A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

FELA LIVES : A Beat Grows in Brooklyn
By Olayinka Fadahunsi
Images from a Fela Kuti documentary recorded sometime in the early 1980s flicker and flash across the screens of monitors fixed into the ceiling of Shine, a nightclub in lower Manhattan. The videos soundtrack has been switched off, but the cacophony of drums, horns and Pidgin English booming out of the clubs speakers provides a suitable soundtrack.

Couples composed of every class, complexion, and sexual permutation that defines New York City, sweat, sway and skank to DJ Rich Medina's medley of Fela's greatest hits. Shakara dissolves into Lady, and the audience, most of whom were not yet born when Kuti released the records between 1970 and 1972, sings along in unison, perfectly imitating his gruff, Lagosian Pidgin English and Yoruba lyrics, blissfully oblivious to their meaning.

Many of them have come to know and love his music through this monthly party, called 'Jump N Funk', although a minority began to develop their appreciation of his work long before or shortly following his untimely death in August 1997. Some are hearing his denunciations of the Nigerian military government, worldwide racism, and African self-hatred for the first time. All are dancing to this hypnotic combination of continental percussion and American attitude. Afrobeat music has arrived in the Big Apple, and the natives have fallen for it in a big way.

Afrobeat first touched down on the shores of New York decades ago when Fela re-circulated his soul and funk-influenced highlife-jazz back to the United States through his sporadic tours. However, it is in Brooklyn that the music has recently sprouted roots and inspired a slew of new orchestrasto borrow a popular term for an afrobeat ensembleto mix up their own peculiar brew of brass instruments, African percussion and funky keyboards.

Following the wave of fawning obituaries that accompanied his death in 1997, Fela's music began to develop a hip patina among a new generation too young to have seen him play on tours in the early 1980s and 1990s, and not familiar enough with his then-scarce records. This community coalesced around the urban bohemia of Fort Greene, where Internet bubble-derived wealth and libertine philosophies had created a blossoming racial utopia in north Brooklyn.

"You had a lot of restaurants popping up in the neighborhood at that time, and the racial mix around there was really varied. These restaurants, especially places like Lucian Blue, would play afrobeat during early Saturday brunch," says Cynthia Nakpodia, a Nigerian musician and well-known personality within the close-knit community. "That's when I started seeing the genre's possibilities." Other fans of Fela, also sensing the growing public interest in the genre, began to play live afrobeat music at jam sessions around New York. The most significant group to emerge from this experimental cauldron was a crew known as Antibalas.

Born out of the collision between two older afrobeat groups, the Daktaris and the Soul Providers, Antibalas (Spanish for bulletproof) is the definitive band around which the New York afrobeat community appears to revolve. Saxophonist Martin Perna (who occasionally uses the surname Antibalas) formed the group in the summer of 1998, after several years of playing session music for releases on a New York-based independent label.

"I got turned on to afrobeat by some other musicians I was playing with when I was doing these sessions for Desco Records in the mid-90s, said Perna in a recent interview with the Boston Herald. (We played) original music, drawing on the traditions of American funk and James Brown and Dyke and the Blazers, (but) I wanted to play afrobeat, and I had the vision to put together a 14- or 15-piece group."

The groups unswerving devotion to Fela's music and anti-establishment philosophy permeated their regular Thursday night events called Africalia!, and billed then as Americas only live afrobeat party. It also made their debut album Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1" something of an alternative-music curio and magnet for New Yorks highest arbiters of cool. Through their relentless national tours and constant performances in the New York area, Antibalas spurred another set of Fela fans to try their hand at following in the masters musical footsteps. One of the most promising groups from this new crop is the Chinatown-based collective Kokolo.

Ray Lugo, founder and leader of the 10-member ensemble, discovered afrobeat relatively early, but he was initially unimpressed. The first time I heard Fela's Black Mans Cry was in 1986, and at that time I really was not into it. The song sounded too long to me then, said Lugo, who felt more comfortable with the aggressive new sounds of hardcore punk and hip-hop prevalent in his Lower East Side neighborhood. Sometimes you have to resist music and take a second listen to it down the road. It was ten years later in 1996 when I started playing some old music I had lying around that I really gave Fela my attention.

Around the same time, Lugo began to feel disenchanted by punk rock's stifling boundaries. Contemporary punk was thematically stagnant. Afrobeat has a lot more dexterity and scope, he said. As a result of his close friendship with Gabriel Roth, a co-founder of the afore-mentioned Desco Records, Lugo had become familiar with Antibalas. Hooking up with the United Kingdom-based Afrokings label, who were deeply involved in a burgeoning afrobeat scene in London, Kokolo released their own well-received debut in October 2002 entitled Fuss and Fight.

