Home of the Brave

Westernizing Anglophone West Africa

Insofar as it uses electric instruments or horns, all African popular music is, to use the strange Orientalist term, Westernized. Afrobeat, however, took Westernization to new spiritual heights. The style invented and still dominated by the late Fela Kuti is easily the most convincing Afropop fusion. From South African disco to Sahel New Age, eager-to-please African imitator-emulators are so unhip and unschooled they barely achieve competence; the singularity of Alpha Blondy and Orchestra Baobab only points up the dullness of Lucky Dube and Africando. But Fela was no imitator, and few artists anywhere have been less inclined to kiss ass.

As an arty young Nigerian who'd gone to music college and led a highlife band on saxophone, Fela got into Black Power and then pan-Africanism via an American girlfriend in L.A. in 1969, where he cut some sides that sound more like James Brown than the sides he cut when he got back to Lagos. But granted, after Brown toured West Africa a year later there were plenty of exceptions (Fela's first big Lagos hit, "Jeun K'oko," was very JB, especially its tricky horn chart), and in general, Fela's relationship to Brown is murkier than you might think—dig around a little and you can find him described as a rebel against the Godfather as well as, absurdly, his "disciple." Since there have been many James Browns, this basically means that Fela didn't like the way soul overran Nigeria but did hear the Africa in funk, interpreted loosely as long groove songs emphasizing forward motion more than offbeats and other rhythmic contradictions. Afrobeat as he developed it, which happened well after he'd named it, combined such Brownian elements as chicken-scratch guitar with full-chorus call-and-response, minor-key melodies both African and jazzlike, and a groove that owed Yoruba percussion ensembles and his longtime trap drummer Tony Allen. Topping it off—and defining it, really—were pidgin lyrics more righteously anti-white than any in Africa beyond chimurenga and South African freedom songs.

What's most Western about Afrobeat, though, is that it's not at home in the world. It's a questing music, a discontented music, a neurotic music, and this sets it apart from all the great Afropop styles. Soukous, juju, mbaqanga, mbalax, Wassoulou, many others—with qualifications that would only distract us, all achieve a synthesis of time-honored and modern you need no grounding in the traditions it reconstitutes to feel. The affirmation they fabricate once fed off a postcolonial high, but has rarely been brought as far down as you'd expect by post-postcolonial AIDS and privation. Afrobeat was never like this. Fela was too ambitious, too defiant, too arrogant, too crazed. Issuing pronunciamentos, taunting the feds, sporting spliffs the size of stogies, he was rock, not funk. Like Jim Morrison or Grace Slick in the throes of 1968, and unlike an occasional satirist like Luambo Franco or a homiletic progressive like Youssou N'Dour, he thought his music could change the world, even constructing something meant to suggest a utopian community off its proceeds. It's because they identify with all this extra-musical stuff that Westerners form Afrobeat bands rather than mbalax bands, although it helps that Afrobeat is easier to play. Mix in some clubbies looking for the perfect beat and you have a commercially plausible premise for the boomlet in not just Afrobeat bands but Nigerian funk reissues—headed by MCA's giant Fela project, which in August 2001 catapulted from 13 titles to 28.

Having somehow processed the first half of the series, which typically puts two LPs comprising one or two songs each on a single CD, I grabbed one blind for a Sunday outing and was delighted when the title track of Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles got me all the way from the Tappan Zee to Yankee Stadium. Turns out that its jumpy 15-minute dance numbers make that CD the prize of MCA's second wave—and that, because Fela songs tend to blur together, I already knew "Roforofo Fight" from the superb, gingerly edited The Best Best of Fela Kuti. But after September 11, any quixotic thought I'd had of devoting three days to playing each new CD twice went the way of all flesh. In fact, I haven't played them all twice yet—certainly not Live in Amsterdam or the complete original "Army Arrangement" Fela hated Bill Laswell for condensing or the Roy Ayers session or the endless Ginger Baker rumble, which closes on a previously unreleased Baker-Allen duet more reminiscent of Yoruba percussion ensembles than most Westerners need. There are enough interesting things on these CDs—from early highlife dates to the avant piano on the late, dark "Underground System," plus many marginally differentiated highways to an irascible infinity—that if you owned just one you'd be glad you did. Play any Fela up against Talkatif, the second album by Antibalas, and wonder why you ever thought the best of the Afrobeat revival bands had their man's funk down, however well their imitation suffices in a vacuum. Then play Talkatif up against the bland Fight to Win, by Fela's feckless scion Femi, and ask yourself where the father's musicianship would have taken him without his rage. Not far enough.

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