Friday, 22 November 2013
FELA: STYLE OF THE LEGEND - a preamble
He was a bold man who dared to step where others could not, and he died the way he had lived - in a blaze of controversy and mystery! On the second day of August 1997, the world woke to the news that the originator of the musical genre known as Afrobeat had passed on due to complications arising from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the self-styled Afrobeat king with an image and reputation that was larger than life itself, certainly lived life to the hilt. The man had a style and the manifest definition of that style was Afrobeat music. What is Afrobeat and who is Fela Anikulapo Kuti? Was he merely a corrupting influence on impressionable youth with his public consumption of marijuana or was he indeed a musical purist of the highest order? Could he have been the quasi-messiah who arose to liberate the African mind - long hampered, first by centuries of dehumanizing slavery and then by confusing shackles of colonialism? These questions, and more, we aim to answer in this book as we proceed to comprehensively explore the legacies of this human icon. Furthermore, they are questions that acquire amplified significance when we consider the sociological imperatives that gave rise to Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Fela rose to prominence at a critical era of transition in Africa: the transition from colonialism to political independence. It was a seminal period - perhaps the single most important period in the history of the continent. The emergence of a force like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at such a juncture can therefore not be wished away as mere coincidence - because it was not! He was a product of the exigencies of his generation, a generation that needed to ask the questions that would be answered for all times. The urgency of that quest is what we can distil from his music. However history may ultimately judge him, one fact will always be patent: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti influenced and fathered a whole new breed of African musicians and he was at the forefront of pan-African thought in his time. It is no longer news that he was a musical prodigy in a class of his own. Indeed, he created the class that he alone would occupy throughout his lifetime. As an explorer of rhythmic themes, he created a musical textures that would be copied by thousands of musicians around Africa. He was a master of the musical game. Not for him the terse commercialism, he was always quick to point out that his music was spiritual. Fela favoured the slow build-up, the intricate rhythmic arrangements, drawing the listener more and more into his vision of the song, unleashing first instrumental orchestrations, before going into the main vocal passages. Listening to Fela’s music, you get the feeling that you have finally arrived in Africa - the real Africa; you are overpowered by the overwhelming Africanness of his orchestral voices. It happens to me every time. Yet, deep inside, I know that this is simple music - African music. And that is as music should be: simple, pure and African. Inevitably though, his music became a tool in his hands for persuading the world of the superiority of the African experience, and it eventually became a weapon for attacking authority, both civilian and military, whenever and wherever he perceived such as being insensitive, corrupt or inept. The man certainly influenced the music as much as the music influenced the man, but honestly, which was more important: man or music? In order to preserve a proper sense of intellectual honesty in our discourse on the Afrobeat genre, we must ask ourselves the following questions and faithfully seek answers to them. Was it the man’s persona that dictated the public reaction to his music? In other words, was he a con artiste deliberately courting public attention with his wanton exhibitionism? Were defects inherent in his music artfully smoothed over by an aggressive mien and the potent mystique it suggested? Indeed, was it this public perception of a musical mysticism flowing directly from Fela’s personal magnetism that helped to plant Afrobeat in the public’s consciousness as a potential tool for their empowerment? If the answer to the last question is yes, this may well account for the ecstatic, sometimes violent, response that more often than not attended his music. Was it stage-managed, a well-oiled con game to enhance the projection of the Afrobeat image or was there really something of an inscrutable power to it all? An observer once described Afrobeat as a ‘weapon for the future.’ Well, the creator of the sword certainly forged it to perfection, leaving one in no doubt that in the right hands it could have a devastatingly effective action. The common man is the target, the underlying and overriding subject and the supreme enjoyer of every Afrobeat song. Afrobeat is about Africa and its masses: the impoverishment of its masses, the resistance and resilience of its masses and the triumphs and ultimate salvation of its masses. It is the common man therefore that will directly benefit from any effort to position Afrobeat as a proud tool for his own evolution. As his country careered through the political challenges and economic muddle of the 1970s through 90s, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s Afrobeat consistently sounded the alarm bells that woke Nigerians to the reality of the day, even offering practical suggestions – served of course with a patina of wit and biting satire - on ways to overcome. Consequently, Afrobeat has become a barometer for social awareness in Nigeria. Its bustling urgency and the earthiness of its rhythms assures the people of its unchallengeable position as a natural national career of news and views, so that nothing of national significance would go by without passing through its creative mill for due testing and analysis. That is the essence of Afrobeat.