News The African Way

Afrobeat(s): Much Ado About Its Origin, By Ufedo Atabo

The Nigerian music industry has come a long way. Together with other arms in the entertainment industry, notably the film and cinematography better known as Nollywood, her fashion, comedy, dance, arts and literature have become the cynosure and the most powerful effective tools of contemporary Nigerian soft power.

Propagating her rich cultural heritage not only to African audiences but even beyond. Every time the music keeps getting better and every day keeps attaining greater heights globally. In some Western countries, the music can be heard in clubhouses, malls and even sporting arenas with musical acts like Burna boy, Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage, Tems, Rema and several others headlining shows, working with renowned A-list International stars, winning awards and getting endorsement deals.

The music genre responsible for this latest global spotlight on Nigeria is Afro beats. Arguably the foremost and most influential music genre to come out of the African continent.
If you listen to or watch recent sounds, videos and even dance steps coming from other parts of the continent and even the diaspora, especially the Swahili speaking region of East Africa, and fellow West African neighbour, Ghana, there is no doubt recognising the influence of modern Nigerian pop sound in their rhythms.

Afro-beat and Afro-pop are the most popular music creations presently rocking the airwaves in this part of the world and among the African diaspora. Though with slight differences, they came from the same roots. While the former is a genre pioneered by the late Nigerian music icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the latter belongs to a branch of pop music with an African touch and rhythm just like the amalgamation of sounds Fela combined to create Afro-beat. Even though the name Afro beats is quite problematic, most musicians across Africa are open to the idea of calling their sounds Afro-beats.

However, the International success of the genre has spurred debates about its place of birth. Popular Belgian-Rwandese comedian and musician Stromae once claimed that the genre originated from the Congolese Macossa music, and many Ghanaians like radio journalist Ekow Barnes, who writes for CNN have never stopped arguing that Fela adopted sounds from Highlife before incorporating them into his style to form Afro-beat. Disagreements have always ensued between citizens of Nigeria and Ghana about the origin of this genre just like the famous Jollof banters.

Therefore, it’s important to revisit what influenced the founder and gave rise to this genre.
High-life, which many Ghanaians saw as the forerunner of Afro-beat has its roots in the 1920s when musicians from the then Gold Coast began mixing rhythmic structures of the traditional Akan sounds with influences like Foxtrot and Calypso. It became popular regionally due to the efforts of pioneers like E. T. Mensah. However, before that period, in the 1800s two diaspora groups which traced their roots to the Yoruba people returned to Lagos and Abeokuta.

The first of these groups is the Sierro-Nigerians freed slaves, who were educated in institutions like the famous Fourah Bay College in Freetown by the British abolitionists. When this group returned to Lagos, they dominated the government bureaucracy and clergy. Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther is a prominent member of this group. The Anglican churchy sounds such as the hymns were adopted by the congregants and soon found their way among the commoners playing music.

The second group, the Afro-Brazilians also ex-slaves were important in the socio-cultural landscape of Lagos evident in their architecture, lifestyles and parties. Enriching the music culture with influences of Rumba and other Afro-Brazilian sounds. A celebrated member of this group is businessman Da Rocha. Without any qualms, the sounds they came with were fused too into the burgeoning music scene and existing tones, creating a flurry of sounds in Lagos before High-life knocked at the door and became a trend. It was a mixture of music in such an environment that the young Fela was raised and had his first contact with music being the son of a clergyman and raised in an upper-middle-class family of the Ransome Kutis.
In 1958, he left Lagos for the Trinity College of Music in the UK to study music.

Ghana, being the first Sub-Saharan country to attain independence in 1957 also became the political and cultural leader of the region at that time. Thus, the music she introduced – High-life, was categorised as and generalised by Western media, especially the British press as a representative of the music of other British West African colonies. A notion still carried around by many Ghanaians even today.

The French went further to classify the music of Francophone Sub-Saharan countries as Macossa which originally came from the former Belgian- Congo.
Even though Fela played a fusion of High-life with high percussion under Victor Olaiya in the 1960s, his first love had always been Jazz. At the early stage of his career, he left for Paris. At that time the city was a haven for African-American jazz musicians who went there because of racial injustices of the 1950s in America. He also incorporated Afro-Cuban sound; funk pioneered by James Brown who in turn was influenced by the Afrocentric drumbeats of his drummer and associate, the late Tony Allan without whom Fela once said, there would be no Afro-beat.

In the 1970s, Fela sojourned in Los Angeles, California for ten months where he met Sandra Smith a member of the Black Panthers Party. Under her tutelage on political philosophy, her teachings changed his thinking and influenced his music forever.

Merging his mother’s political activism, anti-colonial tendencies and dexterity in the use of the language of the commoners, he gave Afro-beat the image of the music for the struggle of the downtrodden against both their internal and external oppressors. The character he is known for until his death.

Today, the world bears testimony to the pioneering prowess of Olufela Anikulapo Kuti and the music genre he created that has given inspiration to the present generation and has helped them catapult their careers to even greater heights.
Even in death, he has continued to motivate musicians in Nigeria, Africa and the world not only in his sagacity, tenacity and fearlessness but as a creative genius in the act of experimenting with different sounds and entertaining the world.

Therefore, the issue shouldn’t be what genre, person, country or philosophy created Afro-beat and Afro-beats, but what the sounds had done to uplift the image of the black race.

Atabo is a writer and author based in Kaduna, Nigeria

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