"There's A Strong Foundation!" Exploring Afrobeat's Past, Present, And Future
Afrobeat has grown from one man's vision to become a truly global form.
Spread by the diaspora connections that link West Africa to the world, it has moved from the imagination of Fela Kuti to become a living, breathing, highly communal force.
In 2021, Afrobeat has a presence in a numerous different forms. It's lingering presence in West African pop music means that it can be heard in bona fide chart hits, while its place in the foundation of Nigerian culture has permeated a new multi-cultural generation of British jazz musicians.
A number of figures are advancing its cause. KOKOROKO for instance, blend Afrobeat with post-bop forms, leaning in on club tropes to produce something that is authentically new, while also paying homage to the greats of the past.
The Kuti lineage, meanwhile, continues at great pace. The Partisan Records project 'Legacy+' united Femi Kuti - one of Fela's sons - with his own son, the superb Made Kuti who is a band leader and composer in his own right.
Clash linked KOKOROKO keys expert Yohan Kebede with Made Kuti to discuss Afrobeat's past, present, and future.
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Y: First of all, how are you man?
M: Thing’s aren’t easy. I haven’t been able to perform a single track from my album to an audience yet. I’ve not actually even performed on stage with my band at all to an actual audience. Sharing that message and sharing that music. Its understanding the times and understanding what’s going on. Have to find ways to pull through. But we’re good other than that. And you?
Y: Yeah I mean, pretty much the same. I guess now its been exactly a year since we were able to do what I love you know, with people. Which is obviously sad but there is a time for introspection and work on a body of work. Which we’ll get into. My first question is, who have you listened to and what do you listen to?
M: That’s a tough question because my answer is so broad. There is no way I could possibly name everything but recently I have gotten into, as I’m working with my band, it’s the first band I’ve ever had. So it’s really personal and I want to play a lot of my dad’s work. Searching through the discography and finding songs and things that I really want to be able to share myself. So I’ve been listening to a lot of afrobeat, my dad and grandfather. I’ve been listening to a lot of like rock. A lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead. A lot of Rage Against The Machine. And some jazz. A bunch of stuff yeah!
M: What do you believe is the most fundamental quality or essence of Afrobeat?
Y: For me I would say it’s definitely dancing. I don’t mean dancing just in the physical sense. As a keyboard player, when we’re jamming or something and I have to create a part the first thing I think or the concept behind anything is to make a part dance. If it doesn’t make you want to dance as musician how can you really expect a listener observing the music to do the same?
M: That’s cool man, so like groove?
Y: Yeah. All of the instruments playing together, you’re essentially dancing with each other. It’s the exact same process as dancing with someone. I even remember Dele Sosimi, he was telling me. I bumped into him and I had to ask him ‘what would be your number one piece of advice?’. He said, ‘every time you take a solo you need to imagine someone standing right in front of you and if they’re not dancing then you’re not doing your job’. That has always stuck with me.
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Y: I was reading about your album and it said that you played everything yourself. Traditionally this music is very communal, so what inspired you to want to do it yourself?
M: It was circumstantial, and it was really spontaneous. When I came back after I finished my last year at Trinity, I was doing so much practising at home. My routine was: drums, sax, trumpet, keys and bass. I wasn’t touching a guitar. I just thought, if I’m writing more and I’m noting more I won’t have to memorise them. I can probably deliver it as one person. I found an alternative meaning through playing everything myself. Which was the feeling of being able to communicate everything, and make it so personal that anybody who listens to it knows that every message is directly from one individual. So I thought that would be cool. Now, do you think Afrobeat can explore experimental ensemble settings? Really experimental settings?
Y: I think so. When you speak about the music it’s still pretty young. It’s only just, what, coming up to 50 years old? I think we’re lucky in that the foundation has already been laid. There’s a strong foundation. There’s a lot to study as well. In the age that we’re in now, the age of information where we can access almost anything and everything, I think its our duty in fact as young people to explore where the music can go and I think it definitely can go there. I know in KOKOROKO I’ve been asked to, usually I was used to just playing Rhodes and Wurlitzers and stuff. In the album that we have coming out in July I’m definitely using more synthesizers and spacy kind of effects. Hopefully that kind of stuff pushes the art forward. I’m so excited to see where the music goes. Especially as people like yourself, who come from the lineage of the music, go out into the world and try out different things. In thirty years the sound is going to be so different.
M: What do you think is music’s role in society?
Y: Music in society plays the same role that seasoning plays on your cooking. I think it feeds a part of us that makes us human. In a world where, especially increasingly in a world where its pretty much about survival, survival, survival. Music enriches the experience so that we’re not just surviving but are really savouring the moments that we have in life, in the short time that we’re here. Performing, and I’m sure you’ve had the same thing, especially after a gig with people coming up to you. If you had no investment in the music whatsoever, they’re not musicians, they’re people who often classify themselves as ‘oh, I’m just a normal person, I don’t do anything artistic’. In that moment when you’re performing on stage and it seems that people get taken to a place that they can’t be taken from in other places.
M: It’s also transcendent. I know exactly.
Y: I think that moment of being on stage with other people is very, very sacred. It’s not something I ever take for granted. What would you say is the principal concept for you in Afrobeat both musically and conceptually?
