Funky Drummers and Orchestral Masterminds


I’m an old-school fool who’ll steal a 45 (that’s a record, son) over a compact disc any night of the week, but when labels push lushly packaged CD compilations encompassing dope, hard-to-find original albums, I can only say, “Um, pretty please?” Such is the case with a long-overdue duo of two-CD sets that illuminate two master musicians who to this day continue to mess up genres and make music.

Years before Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his Afrika 70 juggernaut attained iconic status trailblazing Afrobeat throughout Lagos and the world (raising all sorts of hell in the process), another sax-playing Nigerian bandleader was already forging his own brand of booty-bouncin’ Afropop. True, here in the U.S., Orlando Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode is no household name (firstly, you’d need a sizable house), but to crate-diggers worldwide he has long been worth getting all dusty-fingered over. Julius began churning out breakbeat-laden singles in the early ’60s with his 10-piece band, the Modern Aces, and when in 1966 they birthed their first long-player, Super Afro Soul, he demonstrated his uncanny skills at bridging the Atlantic by mashing Latin percussion, high-life guitars, r&b horns, and a nascent funk attack—all particularly showcased on “Ijo Soul,” a song strikingly similar to James Brown’s mega-hit “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Which came first? Sorry, do your own homework.

Residing in Ibadan, Orlando used his orchestral prowess to attract musicians from all over, including one trumpet-wielding Fela Kuti. Fela, freshly returned from London and looking to get his own mojo working, frequently sat in, soaked up Julius’s juice, soon traded trumpet for sax, “borrowed” a few Modern Aces, and formed the Koola Lobitos, the band that would hammer out the sonic blueprint for Afrobeat before Fela’s infamous Afrika 70 officially catapulted it. This reissue seeks to steal a bit of that original mojo back; a second disc, subtitled Orlando’s Afro Ideas 1969-72, adds select tracks from Julius’s three subsequent albums.

Afrobeat, of course, would be nothing without its furiously distinct beat, and this beat would be nothing without its father, longtime Kuti cohort Tony Oladipo Allen. An octopus-like polyrhythmic machine, Allen was to Fela and Afrobeat what Melvin Parker/Jabo Starks/Clyde Stubblefield were to James Brown and funk: These drummers simply deepened and changed the pocket of popular music forever. Unlike JB’s funky drum corps, however, Allen (who had helped Kuti jump-start the aforementioned Koola Lobitos) successfully grabbed the spotlight by securing his own record deal, releasing four solo LPs from 1975 to ’79, the first three (Jealousy, Progress, and No Accommodation for Lagos) utilizing Fela as co-producer and sideman, the last (No Discrimination) self-produced with his own band, the Afro Messengers.

All four records are lovingly presented here. Because they’re mostly instrumental and lack Fela’s agitprop lyrics, Allen’s efforts were often dismissed by detractors as “Afrobeat-lite.” (Oh, you don’t like “Funky Drummer,” either? Okaaay.) But Fela’s obvious aesthetic—like Mr. Brown’s in all JB side projects—permeates each “song.” And the drumming? Well, one can only agree with Kuti’s proclamation that “Tony Allen sounds like five drummers at once,” able to paint the rhythms of juju, highlife, jazz, soul, and funk onto one glorious Afrobeat canvas.