In Fela’s Footsteps

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.

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