Nigeria: Fela Has No Co-Creator of Afrobeat

A Fela Kuti statue in Lagos.
11 May 2020

Multiple facets of the ground-breaking Afrobeat genre Fela's amazing creativity brought of recent, considerable confusion was created by some misinformed commentators whose misguided enthusiasm has led to the propagation of a mistaken notion that Afrobeat was somehow "co-created" by a prominent drummer who performed with Fela for many years.

The least that can be said is that this kind of erroneous belief can only arise from a lack of true understanding of the amazing phenomenon known as Afrobeat, the advent of which may be said to have opened up an entirely new chapter in African-derived music.

There can be no doubt that Afrobeat came about as a result of Fela Anikulapo Kuti's inimitable vision, stunning originality, amazing energy, and wonderful creativity.

As for the absurd notion that anyone else qualifies to be credited as a 'co-creator' of Afrobeat simply by virtue of having performed alongside Fela for many years, who would be misguided enough to describe a talented soloist in a symphony orchestra as a 'co-creator' of Beethoven's music?

More importantly, still, those of us who were privileged to have been physically present when some of Fela's numerous masterpieces were rehearsed and performed will readily attest to the fact that Fela Anikulapo-Kuti originated and closely controlled virtually every aspect of his music, relentlessly dictating and imposing all the parts he wanted to be played by each individual member of his successive musical ensembles.

Credit must be given where due: Fela Anilulapo-Kuti was indisputably a highly original composer, a master arranger, a strict band conductor, a cunning lyricist, and a mesmerizing performer, all rolled into one stunning whole.

Like its originator, Afrobeat is a multifaceted and multi-dimensional phenomenon!

As a musical genre, Afrobeat is inseparable from Fela's exploration of political and spiritual issues linked to African and African-American history and culture, at the same time as it eventually blossomed from an unceasing musical quest that took Fela from a deep understanding of traditional African music to an uncanny ability to weave the wider threads of African-derived music fused from jazz, calypso, and Afro-Cuban big band arrangements into a much wider tapestry underpinned by amazing melodic inventiveness.

In essence, Fela was an African jazz musician who was obliged to invent a new approach that would enable him to circumvent the limitations of jazz as a genre focused on melodic content and solo improvisations, an orientation that has ended up distancing jazz to some extent from the percussive and dance-oriented roots of African music.

As he evolved over the years, Fela adventurous musical journey inspired him to explore a number of solutions that began from straight-forward calypso-like highlife patterns based on relatively simple tunes and lyrics to what can be defined as a final solution that emerged from ever more complex structural patterns and arrangements, leading to the meteoric apparition of Afrobeat as an entirely new musical genre.

In addition to its highly innovative musical inventiveness, Afrobeat must also be perceived as an all-encompassing approach to music conceived of by Fela as a spiritual quest, as well as a formidable weapon to be wielded in the struggle for black and African political emancipation.

More importantly still, Afrobeat heralded the advent of a revolutionary approach to contemporary African-derived music that combined amazing melodic creativity, complex horn arrangements, and highly danceable rhythms, combined with a very clever populist approach to lyrics designed to ensure mass audience involvement.

In purely musical terms, Afrobeat sits on a mesmerizing combination of bass guitar and tenor guitar rhythm patterns continuously propelled by an irresistible tightly woven percussive drum and conga conveyor belt, all topped by breathtaking melodic innovative creativity and fabulous horn arrangements and riffs, interspersed by provocative message-driven lyrics couched in street idioms...

Will this ever be surpassed?

Not surprisingly, Fela's most ardent fans were in the habit of hailing him as a kind of extra-terrestrial being (abami eda) who came to earth bearing a unique gift of music to share with mankind.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti will forever remain a genius whose amazing creativity brought a totally new musical genre that came to be named as Afrobeat into being.

There will never be another Fela!

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