“Music is supposed to have an effect,” the afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti once said. “If you’re playing music and people don’t feel something, you’re not doing shit. That’s what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think. Music wants to dictate a better life, against a bad life. When you’re listening to something that depicts having a better life, and you’re not having a better life, it must have an effect on you.”
Fela was born in Nigeria, but he found the initial ingredients for afrobeat during his time in London, where – as a medical student – he became musically radicalised, and Los Angeles, where – as a musician – he became politically radicalised.
It was in these towns that he absorbed the twin energies of jazz and the Black Panther movement; frameworks that he could apply to his nascent musical experimentation and his own desire to see a self-determining, post-colonial Africa free from corruption.
While studying medicine in London, Fela played trumpet in a band that blended African high life with American jazz. That band, Koola Lobitos, flitted on-and-off between the UK, Nigeria, Ghana and the US, acquiring new life experiences and musical influences.
By the time of the band’s return to Nigeria, following deportation from the States in 1969, they had been rechristened The Africa 70, and the music they played they called ‘afrobeat’.
Fela stopped singing about love and dancing and his music became a conduit for sociopolitical rage. The Africa 70 established a commune with a recording studio – the Kalakuta Republic – that they declared as a state independent from Nigeria. They performed at their own nightclub, The Afrika Shrine.
In this early Shrine footage shot by future Africa 70 drummer Ginger Baker, you can see exactly why the former Cream drummer had his mind blown by this new music he had stumbled upon in Nigeria:
Like James Brown – a musician who Fela seemed to love and hate equally – Fela’s songwriting favoured a kind of spontaneous composition, where he would martial his band verbally through long pieces that could play out for up to 45 minutes – each record typically consisting of just one long piece per side.
Unlike Brown, Fela would get his hands dirty playing actual instruments – digging in with saxophone, organ, electric guitar and drums. His afrobeat was yoruba music jacked up with funk and jazz. It had some similarities with the popular Ghanian music highlife, but it was longer, more psychedelic, angrier.
Although Ginger Baker – a prodigiously skilled jazz and rock drummer – played live with the Africa 70 and on their early albums, he did so alongside Tony Allen – the man described by Eno as “probably the greatest drummer who ever lived.”
“Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat,” Fela asserted, emphasising the importance of percussion in his afrobeat and therefore reiterating its link to Yoruba music.
Around the whirling drums of Allen and Baker, twin baritone saxes blared, and Fela’s troupe of dancers and singers – he would later marry 27 of them in one ceremony – translated every note of his music into a physical sigil.