Afrobeat is by definition a combination of many different styles of music that have come together into a hybrid form. It was most notably brought into prominence by the man who coined the term, Fela Kuti, along with his band members which included the likes of Tony Allen among others. Kuti took his political messages to the people through a mixture of the contemporary forms of music at the time – jazz, rock, funk – along with his African roots in highlife, Yoruba, and various other harmonic and percussive styles.
In 1958 when Kuti was 20 years old, his parents sent him to London to study medicine. Unlike his brothers, Fela was uninterested in pursuing a career in medicine. Instead he enrolled in the Trinity College of Music to study classical music with a focus on woodwind instruments. During his time in London, Fela formed a band called Koola Lobitos which mixed together jazz and highlife which was the most popular form of music in Nigeria at the time due to artists such as Bobby Benson and E.T. Mensah. At this point, Kuti was honing in on his quest to merge western popular music with traditional African culture and music. He called his music “highlife jazz” for a time, taking inspiration both from the American jazz scene of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis and what was becoming popular in Africa in the highlife scene. Yet, when he returned to Nigeria with his highlife jazz, he found audiences to be unreceptive to the jazz style that was less geared towards dance and politics and more geared towards reflection and broadening.
The atmosphere in Africa had turned towards a rhythm and blues feel coming over from America because of it’s propensity for political messages. One of Fela’s main influences became James Brown so much so that he became known as the “James Brown of Africa.” Brown’s ability to merge dance, free-jazz, spoken word, and politics gave direction to Kuti’s journey.
As his musical taste evolved, Fela strived to create something new. While straying away from the modal and bebop jazz styles, Kuti embraced the free-jazz movement he saw happening in the US with Coltrane, Sun Ra, and others. He kept in the instrumental solos, large instrumentation (his use of 2 baritone sax players was unusual by African standards), and more complex harmonic passages, and merged it with the inherently African stylistic choices. Throughout collaborations with other innovators like Ginger Baker and Roy Ayers most notably, the music became more integrated and sought to represent an authentic African quality and message. In a 2010 interview, Ayers describes stepping off of the plane in Nigeria and being greeted by Kuti who immediately declared Ayers to be of Yoruba descent. Ayers remembers that they got along beautifully, noting that their relationship should be a microcosm of the entire relationship with Africans, something that isn’t happening as of yet. Their time and work together represented the desire to merge the gap between Africa and Europe and America.
Fela Kuti sought to join Africa with the rest of the world through music. His music, an assortment of lifestyles and stories, brought together the heartbeat and politics of Africa with Western culture and ideals. His mark on music and the inspiration he provided for so many can only be described as indelible.
More Information: “Jazz Music Influences On The Work Of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti” by Michael Veal
Words by Eric Sandler