Afropop’s Next Wave

Last year, when the British acid-jazz label Talkin’ Loud and the French Barclay label began reissuing the oeuvre of late Nigerian superstar and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, they took the extra step of releasing a dozen of the titles on vinyl as well as CD. This gesture might have been a simple acknowledgment that shrinking the color- and information-saturated album artwork down to CD size diminished its impact, but more likely it was a way to lure in DJs and hip-hop producers. As Roots drummer and producer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson told Spin earlier this year, “Those reissues have made a whole new generation of sample madness. The race to use the tracks has started already: Q-Tip, Lauryn, D’Angelo, Black Star, Mos Def, and myself. Afrobeat is the next crop of funk to get appetized.”

I’d have to agree: last year New York’s Daktaris, whose label, Desco, otherwise specializes in James Brown imitators, delivered a credible simulation of vintage Afrobeat with Soul Explosion; the same scene spawned Antibalas, who started as a Fela cover band and then began including originals in their set. (Antibalas has been confirmed to play the opening night of this year’s Chicago World Music Festival.) The French label Comet has released compilations like Racubah! and Ouelele, and the British label Strut has issued Club Africa, all of which collect both well-known and obscure permutations of Afrobeat from past and present. Afrobeat-influenced pop acts like Zap Mama are even creeping onto U.S. pop radio.

Riding high atop the post-Fela wave is his 37-year-old son and would-be successor, Femi Kuti. In interviews Femi has stressed that he’s his own musician, but if he’s really looking to distance himself from his dad he could try a lot harder. MCA is marketing Femi’s most recent album, Shoki Shoki, in the U.S. by hitching it to their own Fela reissue campaign. Shoki Shoki was released simultaneously with the two-CD set The Best Best of Fela Kuti last month. And over the next few months, while Femi continues his tour of the States (his live act, which has been generating nothing but raves, comes to Metro this weekend), the label will release twenty Fela albums on ten CDs.

Femi is still playing the music his father invented–a gripping fusion of infectious African rhythms, interlocking rhythm guitar figures, heavy funk bass, thick horn vamps, and call-and-response chants. But beyond cleaner, more modern production, which is a function of time and resources more than anything else, there are a few significant differences. Most of the tunes clock in at five or six minutes, compared to the organic jams led by his father, which even on record could go on as long as half an hour. He incorporates more American influences, from full-fledged soul vocals to synthesizers. His band, Positive Force, plays with greater polish and precision than his father’s longtime groups Africa 70 and Egypt 80, the latter of which he led for a time while his father was serving one of his numerous prison sentences. And his writing conspicuously lacks the political edge that kept his father in and out of Nigerian jails throughout his career: “Government can scatta your head” in “Scatta Head” is as confrontational as Femi gets.

Of course if Femi were anyone but Fela’s kid, the album would surely be hailed as a powerful slice of modern Afropop, but the fact is Shoki Shoki doesn’t convey the same sense of danger or induce the same hypnotic trance that Fela’s records do, and a cynic might suggest that by keeping the music succinct, shiny, and politically vague Femi’s done little more than make his father’s work palatable to an MTV world. To be fair, though, he recorded the album more than two years ago, and has since taken a few promising steps outside Fela’s giant footprints, working with the Roots on a remix of his “Blackman Know Yourself” and playing sax on the new album by Chicago rapper Common.

If there can ever be a real successor to Fela, it’s more likely his old drummer Tony Allen, who in a stroke of luck also performs here this week. Allen is usually credited as Fela’s right-hand man in the creation of Afrobeat; he played in Africa 70 and was supposedly the only member of the band to write his own parts. Last year the Japanese label P-Vine reissued four albums Allen cut in the 70s with Africa 70 that are as hot as anything the band did with Fela. (Strut will make these slightly more affordable when it re-reissues them in a few weeks.) Allen left the band and Nigeria in 1980, moving to London, where’s he’s kept a fairly low profile until recently. He released an EP and an album during the 80s, but not until last year’s terrific Black Voices (Comet) did he manage to both assert his mastery of Afrobeat and move beyond it.

Fronting a surprisingly lean band–just keyboards, guitar, bass, percussion, and his own symphonically polyrhythmic drumming–Allen incorporates dramatic dub flourishes and a strong Funkadelic bass flavor; a few cuts actually feature P-Funk alumni Mike “Clip” Payne and Gary “Mudbone” Cooper. He also makes explicit the link between the organic ebb-and-flow methodology of Fela (and electric Miles Davis, for that matter) and modern dance music: the rhythmic drive is unswerving, but Allen perpetually shifts his accents and adds subtly different fills–as he told the Wire last year, “That’s the way I play drums, I see drums moving.” Allen also plays on three cuts on Variations (Nuphonic), the latest album by the English dance unit Soul Ascendants, who purvey an Afrobeat-driven strain of techno and acid jazz, and is including French hip-hop producer Doctor L, who was behind the board for Black Voices, in his live band.

Femi Kuti and the 14-piece Positive Force (which includes dancers, two drummers, and a bevy of percussionists and horn players) perform Friday at 9 PM at Metro. Allen’s group plays Thursday, April 6, at 7 PM at the more intimate Empty Bottle.


A performance by turntable artist Erik M is the probable highlight of an eclectic bill of music from Marseilles Friday night at HotHouse–other acts include the hip-hop outfit Don’t Sleep and the duo of guitarist Juan Carmona and singer Francoise Atlan, who play Judeo-Spanish and Arabic songs. On his recent album, Zygosis (Sonoris), M comes off as a less art-damaged Christian Marclay, combining sources ranging from Giacinto Scelsi to Napalm Death in a montage of kitschy exotica, minimalist repetition, and layered blasts of noise. He’ll also perform for free with the local electronic group TV Pow on Saturday afternoon at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phillipe Bordas.