From Lagos to Brooklyn, the afrobeat goes on
Fela's ground-shaking influence didn't end with his death in 1997. His creative spirit continues to infuse music not just in the Afrobeat genre but also in the folk, jazz, rock, hip-hop, funk, and dance/DJ realms. Listeners seeking echoes of Fela can look in several places.
Fela's eldest son, Femi Kuti, is seen by some as the heir to his father's mantle, but it's not clear he wants to carry the burden. Not as confrontational or hedonistic as Fela -- how could anyone be? -- Femi still gamely plies his own brand of socially conscious Afrobeat. He's more pop oriented than his dad, offering up some songs as club-ready dance remixes. His political lyrics, though, can be simplistic, and his music sometimes lacks urgency and dynamics.
Another Nigerian artist, Lagbaja, has emerged as a contender for a share of Fela's legacy. This singer, saxophone player, and bandleader, who wears Yoruba-inspired masks to symbolize the facelessness of the average African, is also no Afrobeat purist, throwing in stateside jazz, funk, and pop touches and singing in English as well as Yoruba and pidgin. Fela's spirit is said to loom large at Lagbaja's monthly gigs at the Motherlan' club in Lagos.
One of the best Fela-fueled bands hails not from Africa but from Brooklyn, New York: the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. With 14 core members and a shifting cast of extras, Antibalas is a multiethnic collective so strongly informed by Fela's ideas that it's been tagged by some as a mere tribute band. But the Antibalas musicians are way better than that: They revel in their home city's melting-pot aesthetic, borrowing from various Latin and African musics and singing in English, Spanish, and Yoruba. Their newest album, Who Is This America? (Ropeadope), is an intoxicating blend of Sun Ra-style space jams, political chants, Latin big-band touches, even a 19-minute celebration of the female gender (which the womanizing Fela might not have come up with).
Songs by Femi Kuti, Lagbaja, and Antibalas can all be heard on a compilation album released in 2000, Afrobeat . . . No Go Die (Shanachie). The disc is a fine but limited sampler of contemporary Afrobeat and the music of the Fela diaspora, including his former drummer, Tony Allen, and his former backup band, Egypt 80.
Another two-CD compilation, Afrobeat Sessions (Union Square Music), features Fela, Femi, and Antibalas, but then gets less predictable. On disc one, artists including British DJ Fatboy Slim, rapper Common, Senegalese star Baaba Maal, and South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela deliver current twists on Afrobeat themes. The second disc dips back into African artists of the '70s -- Fela's contemporaries in juju, highlife, and other genres -- and unearths some amazing nuggets.
Where else to find fragments of Fela? His ideas and musical motifs have been mined by funkster James Brown, jazzmen Archie Shepp and Lester Bowie, pop star David Byrne, guitarist Carlos Santana, superproducer Brian Eno, and rappers Mos Def and Dead Prez, among others. As Fela's legend continues to reverberate, the circle of creative admirers seems certain to keep widening.
Keith Goetzman is an Utne contributing editor.