Global Beat Fusion: Afrobeat Beyond and Behind Fela

05/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We need icons. Men and women who serve as the paramount of their profession excite and inspire us, help us to strive for our own goals. Danger arises only if you treat that single person as the only representative of their respected endeavor. For example, I've met people who claim to be big reggae fans, yet don't realize that Bob Marley is not the only Jamaican singer in history. Likewise for Afrobeat. While the success of the Broadway run of Fela! has put Nigeria's musical and political hero on the American map, he has long been treated as the only figure of the genre. He helped birth it, but nobody creates in a vacuum, and Fela Kuti readily identified his influences in the formation of that luscious African sound.

One of the great movements in the recent past has been the unearthing, i.e. crate digging, of obscure international music by wide-eyed producers and innovative labels. Not a week goes by when I don't hear about a compilation of newly rediscovered artists from far-off regions. Besides the obvious cultural importance, once in a while you stumble across one, or as this column goes, three amazing finds; a lot of it is just super poor field recordings that appeal only to the deepest of ethnomusicologists. So while Mr Kuti was indeed the king of Afrobeat, these prime collections remind us that plenty of musicians were playing that funk-filled, jazz-induced sound of distant Africa.

While Black Man's Cry: The Influence and Inspiration of Fela Kuti (Now Again) is listed on Amazon as being performed by Fela Kuti, none of the fifteen songs are played by him. You will recognize the music, however, as this collection is filled with the Yoruba rhythms and highlife guitars that inspired the man, or covers by artists he influenced. The three versions of "Shacalao," first in a Cumbia fashion by Cumbia Moderna De Soledad and later in the lo-fi grooves of Daktari's "Up Side Down," and finally the most jazzed up cut by Lisandro Meza, stand up to Kuti's version amazingly well. (His was titled "Shakara.") Three versions of "Egbi Mi O/Black Man's Cry" appear, including one by a band called Lever Brothers Gay Flamingoes, featuring a stunning steel drum ensemble. Not surprisingly, the very next version by Mosco Tiles Fonclaire Steel Orchestra also employs pans. It's fitting that the comp winds down with Karl Hector and the Malcouns' "Toure Sama," as that band has been making waves with its poignant and tasteful analog African sound.

Soundway Records has been making a living from releasing re-found records. The label's Nigeria Afrobeat Special is the best African disc it's produced to date, opening with a familiar 45 by Kuti, "Who're You," before launching into a percussively magnificent, ten-minute "We Dey Find Money" by Eric Showboy Akaeze & His Royal Ericos. (Most every Afrobeat band has a qualifier after the lead musician's name; Fela was Africa 70, later Egypt 80.) Saxon Lee & The Shadows International's slow funk, "Mind Your Business," is perhaps this comp's most revered find, although the sax playing countering the balafon on Bongos Ikwue & The Groovies' "Otachikpopo" is prime material. And how can you compete against tracks with names like "Afro-Blues" and "Do the Afro Shuffle?" You can't, and you won't want to. Instead you sink into this forty-year-old sound and are blown away. Talking drums never spoke so loudly.

Hearing these eight, nine, ten minute tromps through highlife-fueled funk is a world away from the tasty tidbits of Nigeria Special Volume 2: Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6 (Soundway). These are slower jams, covering Nigerian Juju, highlife, and blues in English, Bini, Ijaw, Yoruba, and Igbo. Nigerian music is predominantly based on ritual, utilizing the electricity (sometimes) provided to the country in the forms of searing guitars and fuzzy speakers. Fubura Sekibo's "Psychedelic Baby" is a midtempo cruiser, while Black's Zenith adds brass beautifully on "Shango Oba Onina." Things do get moving on the conga-cowbell rhythm of the nine-minute "Agboho" by Opotopo, but for the most part you're in three-minute range, with gems by the slide guitar maestro--here we go with the names again-- Commander In Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & His Nigerian Sound Makers and The Don Issac Ezekiel Combination. Good thing is, you don't have to memorize a thing. There's not right entry point on comps like this. Anywhere will suffice, for a pleasurable journey is guaranteed.

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