Part 5 - Revival & Revolution
When Fela Kuti died in 1997, it seemed, for a while, as though Afrobeat might have died with him. So colossal was Kuti's role in the music, and so few were the young pretenders to his throne, that the vacuum left by his passing appeared unfillable. In the immediate aftermath of his death it was left, not to a young pretender, but to the drummer Tony Allen, who had helped Kuti create Afrobeat in the late 1960s and who had remained the foundation stone of his bands until 1979, to pick up the baton. Which he has done magnificently, starting with Black Voices (Comet, 1999) and continuing up to Secret Agent (World Circuit, 2009). In 2009, Allen is well into his second stride, and his follow-up World Circuit album promises to be something special.
Along the way, Allen, who has since the mid-1980s been based in Paris, France, was joined on the post-Fela Kuti stage by Kuti's Nigerian-based son Femi and his band, Positive Force. Femi had been recording under his own name since the late 1980s, with a string of workmanlike, but somehow ultimately underwhelming albums. It was Allen, open to other influences, most notably reggae-inspired dub, but retaining the original Afrobeat vibe, who made most of the running.
It wasn't until 2008 and Fela's younger son, Seun's, gloriously authentic Many Things (Tot ou Tard), that the Kuti bloodline was properly revived. Less globally eclectic than Allen, Seun's Afrobeat has been to date more revivalist than revolutionary, buthelped by his father's last band, Egypt 80, and his last musical director, saxophonist Lekan AnimashaunMany Things was a convincing chip off the old block. Seun was fortunate in having Animashaun on his team; he'd joined Fela, along with Tony Allen, in the mid-1960s, and he has the original Afrobeat blueprint 100% down. (Animashaun's solo album Low Profile: Not For The Blacks, recorded in 1979 but not released until 1995, and available since 2004 on the British Honest Jons label, is reviewed in Part 3 of these Diaries).
Betraying a gobsmacking ignorance of West African musical tradition, some European and American observers have sought to belittle Femi and Seun's involvement in Afrobeat by suggesting that they are opportunists exploiting their father's name. To say such a thing is entirely to miss the point: in West Africa, and elsewhere on the continent, the role of professional musician is routinely handed down from father to son (and it is son, almost always, rather than daughter), with the inheritors preserving their forebears' legacies while, as they mature, adding more of themselves to their music.
But that's by the by. The good news is that not only are Tony Allen and Femi and Seun Kuti keeping the flame burning, but they have been joined by a host of other artists playing Fela-inspired Afrobeat. Many of these bands are European or American-based, and many of the musicians who play in them are white. It's generally presumptuous to attribute statements like "he would have loved it" to departed musical auteurs when describing the work of their inheritors; but it's safe to say Fela would thoroughly approve of this development, even if he might not be so enthusiastic about some of the bands.
Afrobeat Revival features ten different modern Afrobeat bands, including those led by Tony Allen and Seun Kuti. Allen's "Crazy Afrobeat," from Home Cooking (Honest Jons, 2004), and Kuti's "Think Africa," from Many Things, are, of course, highlights, but they're not the only ones. Another is the New York-based Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble's 13-minute opus "Fela Dey" (meaning Fela Forever), from the group's second album, P.D.P. President Dey Pass (Afrobomb, 2008). The horn section is a monster, the rhythm guitar precisely catches the magic of those skeletal but irresistible background riffs which were key to Fela's work from the early 1970s, and in Leon Ligan-Majek the band has a lyricist with something to say and a singer with the presence to drive the message home.
Akoya's isn't the only more-than-promising ex-North American track on the album. Antibalas' "Government Magic," Chicago Afrobeat Project's "Jekajo," Mr Something Something & Ikwunga The Afrobeat Poet's "Di Bombs" and The Superpowers' "Abbey Rockers #1" also nail it. Chicago Afrobeat Project's use of the kora, assertively played by Morikeba Kouyate, is a novel development which works well. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Toli Almasi's Brooklyn-based, all-female group Femm Nameless' "Ibajekbe (What If)" is another unusual and successful track, refreshingly for Afrobeat putting a woman's perspective up front and including wife beating and breast cancer among its references.