salif Keita [Mali] and our own Ayetoro – Funsho Ogundipe, to name just a few.
“For me, the anthem of Fela’s AFROBEAT is the
proverbial tune Je nwi temi”
The rather simple musical point being made here is best illustrated by Highlife music; a genre of contemporary popular music peculiar to West Africa and, from which Afrobeat eventually evolved. There were and still are various flavours of Highlife – Ghana Highlife and, as the late great Nigerian musicologist Steve Rhodes pointed out, different and ethnic flavours of Highlife in Nigeria – Rivers-Ijaw/Rex Lawson, Ibo/E.C. Arinze, Celestine, Osadebe, Yoruba/Victor Olaiya, Akinsanya, Orlando Owoh, Efik/Iyang Henshaw, Williams and Edo/Victor Uwaifo, Joseph.
The point is, from E.T. Mensah, Ramblers, Stargazers etc in Ghana to all the Nigerian musicians mentioned above, and including Crossdale Juba, Jenewari, Eric Akaeze, Eddie Okonta and many more, they all played Highlife not Highlifes! There is a similar seminal and common rhythmic thread that runs through ALL Highlife music.
There is the same rhythmic pattern and beat that runs through Highlife music just as there is the same BEAT that runs through ALL AFROBEAT MUSIC. There is therefore no such thing as AFROBEATS MUSIC.
To understand and appreciate African music, it is imperative to wholly accept that African music, from its traditional form to its more contemporary popular forms like Highlife and Afrobeat is hinged on RHYTHMS, DRUMS and THE BEAT.
Africans have always been masters of rhythms and the beat and have always spoken the language of rhythms in music through the drums. And so, the greatest gift Africa has given to world popular music are rhythms and the beat via drums.
This is manifest in African-American music from jazz, rhythm and blues to rap and hip pop. Interestingly, it is these genres of African-American music that have totally influenced and shaped global contemporary popular music and ironically, Nigerian popular music.
It is therefore no surprise that recently Peter King in my documentary film on him-Peter King : AfroJazz Pioneer, stated that, “the only good thing about Slavery, is that it took African rhythms to America, the West Indies and Brazil.” Many decades earlier Sonny Okosuns of Ozzidi fame, emphatically declared that the rhythms in West Indian reggae music, have their roots in Nigeria.
Now, what is this BEAT in AFROBEAT?
To begin with, it must be unquestionably accepted and appreciated that Fela’s AfroBEAT is a balanced collaboration between Fela the genius arranger-cum-composer and Tony Allen the master trap drummer who marshalled and anchored the rhythms provided by Henry Koffi’s three-membrane drums, the conga drum, the pronounced 4/4 rhythm of the wood clave, the shekere, the bass guitar, the rhythm guitar and multiple horn riffs to achieve THE BEAT or the pulse which essentially was the heartbeat of Fela’s Afro-BEAT music!
To better understand why these two musical giants were able to achieve this eureka of the Afrobeat-pulse-rhythm-sound, it is essential to x-ray their musical backgrounds and ambitions.
Fela, an extremely talented and well-trained-and-versed musician, had dabbled with Highlife-Jazz and, as a keen researcher and cultural sponge, was well aware of textural rhythms of gongs as in Urhobo and Yoruba folk music, as well as the rhythmic innovations Rex Lawson introduced into Highlife music with the use of two guitars and the stand-out indigenous three-membrane drum -with its roots in Rivers state- that traditionally directed and choreographed the movements and dancing steps of masquerades.
Tony Allen is an exceptional and naturally gifted trap drummer, with the extraordinary ability as from the sixties to be a pulse-4/4 jazz drummer; a very rare breed of jazz drummer, capable in Sun Ra’s words, of achieving the distinctive “shuffle beat,” in jazz. Hence Fela as the CEO of the music and Tony Allen as the Executive Director of rhythms were able to create the novel, now global, musical genre of AFROBEAT.
Fela’s enormous contribution to world contemporary popular music is best and fully appreciated listening to his recordings. For me, the anthem of Fela’s AFROBEAT is the proverbial tune Je nwi temi [Let me say my own/Make I talk my own], on his London 1971 live-studio recording featuring his friend and ‘great white hope’ of pop-jazz drumming Ginger Baker in addition to Tony Allen.
This album is Fela’s first master class in rhythms, rhythmic textures and flavours; membrane drums, gongs/cow bells, claves, shekere. Musical genius and rascal that he was, Fela in one fell swoop on this album, demystified and debunked Ginger Baker’s status as the world’s top pop-jazz drummer and firmly established [for the record] Tony Allen as the new king.
Fifty years on, in March 2020, Tony Allen recalled the experience. “I just let him play his way. I steadied the music, so he could do anything he wanted. If I’m not there, Ginger Baker cannot play with Fela. If it’s Ginger Baker alone backing Fela’s music, it won’t work.” Straight from the innovator and master Afrobeat trap-drummer himself.
Allen joined Fela’s Koola Lobitos band [the Highlife-Jazz phase] in the mid-60s and, was a founding member in 1969, as musical director, of Fela’s legendary Africa ’70 band that evolved the unique music genre of Afrobeat. He quit in 1978.
My favourite ‘golden age’ recordings of Fela’s Afrobeat music, is from the seventies when the band was still fresh, very tight, bubbling with energy, pumping and with Fela displaying his great skills as a composer, arranger and band leader.
By now everybody in the band had settled in and, the band was cohesive enough to play a medley of instrumental versions of Fela’s old, evergreen and new compositions for hours. It was an opportunity for Fela’s anchor horn man tenor saxophonist Igo Chiko, to exhibit his amazing soloing skills as heard on recordings.
Shakara, with its expansive ensemble tonal colours, uplifting horn riffs, Igo Chiko’s sizzling tenor saxophone, the dramatic rhythm breaks; all brilliantly coordinated by Fela’s call-and-answer rhythmic chord changes on the electric organ is simply sublime. Lady and Gentleman are also classics that confirm Fela’s creative ascendancy in his pursuit to permanently establish the musical fact that Afrobeat is about sound and rhythm TEXTURES.
As in jazz in which you have ballads and slow mood-tunes, Fela’s Afrobeat also has mood-reflective compositions such as Palava, Water No Get Enemy, Go Slow, He Miss Road, Oro Re O, Na Poi, to name some.
Fela’s death threw Afrobeat music into a spin. At the peak of his career, he was deservedly proclaimed as The King of Afrobeat and The Chief Priest of Afrobeat. However, after his death many uncomfortable questions arose. Where was his kingdom? Where were his musical disciples and the followers of his Afrobeat religion?
By contrast, in Jamaica, hundreds of bands still play Reggae music. The few Afrobeat bands that emerged were either led by his children or clones who sadly but truly don’t have the talent nor the musical ability to have moved Afrobeat further musically.
Many decades after his death some of the current superstars on the Nigerian pop music scene, appropriate snatches of Afrobeat music and adopt Fela-like socio-political lyrics and swagger to enhance their show business value.
The question about why many Nigerian bands are not playing Afrobeat music as against the hundreds of bands who still play Highlife music should be reserved for another discourse!
- TAM FIOFORI, March 2020.
This article is dedicated to Manu Dibango who just died.
Tam Fiofori has been writing about music since the mid-sixties and has been published in the leading music and arts magazines, journals and newspapers in the U. S. A, Britain, Europe, Japan, Nigeria and Africa. He was the first New Music/Electronic Music Editor of DownBeat magazine in 1970. He has been a Recording Engineer. His book Sun Ra Space Music Myth will be published in 2020 and his feature documentary film Peter King AfroJazz Pioneer will be released in 2021.