New York, NY —Nigerian Afrobeat music from the 1970's is gaining a brand new audience in New York. There are now a dozen young Afrobeat bands around town. Its creator Fela Kuti died in 1997. Judith Kampfner reports on the evolution of a new cultural icon.
Kampfner: Vivien Goldman a music writer traveled the world to see Fela Kuti perform.
Vivien Goldman: Nobody gave an interview like Fela the context was always extraordinary, once in a seedy hotel in Naples, Fela was propped up with one leg over the side of the chair, wearing these purple Y fronts, holding forth with a giant spliff, it was an unrepeatable performance, he was a one off.
Michael Veal: Fela is a great musician, people love his music and it is innovative and cutting edge and it deserves the larger hearing it is getting now. 10
Kampfner: Michael Veal recently wrote the first biography of Fela Kuti. He called it The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon. Veal, an ethnomusicologist at Yale, played saxophone with Fela's band in Lagos. He says Fela was an accomplished composer arranger and bandleader, a sophisticated African musician who's accessible to Americans.
Michael Veal: If you grew up on John Coltrane you know that sound of that modal jazz where you are emphasizing one tonal center - that minor key (music) if you grew up hearing James Brown - and he's being sampled by hip hop so its part of our soundscape - you are used to that ker chink chink scratchy guitar
(music), if you grew up hearing salsa you are used to those big horns. And that is the sound floating around New York City today.
Kampfner: Mix than with traditional West African band music and folksongs firmly at the core. And you get the unique blend that was Afrobeat.
Kampfner: Fela Ransome Kuti grew up in a prominent family in Nigeria. His first cousin is the playwright Wole Soyinka. He studied jazz and classical music in London but went home to embrace Africanism. His later politics and alternative lifestyle were not an attempt at rebellion. He'd been radicalized by his mother - a committed anticolonial activist. After he opened a nightclub in Lagos called Afrika Shrine, it became a center for critics of the military government. He made a compound for his entourage, called it a republic and himself The Black President. After he traveled to the US in 1969 he began each concert with a black power salute. He chose to sing in Yoruba and pidgin and he grew older, introduced traditional rituals into his work
Lyrics were his political weapon.
Michael Veal: Water no gets enemy - you can't survive without water - some people have interpreted those lyrics more metaphorically - water respects the flow of society, the direction. Fela was singing that the Nigerian leaders were not flowing in tandem with society's currents.
Kampfner: When Fela Kuti died in 1997, it was difficult to find most of his eighty albums in America .The music critic Vivien Goldman wrote his obituary in Rolling Stone and was concerned that he would only ever have a small cult following in this country. But a year later in New York, a group of young musicians of mixed racial and musical backgrounds put together an Afrobeat band called Antibalas.
Vivien Goldman: The first time I went to see Antibalas in this club in Tribeca, I got choked up. I never knew I would see anything like that again. I love the horns, the cross rhythms, the interplay between the voices, it's happening again maybe not in quite the same way but in a way which reflects our time and our place.
Kampfner: A packed storefront club - Antibalas is twelve musicians from a mix of racial and musical backgrounds. Duke Amayo is the only Nigerian in this musical collective. He was twelve when he first saw Fela perform and remembers Fela playing the saxophone with broken fingers. He had just come out of one of his stays in a government jail. Amayo wants Antibalas which means "bullet proof " to be a vessel to convey Fela's heroism and political struggle.
Duke Amayo: It has a lot to do with how the music itself echoes the streets of Lagos, and how you feel the environment and the pain of the people around and it got heavier and heavier over time with al the occurrences in the Nigerian political arena.
Kampfner: The music is currently being rediscovered, thanks to the release of some of the albums on a major label. Even so a DJ called Rich Medina is doing a lot to educate New York audiences at his Jump n Funk dance parties. He spins a huge collection of rare pressings of Fela records but he's not pretending to be a Fela expert.
Rich Medina: I'm not Nigerian, I'm from New Jersey, there's only a certain space I can understand
Kampfner: To bridge the credibility gap he spends time with West African immigrants in town
Rich Medina: Without research I'd be just another trendy DJ playing some chic African records.
Kampfner: In fact Medina's passion and commitment was obviously appreciated by expat West Africans who were among the crowd of 600 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. These monthly events which have been going for two years, are part of an ongoing project devised by Rich Medina and an independent art curator Trevor Schoonmaker. Its aim - to create awareness for an art exhibition about Fela's life. So far they have succeeded in getting the exhibit on at the New Museum of contemporary art. The show has broken attendance records for the downtown museum. Curator Schoonmaker commissioned young international artists to make work which reflects on Fela's life because, he says Fela has become a cult
Trevor Schoonmaker: It was his intensity and dedication that made him so ferocious, he was a charismatic attractive man - you could see all his musculature and more
Kampfner: In a life size painting there's Fela in a tailored orange suit There's a halo around his head... In the middle of his chest is an elongated heart on fire. It's in the shape of Africa bound by barbed wire. He's blocking out his face with a microphone in one hand, grabbing his crotch and holding a cigarette in the other. As well as impressions of Fela, there's a sculpture with a massive acrylic oil slick reflecting his satire songs against the petroleum industry, there's an imaginary video where worshipping fans musicians and dancers wind their way around Fela. Many of the pieces in this show, play with Fela as both icon and sexual athlete. He married 27 women and called them his Queens.
Trevor Schoonmaker: In front of us you see small cameo like oval portraits in indigo blue - drawing of each of the 27 brides and one of fela larger in center what looks like a wonderful altar piece and the sound comes form 27 speakers - each for one of the brides.
Kampfner: Fela married them all in one ceremony as a gesture of respect for the polygamy of African tradition. That's what his apologists say and among the dozen Afrobeat bands in New York, there's an all female group called Femme Nameless who adopt the make up and look of Fela's dancers.
There's a confluence of events and people - musicians, writers and visual artists promoting the complicated legacy of Fela Kuti
Trevor Schoonmaker: Fela created a community and he's still creating a community after death in New York
Kampfner: He's died of AIDS at the age of 58. Even though he mocked it as a white man's disease and wrote a song called Condom Scallywag, he is now despite himself, a focus of aids activism especially aids in Africa.
Kampfner: If we keep going, one young Afrobeat musician told me, Fela will be as big as Bob Marley. For WNYC Radio I'm Judith Kampfner
Click here to visit the New Museum on the web.
Play List for New York and Fela Kuti
Fela Kuti Coffin For Head of State
Coffin For Head of State
Fela Kuti Expensive Shit
Water Get No Enemy
Monday Morning in Lagos
John Coltrane The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions
James Brown Funk Power
Give It Up or Turnit A Loose
Rhythm and Smoke The Cuba Sessions
Cerca De Ti Chispa Y sus Complices
Prof YS and his BB Band Money No Be Sand
Rich Medina Kuti Especiale not on commercial release
Femme Nameless ESSA not on commercial release