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Unearthing Fela's Roots

How has Fela influenced the new wave of African musicians trying to find their beat?

August 9, 2003

How has Fela influenced the new wave of African musicians trying to find their beat?

Fela Anikulapo Ransome-Kuti was born in 1938. He died of AIDS-related causes in 1997. The Nigerian songwriter and bandleader managed to pack three lifetimes of music in the 58 years he lived.

He recorded music that could uplift the downtrodden, console the bereaved — and afflict the comfortable and powerful in his fractious native land.

In all, Fela recorded 77 albums in a style that became known as "Afro-beat." Through his music, Fela also became a potent symbol for Nigerian democracy and for pan-African unity and renewal.

His lyrical attacks on leading Nigerian politicians and generals resonated with the populace — and earned him the undying enmity of government authorities.

They responded with arrests and beatings — including a government raid on his compound in Lagos that resulted in the death of his mother.

Though Fela's music is steeped in the Nigerian rhythms and styles of Lagos — where he grew as a musician — Afro-beat came into its own when it blended with African-American musical forms.

Listeners can hear strong influences of American funk and soul in Fela's music — embodied by James Brown.

But the Nigerian legend was also influenced by the "free jazz" of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Fela picked up on Western music from his studies in London and his apprenticeships in Lagos bands.

But it was his trip to the United States in 1969 that cemented the marriage between Afro-beat and politics. On this journey, Fela encountered America's "Black Power" movement — which was then at its zenith — and began to see the possibilities of mixing pop and politics.

If African Americans could take steps toward true liberation, Fela reasoned, why not Africans? One can date Fela's blossoming as a musician and symbolic leader to his return to Africa.

Over the next two decades, Fela released most of the albums he is best known for today. "Zombie" (1976) and "Army Arrangement" were attacks on military rule.

"Coffin for the Head of State" (1981) was a mournful tribute to Fela's dead mother.

"Shuffering and Shmiling" (1978) was an attack on the intolerance of organized religion in Africa — mentionaing both Christianity and Islam. In the last decade of his life, Fela's output slowed.

Though he remained a legend throughout Africa, much of his music was unavailable in the United States. Some records fell out of print. Others were released on vinyl only, making them inaccessible to listeners who had moved on to the age of compact discs.

However, starting in 2001, MCA Records re-released many of Fela's greatest works on compact disc in the United States. Thus, a new generation was able to hear the passion and dynamism of Fela's music.

Many younger musicians — especially those who were raised on hip-hop and rap music — identified with Fela on his exhortations to unify in his attacks on authoritarian politics and his poetic rendering of urban life.

Just as Fela had found inspiration in African American music and politics, a new generation of American musicians discovered they could learn from Fela's sound.

The most tangible evidence of this influence is "Red Hot + Riot" — a tribute to Fela's music that features his son, Femi Kuti, and some of the brightest stars in contemporary music: Sade, Macy Gray, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Taj Mahal and Nile Rodgers.

It also features some of the hottest rap stars of the past five years — like Talib Kweli and Common. "Red Hot + Riot" is also poignant because the album's proceeds go toward AIDS awareness, prevention and relief efforts.

As the liner notes to "Red Hot + Riot" point out: "AIDS is killing Africans — more than 20 percent of the adult population in sub-Saharan Africa is believed to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS."

The album’s good intentions are matched and surpassed by its wealth of great interpretations of Fela's music. Far from being mere imitations of Fela's sound, the artists on "Red Hot + Riot" use all the technology and style innovations available through hip-hop and rap to reinvent Fela's Afro-beat.

For instance, on such songs as "Kalakuta Show" and "By Your Side," DJs scratch and remix Fela's records into new sound.

On "Shuffering and Shmiling" and "Water No Get Enemy," Fela’s music is augmented by new rap lyrics that draw connections between today's politics and Fela's commentary on African politics.

The resulting record is startling and innovative — something with which a musical innovator like Fela would be proud to be associated.

"Red Hot + Riot" is one of those rare records that does good — for AIDS charities — and sounds good. But just as important, it opens the ears of new listeners to the magic of Fela's music.