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Make It Funky: Fela Kuti, James Brown and the Invention of Afrobeat

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 4, 2013
pp. 99-118 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0124

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Evoking the image of ships and black sailors navigating the Atlantic, Paul Gilroy’s heuristic stresses dynamic cultural exchange among diverse populations of the African diaspora and the mother continent itself—the “black Atlantic.” Gilroy argues for the central role of black musical expression in producing a “distinctive counterculture of modernity” on a basis of shared oppression, common goals, and hybrid cultures (Gilroy, 1993, 36). While the perspective of black Americans’ discovery and cultivation of African cultures and sensibilities (both historical and imagined) is more familiar to those on this side of the Atlantic, this process also figured importantly on the African continent. During the early postcolonial years, the interest of African Americans in discovering their African roots stimulated a similar impulse in some Africans. Describing the epiphany brought on by his 1969 trip to the United States, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the originator of the jazz, funk, and soul-infused genre Afrobeat, recalled:

It was incredible how my head was turned. Everything fell into place, man. . . . For the first time, I saw the essence of blackism [black nationalism]. It’s crazy; in the United States people think the black-power movement drew inspiration from Africa. All these Americans come over here looking for awareness. They don’t realize they’re the ones who’ve got it over there. Why we were even ashamed to go around in national dress until we saw pictures of blacks wearing dashikis on 125th Street.

In West African popular music an important shift occurred as many musicians looked less to Europe and, by extension, its former colonies in the Caribbean, and began to draw inspiration from African American cultures in the United States. This essay examines Fela’s seemingly paradoxical adoption and assimilation of American funk grooves and musical practices in his quest to further Africanize his music, and his transformation from British-trained Nigerian jazz trumpeter to black-nationalist countercultural dissident icon.

From Palmwine and Highlife to Afrobeat and Beyond

With its proximity to maritime commerce and overland trade routes connected to North Africa and the continent’s interior, West Africa has long been a cultural crossroads and nexus of musical development. As noted by Waterman, the interwar years were a particularly fertile period for “the growth of pan-West African urban musical traditions [as] traders attempting to extend their networks, sailors manning the large vessels operated by European lines, . . . and other Africans in search of employment” moved back and forth among colonial entrepôts (Waterman, 1990, 48). Since its introduction by Europeans in the late 1800s, the guitar figured importantly in many of these traditions. The most widespread and influential of these guitar-based genres, palmwine music, swept the region during the 1920s and 1930s. Eponymous with the intoxicating beverage whose consumption it accompanied (and that often was used as a form of payment to the musicians), palmwine was most often heard at informal gatherings among the urban lower classes. Accompanying themselves with guitars and percussion tapped on beer bottles or kerosene cans, singers frequently touched on contemporary political issues and social commentary. In contrast, the other most widespread genre, highlife, as its name implies, was more associated with the musical tastes of the upper classes and social elite. Performed at important events such as weddings, funerals, and holidays, highlife ensembles combined European band instruments and harmonic structures with distinctly African practices such as praise singing. Highlife’s appeal was broadened by its origins in Ghana, the first African nation to gain independence (1957). Under the leadership of the charismatic prime minister Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s political and cultural influence was strong throughout the region during the postcolonial period.

Nigeria, with 150 million people, the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, became independent in 1960. As in most of the continent, its borders were drawn during the 1885 Berlin Conference with little regard to different ethnic, religious, or linguistic groups, and these internal divisions were exploited by the European powers to maintain control. Nigeria includes over 250 ethnic groups, with the four largest the predominantly Muslim Hausa and Fulani in the north (29%), the Yoruba in the southwest (21%), and the Igbo in the southeast (18%). The country was...



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