Creating what has been described as a more accessible brand of afrobeat, Kokolos debut deviated farther from orthodox afrobeat than any of the albums coming out of the New York scene. Their inventive reinterpretation of the genre inspired collaborations with other New York-area artists who were also seeking new ways to play the sound that Fela built. Chief among this new crop is the all-female group The Femm Nameless, lead by founder and lead singer Toli Nameless.

Nameless is an anomaly in the afrobeat world, due both to her gender and her relatively late introduction to the genre. She represents the generation that discovered afrobeat through the works of Felas admirers, and not directly from Abami Eda himself. After stumbling upon an Antibalas set while playing with the self-described punk-mambo-hardcore-juju band Babalou, Nameless became an afrobeat disciple, learning about the music through further encounters with Antibalas. After leaving Babalou and moving to New York to attend the New School University, Nameless found herself attending the Africalia! parties at No Moore and was soon singing on Antibalas tracks. Martin (Perna) especially encouraged me to sing, and the whole band sort of embraced me and gave me the courage to play shekere (editors note: a Yoruba instrument), said Nameless. Thats when I really started feeling that I had something unique to contribute to this type of music.

After deciding to form her own group Nameless says membership was restricted to women in order to create a more female-friendly creative atmosphere. She set out to redefine the boundaries of the genre by disregarding much of the established instrumental afrobeat tradition. Reflecting this spirit of experimentation, Femm Nameless call their music afro one world beat, alluding to the unique and transformative contributions of the groups multi-ethnic members. At the beginning, it was also so new to me that I wasn't concerned about maintaining (tradition), said Nameless. Afro one world beat is our own personal forum following our set of directions. Its not that we can't sound (like Fela), but we have no intention to do whats been done.

The performer (and this issues cover model) Wunmi, whose self-described 'afro-fusion' sound draws heavy inspiration from Felas music, also says she is hesitant to classify her work as straight-no-chaser afrobeat for many of the same reasons. Everyone should contribute something new to this style, said Wunmi. She also expressed the hesitation felt by many Africans who question the sincerity and authenticity of his new disciples. "I just pray that its not a fad, that it's not like Black history month where people treat African clothes like a costume to be worn and taken off at their leisure." Born in London but partially raised in Nigeria by a well-known musical family, Wunmi is one of the rare musicians in New York afrobeat circles that grew up listening to Fela. I grew up in Nigeria between the ages of 4 and 14, and I was fully aware of Felas music. "If you wanted to be a rebel, you had to listen to Fela," said Wunmi.She never got the chance to visit Fela's infamous Shrine club in Surulere. "By the time I was old enough, I had moved to London," said Wunmi. However, her early exposure went a long way in shaping her musical ethos and personal philosophy. Wunmi soon became a well-known fixture of the London club scene, earning a spot as a dancer with Brixtons world-famous Soul II Soul collective. After the group disbanded, she decided to focus on making her own music, and has since made cameo appearances on releases from jazz legends Roy Ayers and Ornette Coleman, as well as Black rock pioneer Vernon Reid. Her recent collaborations with house music producers Masters At Work (MAW Expensive) and Bugz In The Attic (Zombie Part One) are both reworked tributes to the late master, featuring her unique talent for blending Felas organic funk with bleeding-edge electronic dance music.

This vanguard of afrobeat artists all represent a growing awareness of the genre in American popular culture, and elements of afrobeat have already found their way into mainstream releases. After years of planning and recording, the Red Hot AIDS activism organization recently released its tribute to Fela, entitled Red, Hot & Riot, to great critical and modest commercial success. Femi, scion of the genres founder, was nominated for a World Music Grammy for his album Fight To Win, which featured cameos by rappers Common and Mos Def.

Nor is afrobeat relegated to an ultra-hip cognoscenti. The popular New York rapper Nas peppered the track Warriors Song on his latest hit album Gods Son with a Fela sample. The New Museum for Contemporary Art has also added a new exhibit entitled Black President to its summer calendar. Curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, one of the founders of the Jump N Funk parties, the exhibit is a multimedia homage to the myth and reality of Fela. Planned for the exhibition are photographs, Fela-inspired artwork, music and video archives of Fela in concert, ensuring that new groups of New Yorkers will continue to discover the hypnotic sound of afrobeat.