M: I think, as we’ve said, musically it’s groove. It really does have to groove. I think it Afrobeat doesn’t groove then it’s not Afrobeat. So it really does have to dance as you said. I think conceptually maybe the exact same thing. Afrobeat for me is very personal in that it has to be very expressive of the way I feel and think at the time of writing and performing it. The top twenty of my favourite Afrobeat songs are all so political. Socio political. Cultural. They address issues that are very immediate to me. Nigeria in the 70’s was exactly the same. My dad said the same thing. So all the songs are really… it’s the only place I feel like I can go to for a guaranteed musical experience that reflects immediate life and my experiences.
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Y: One thing a large amount of our cultures have in common is the deep reverence with those who came before us but being young there’s a strong desire to create change. In your eyes, what does it mean to move the music forward without compromising its foundation? How do you find a balance between both?
M: I think in a way you have to respect how it came about. Afrobeat was born from a very strong individual that wanted to do things the way he wanted to do. After trying to find his own path and they way I see that my dad did it, even if he was chastised for it, he found himself a very specific sound. The only honest way to do it is to do it honestly. Respect the art form and understand it and then do whatever you want from there. Being very true to yourself. I think you should really try to explore. If you go too far you know you’ve gone too far. You pull yourself back but yeah, I think my answer is you shouldn’t have to feel like ropes are binding you to tradition. You should really just do what you want but you do have to understand what has come before. Understand it and then experiment with it.
Y: I feel like a lot of people don’t give the music the respect it deserves. When you study jazz and jazz standards it’s years before you start composing.
M: What do you think is the future of Afrobeat?
Y: Kind of similar to what we just spoke about. I think you yourself are a perfect example of the importance of communication between generations and it's important for us not to make that divide between cultures. Coming from an African background myself and other people I know from African backgrounds talking about difficulties in communication on a social level. One way of shortening the gap is definitely through music. Your dad playing with your grandfather for example, and then you playing with your dad, that is the blueprint of how to move things forward. I was born in the UK and a lot of my friends were born in the UK as well, when we have kids, to keep those traditions that we’ve been taught alive by playing, by engaging. That’s so important. And on a broader level making people appreciate the music for what it is, not just something that you can just pick up. The studying takes the same amount of reverence that you would give to Duke Ellington, Miles Davis. Fela and your dad and you as the years go by and hopefully all of us deserve that same reverence. I’m sure one day we will be able to level it.
Y: A lot of London’s most prominent jazz musicians at the moment, if you asked them their influences, a lot of them would say Afrobeat. You hear it a lot, you hear it at the jam sessions. When you hear people playing that kind of stuff, do you hear an authentic grasp on the music?
M: The honest truth is I felt a more authentic grasp on Afrobeat everywhere outside of Lagos. Hearing people talk about Fela and what they say about him, how they refer to him and musicians how they play him, how they reflect his artistry in their own sound has been significantly more authentic outside of Lagos than in Lagos. There are very few bands that play afrobeat truly authentically really caring about detail. If you’re born into something and you’re always exposed to it you have a choice to either use that opportunity to dive deeper into it in ways that people outside of that environment can't. Or you sort of just accept that you're part of it so you don’t do any hard work. You don’t do any proper study into that art form but if you’re from outside you have no choice but to study because that's the only way you can grasp the art form. I mean, KOKOROKO are playing Afrobeat in a way very few of us are able to. I hope it changes.
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Y: We were playing a show in France a festival and just before we went on stage we knew that Seun Kuti was playing later in the day. We didn’t think he’d be watching our show but someone there mentioned that they saw him, he was there watching. He’s outside. Everyone looked to the side and there wasn’t much concentration onstage. He was there.
M: He’s one of the few people that you know are taking the music to heart.
Y: Exactly. I think that’s great. I think it’s important to be held accountable by people who are the originators of the music. Our generation have a golden opportunity to learn things and invest that knowledge back into places where I parents come from and came from.
M: If you could listen to only one album or great body of work for half a year what would it be?
Y: Wow. That’s mad. I can narrow it down... I can’t pick one! I’d say ‘IGOR’ by Tyler the Creator I think it’s a really special album and I don’t even think people appreciate him. I think hip-hop has been quite stagnant for a while and I think he’s really pushing it forward. There’s an album by George Duke called ‘The Aura Will Prevail’. That record is very ethereal. When I was trying to get into those kinds of sounds to put on the KOKOROKO record I was definitely listening to those ethereal space ship kind of sounds. The album artwork is amazing. Could you pick two?
M: I can’t! I can’t even think of just five. I can’t!
Y: What would you say is a record or song in your musical development that has defined your sound?
M: Oh it’ll have to be ‘Perambulator by Fela Kuti because that was in 98 but he had written the music in the early 90’s. It was the first time I’d heard Afrobeat being taken in a heavy setting. Sensitive studio equipment. Really amplified bass. Extremely funky. Designed to be a commercial Afrobeat album but it didn’t stray to far from what is originally Afrobeat. Everything is still political and cultural, everything is dance, everything is groove. He was doing things in a way that was very modern. For 98 and coming out of Nigeria which I think was still under military regime then too, it’s a really special album for me.
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