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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Fela Kuti and beyond: a primer on afrobeat

What is afrobeat? Afrobeat is a style of music that comes from adding traditional instruments and styles with popular contemporary music. Though it’s not quite jazz and not quite funk, afrobeat includes strong elements of both along with a heavy dose of the shekere and other African instruments.  But the best part of the genre isn’t just the crossroads of cultures, but rather the way it makes you feel.  At its core, afrobeat music just makes you want to dance.

My first experience came when I decided to check out the opening band for Medeski, Martin and Wood a couple of years ago.  Their name was Antibalas, and I knew their drummer, no older than 20 or 21 at the time, had gone to my middle school.  

I braved the biggest snowstorm New York City had seen in years—child’s play compared to Wisconsin, but there was still a lot of snow—and squeezed my way up to the rail.  What came next was something of an epiphany: 45 minutes of perfect grooves, and almost a dozen people on stage having the time of their lives.

After the show was over, I got a chance to talk to the drummer, Miles Arntzen, who told me to listen to Fela Kuti, the man who pioneered this whole sound.  While I started slowly, I found myself listening to more and more afrobeat.  Doing homework, I would subconsciously find myself tapping my foot or banging on my desk in time with the perfectly placed downbeats.

While Kuti “created” afrobeat in the late 1960s and its popularity continued in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the past two decades that afrobeat has really taken off.  Antibalas was formed in 1998 and has been instrumental in the resurgence of the genre.  From Antibalas came Superhuman Happiness, saxophonist Stuart Bogie’s combination of afrobeat and just about every other genre known to man, which features other members of Antibalas as well.

Another reason the genre has taken off is the popularity of the play “Fela!”  Originally an off-broadway production, the play has become increasingly popular, with long stints on Broadway and a world tour to boot.  The play told the story of Kuti and exposed an entirely new group of people to his music. It serves as a great introduction to afrobeat music.

Dancing isnt the only goal of afrobeat music.  Kuti told powerful stories in his songs, many of which pertained to the Nigerian government and the injustices suffered by the Nigerian people at its hand. Afrobeat bands today continue the trend of politically charged lyrics—one of my favorite Antibalas songs is called “Indictment.”

“Indictment” is a song about everyone’s favorite topic to talk about at a concert: the banking system (or at least that’s what trumpeter Todd Simon said at the show).  In this song, described by a critic as “a fantastic Bush-era protest song,” Bogie calls out political figure after political figure.

Kuti himself called out the Nigerian government in an album entitled “Zombie,” which was likely the reason why his compound was raided and he and his family were tortured and his mother killed.

While not ubiquitous at this point, afrobeat music is now spreading past Williamsburg and across the country.  Arntzen’s own band, EMEFE, has taken a dozen students and turned them into professional musicians.  Two weeks ago, I got a chance to see them for the first time in six months and by the end of the first song, everyone in the venue was on their feet and dancing.

Other bands such as Zongo Junction, the Chicago Afrobeat Project and many more have been touring the country as ten-piece outfits, ready to tear audiences a new one.

So the next time you are about to turn on “Levels” for the 4,000th time, try listening to afrobeat instead. Though it may not have the light shows or the crazy atmosphere that comes with EDM, you’ll find yourself dancing just as hard while listening to and supporting some of the best musicians out there.

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Any questions about afrobeat or band recommendations? Send Brian an email at weidy@wisc.edu.

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