News, reviews and commentary on afrobeat and related music from Africa, The Caribbean and The Americas

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Fela/James Brown Connection

By David McDavitt
Disciples of Fela’s Afrobeat and of James Brown’s soul have always had mutual admiration. But a debate persists: who stole whose shit? Myths & rumors abound, but the answer is as complex as the perpetual musical cross-pollination between Africa & the Americas. Both influenced each other. It's a universal truth: ‘bad cats recognize other bad cats, and often covet their particular funk’.

In the mid 1960’s Fela was star-struck by the heavy groove and conspicuous success of James Brown and local JB proponent Geraldo Pino (Sierra Leone). Fela said, “his equipment… something else… he came in a big way… one of those big American cars. Flashy new equipment. Lots of bread. He had everything I didn’t have…I had seen the impact this motherfucker had in Lagos… he had everyone in is pocket… I knew I had to get my shit together quick!” (excerpted from Fela, Fela, This Bitch of a Life, by Carlos Moore 1982).

But James Brown’s band also came to hear Fela perform at the Shrine, and attempted to capture some of his “African feel”. Here is are excerpts from interviews with Tony Allen & Bootsy Collins (JB’s bassist) from The Guardian:

"Tony Allen, Fela's drummer and a key architect of Afrobeat, claims that Brown sent his arranger, David Matthews, to check him out. 'He watches the movement of my legs and the movement of my hands, and he starts writing down ... They picked a lot from Fela when they came to Nigeria. It's like both of them sort of influenced each other. Fela got influenced in America, James Brown got the influence in Africa.’

When James Brown toured Nigeria in 1970, bassist William 'Bootsy' Collins recalls, '[Fela] had a club in Lagos, and we came to the club and they were treating us like kings. We were telling them they're the funkiest cats we ever heard in our life. I mean, this is the James Brown band, but we were totally wiped out! That was one trip I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.'"
For the full text of the interview, click here. "The Big Fela"

In another interview, Bootsy also stated, "I thought THEY were the greatest, period. Even before I got
into James Brown's band, the James Brown band was number one to me. But once I got there and saw Fela and them, then I had second thoughts about it....when I heard these cats, it was like another dimension... a deeper feel to was like, 'Man, this is IT. We gotta try to be like this!' [laughs]..." (Excerpted from


This is an interview with David Matthews (James Brown’s arranger) from the Red Bull Music Academy.

“DAVID MATTHEWS: »It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard. It was the early years of what Fela had called the ’Afrobeat’. And to some degree it incorporated James’ style and rhythms. They had a James Brown rhythm section, plus 8 percussionists, doing the African rhythm thing. And it was – you couldn’t sit down when they were playing. It was just so infectious, it was an amazing experience.«

RBMA: »…You in fact, were impressed with Fela’s arranging.«

DM: »Yes.«

RBMA: »Did you bring any of that back when you were working with Bootsy and the guys?«

DM: »Yes, I did. In fact some Nigerian kid gave me a tape of some of his stuff. And then Fela heard about it and he thought James was trying to steal his shit. And he was angry! But I did try – some of those feels that I heard Fela and his band play in Lagos…I did try to record some of that feeling with Bootsy, and Clyde, and Catfish.«…”

For the full text of the interview, click here.


  1. There might be another take on this. I think miles davis was the key. Check out Ololufe(Lover) from the L A sessions and compare it to eighty one by Miles on the Esp album. The funk influence came when Miles who was one of fela's idols decided to incorporate the Sly stone thing begining from on the corner. Fela was listening. In fact if you study their careers closely both men fela and miles shared so many musical traits than many a critic are keen to admit.
    for one they always almost never played old songs after recording them. secondly their musics kept changing. i dont know if you can get bootleg recordings of some of his(fela's) last tunes . They are spacey, atonal at times , funky and very very jazzy. In conception that is .

  2. Check Brown's Hey America (1970) and There Was A Time (I Got To Move) (1970). Both from 1970, they sound very afrobeat-inspired, the horns especially.

    1. Nonsense, how can they be afro-beat inspired when he first afro-beat album "London Scene", by Fela was released in 1971