Fela wasn’t the only Afrobeat star in 1970s Nigeria – but he was certainly the best.
Robin Denselow 2010
There has never been an artist quite like Fela Kuti. A singer, composer, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and fiery political rebel, he didn’t just shake up the Nigerian music scene back in the 1970s, but he created his own fusion style of Afrobeat, one that’s still growing in popularity alongside the legend of the man himself.
Fela was best seen on his home turf, playing in his club The Shrine in the Lagos suburb of Ikeja, where he often didn’t appear until the early hours of the morning, and kept playing until dawn. His songs were always lengthy, and involved his trademark blend of American funk and R&B mixed with jazz improvisation, traditional Yoruba influences, chanting line-and-response vocals, extended solos on saxophone and keyboards, and then sudden furious outbursts in which he would denounce the policies of the military government of the day.
He was an exhilarating performer, and it’s only to be expected that Fela and his Afrika 70 band provide the rousing opening of an album dedicated to ‘The New Explosive Sound in 1970s Nigeria’. The track is called Who’re You?, a song that Fela released as a 7” 45 rpm single in 1971, and was later re-recorded at Abbey Road for his album Fela’s London Scene. This original version has not been re-released until now, and it’s a classic example of early Fela, mixing a driving funk rhythm with fine brass work, chanting vocals and playful improvised keyboard solos.
Fela set the pace, but others were bound to follow, and this cheerfully intriguing set also features ten of Fela’s competitors, who were never as inventive, brave or unpredictable as the great man himself, but still created some great dance music following his musical formula. There’s Eric ‘Showboy’ Akaeze mixing a sturdy R&B riff, impressive organ work and wailing rock guitar on We Dey Find Money; a light, funky work-out from Saxon Lee & the Shadows International; and a cheerful dance song from Godwin Omabuwa & His Casanova Dandies with Do the Afro Shuffle. And as a contrast to the upbeat dance material there’s Segun Bucknor’s Revolution with Gbomojo, a slow and moody saxophone workout set against a funk beat.
This collection is a reminder that Fela wasn’t the only Afrobeat star in 1970s Nigeria – but he was certainly the best.