FELA'S CHILDREN 


;

;In a current TV ad campaign promoting downloadable music for your cell phone, regular folks cut impromptu rugs to the latest pop hits. In one spot, a doughy middle manager frantically emulates the fluid hips of Colombian pop sensation Shakira, broken out of his workaday spell by the hitching rhythms of her hit duet with Wyclef. A different clip features a college student who transforms a drab department-store changing room into her personal dance floor with the help of Nelly Furtado and Timbaland's incalculably catchy jam, "Promiscuous." The track's booming percussion is laced repeatedly with silvery ribbons of synthesizer as Furtado and Tim exchange lines. She hits moves right along with them, turning her 4-foot-by-5-foot square into the ultimate VIP-room party. Her shoulders go vertical, and her hips don't lie.

;

;Nobody's cell phone has a speaker that powerful. But besides the latest download fun, what the ads are really selling is joy. Pure, unadulterated, beat-supported joy, available in an instant, whenever you want it. No time-release here, no waiting for the right moment to get it on. It's rhythm, and, well, it's going to get you.

;

;That's a notion Fela Kuti knew well. In the early 1970s, working from contemporary African musical forms like highlife and juju and under the influence of American jazz, funk and soul — particularly James Brown — Kuti developed the striking, all-encompassing sound known as Afrobeat. As much a musical movement as a political one, Fela's music buttressed its busy, lengthy arrangements of interlocking polyrhythms and blazing horns with fervently nationalistic lyrics that railed against the rampant corruption in Nigeria's halls of power. Fela's rallying political views endeared him to the Nigerian underclass, but he was also a real live pop star — mercurial, charismatic and fueled by a seemingly insatiable machismo, he was a hero onstage. Conceived of and led by Fela, and transmitted through the inescapable rhythms of his band, Afrobeat became a true cultural movement and transformed Kuti into a rebel visionary.

;

;Afrobeat's roiling grooves were impossible to ignore. When Fela and his band Africa 70 released Zombie in 1977, its indictment of the blind followers of the Nigerian government's policies made it an anthem in Lagos, Nigeria. But its syncopated brass retorts and Tony Allen's percolating, brilliantly funky drumming ricocheted through the music world, influencing Western acts too. How could it not? Classic cuts like "Zombie," "Water No Get Enemy," "Gentleman" and "Expensive Shit" — all from a hot streak that lasted throughout most of the 1970s — envelop you in a sweltering blanket of rhythm. Put them on the turntable, and it's as if the bandleader himself poured cold milk down your back and handed you a tambourine.

;;Like that doughy guy in the cell phone ad, you can't help but slip a backbone. Neither could the musicians listening in his era. Fela's legacy burns all over, from the music of German avant-gardists Can (the blurting horns and muddled underpinnings in 1976's Unlimited Edition) to the gristly funk of Kool & the Gang's 1973 album Wild and Peaceful ("Hollywooooood swinging!") and the 1980 Talking Heads classic Remain in Light, with "Crosseyed and Painless" and "Born Under Punches (the Heat Goes On)."

;

;Today, contemporary pop music regularly embraces the same hybridism that informed Afrobeat, whether it's Wyclef and Shakira weaving Caribbean and Colombian rhythms together for "Hips Don't Lie" or Timbaland's consistent use of left-field production elements to craft his hit-making string of hip-hop bomb tracks. A portion of Afrobeat's global appeal rests on Fela's legacy as a showman and visionary, but in its syncopated heart, the music includes you — wherever you're from.

;

;Fela Kuti died in 1997, but almost immediately there were musicians ready to shoulder his legacy. Fela's son Femi Kuti has upheld his father's sound and vision, performing a streamlined version of Afrobeat and fighting for social justice. He believes Afrobeat's very nature as an uplifting force is threatened by governmental apathy toward change. "People ask me, do I like the American government?" he told an NPR interviewer in 2005. "I'll be straightforward with you — no. Because they have the power to solve the problems of the world today, and they aren't doing it. It's a problem for every individual, even the artist. Because then we can't even play good music. Life is killed. The joy of life is killed."

;

;The struggle for equality continues. In addition to the activism of artists like Femi and New York City's Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, who infuse their purist sound with similar social aims, many contemporary Afrobeat groups — including Orlando's Umöja — are sprawling musical collectives that draw members from many ethnic backgrounds and musical genres. Jazz, funk and soul musicians, certainly, but also punk-rock rhythm sections and indie music devotees.

;

;They've found something inviting in Afrobeat's enveloping rhythms, something more real than any of the increasingly slivered subgenres of contemporary music, because Afrobeat's singular aims — to make you move, think and sweat — aren't products of demographic research. That makes the music even more rewarding to perform.

;

;Afrobeat will always sway the true believers, the listeners who remember that Fela's music was about struggle as much as it was about sweat. But over the past few years, there's been a consistent interest in old Afrobeat sides from music nerds normally obsessed with the latest Scandinavian songbird or underground metal band. There's a collector's angle — often pressed in limited quantities or barely released at all, Fela's recorded output is valuable even when it's mildewed or dog-eared. It's undeniable that these new listeners are uncovering intangibles similar to the musicians performing Afrobeat today. From both sides of the microphone, participation in Afrobeat's groove has become another form of activism.

music@orlandoweekly.com

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Calendar

© 2016 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation