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

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Baba Ani: "Fela Still Appears To Me In My Dreams"

By Robert Fox

Lekan Animashaun, aka Baba Ani, baritone sax player and leader of Fela Kuti’s legendary Egypt 80 band, gave a revealing interview last week to Lagos’s The Daily Vanguard newspaper. Baba Ani was one of the original members of Fela’s musical universe, joining him to help form Koola Lobitos in 1965. He remained as a key force in the innovative horn section that powered Fela throughout the musical glory days the 1970s, and was also a leader of the Movement of The People, a political party founded by Fela.

In the extended interview, Baba Ani, who just turned 70, reflects on his three decades of playing music with Fela:

The Vanguard: How did you then meet Fela?

Baba Ani: I met him at NBC studios at Ikoyi (Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation). At that time when I was with the NBC band, we used to rehearse on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, unless we were having a show, which was the procedure. I was there on one of the rehearsals and decided to go to the canteen during break and met Fela and introduced myself to him. Before then I had heard about him trying to form a highlife band, when he got back from London he was having a small group, a combo with Tony Allen on drums. So I walked up to him and explained what I heard about him concerning his plan to form a highlife band and explained to him the instrument I could play. He asked if I had my instrument with me and my response was in the affirmative. So, he gave me an appointment for four o’clock on Monday at his then Kalakuta Republic, 14A Agege Motor Road.

That same evening, I got home, carried my baritone and headed for Fela’s house. I met him with Benson Idonije who was producer at NBC, January 1965. He gave me a piece of paper on which he had written the baritone part. So, I set up my instrument and I went and read through it with my instrument and he said to Idonije; ‘ah! He has made it.’ That was how we started together...
Baba Ani was a skilled sight reader, but he explains how Fela wrote out horn parts for the musicians in the group, who came from a variety of musical backgrounds:

The Vanguard: Did Fela write his music, score the drums?

Baba Ani: He did, sometimes he uses his mouth to dictate the rhythm he wants, but initially he was writing. Even he was writing on music manuscript but when it got a stage he was writing on pieces of papers because he had reduced his music writing to tonic solfa instead of writing the note.

The Vanguard: Why did he do that?’

Baba Ani: Because at that time we were having problems with instrumentalists that couldn’t read music. To make it simpler for those who could not read notation on music manuscript, and were able to understand tonic solfa and that was why he reduced his music reading to tonic solfa on pieces of papers.
Baba Ani also describes the mistrust that some Nigerians had for Fela and his revolutionary message:

The Vanguard: How did your family take your association with Fela, the late nights, beating up of the band members (by the police and army)?

Baba Ani: It was battle royale because none of my family members supported my playing with Fela, even playing music because I remember when I was playing with Chris Ajilo at the Federal Palace Hotel, when I dressed up in the evening to go to the Federal Palace to play, some of our neighbours then would call my mother to say that I was a cult member and going for a cult meeting. A good number of my family members did not support it. Even the mother of my wife today for about three months before our marriage washed her hands off, saying that her daughter wasn’t going to marry Omonilu, but later she saw that the whole thing was becoming a reality so, she had no choice but to accept me and the ceremonies were held because I stood my ground like I still do today.
This month, Baba Ani was also honored for lifetime achievement by the Nigerian Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), part of the Nigerian Great Elders Forum, as described in The Sun newspaper (Lagos).

The late-70s Baba Ani solo albums Mr. Big Mouth and Low Profile (with Tunde Williams) were recently re-released, but their scarcity and high price reflects the collectors value and uniqueness of the music.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Tony Allen and Paul Simonon of The Clash Join New Group

By Robert Fox

Afrobeat icon Tony Allen has helped start a new “supergroup” that includes Paul Simonon, bassist for The Clash, along with guitarist Simon Tong of The Verve. Founded by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, the band played their first live show last weekend in a small pub in Devon, England.

The group claims to be nameless at the moment but plans to release a CD by the end of the year. Produced by Danger Mouse, the new CD is titled “The Good, The Bad and The Queen” (nice touch on the CD title!). The band’s website features some cryptic video clips of the group rehearsing, as well as the an initial single from the CD (“Herculean”), which is available for free download. The single is to be released officially on October 30, along with two other tracks from the new recording.

To my ears, the single and the videotaped rehearsals reflect a pop-saturated mix of The Clash’s Sandinista and The Basement Tapes by Dylan/The Band, with an ambient and folk overlay. It’s a light but interesting touch—no one could really go very far wrong with that backline.

One of the video clips of the band features Tony Allen discussing his interest in the group:
I was looking for something extraordinary, something you cannot even imagine how they are going to work together. People cannot imagine what they are going to hear anyway. They are not going to hear strictly Afrobeat, and they are not going to hear strictly pop or rock.. It’s a combination of both in there, which makes it very interesting, not boring, you know? Because me, I’m somebody that gets bored quick….It’s what I was looking for, this cris-cross. I was expecting to have it whichever way it comes to me, because that’s how it should be. It shouldn’t be what I had before.
Paul Simonon discusses the group in a second video clip on the band website. London’s New Music Express reviewed the band’s debut performance:
Damon Albarn launched his new project 'The Good The Bad And The Queen' with a gig in a tiny village pub last night (October 20).

The group, which also features Clash bassist Paul Simonon, ex Verve guitarist Simon Tong and the influential Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, played to just 150 people at the Pig's Nose in East Prawle, Devon.

The show, the first time the group had ever played live, was a warm-up for the band's appearance at the London Roundhouse on October 26 as part of the BBC's Electric Proms season, and saw the group playing back their forthcoming, Danger Mouse-produced album in order.

"I enjoyed tonight night's gig," Simonon told NME.COM. "It's good. It's the birth, and the egg has broken."

Making it clear that the 'The Good The Band And The Queen' was the album's title and not the new group's name - "We haven't got a name at all, we're nameless!" - Albarn was also pleased with the show praising his new group for not resting on their reputations.

"It was great," he explained. "We've done a lot of rehearsal and none of us have taken it for granted even though we done a lot before. You know that everyone has performed in front of 100,000 people, so they're not there to prove anything, they're there to really make sure the music is as good as they can get it."
The Long Island Press gave the new single a generally positive but mixed endorsement that sounds true to me:
“Herculean” could have been sequenced anywhere on Albarn’s last two albums—Blur’s Think Tank and Gorillaz’ Demon Days—and it would have sounded just as natural, and just as good. It’s mellow and pretty, understated and elegant, with a soft Albarn vocal bobbing along to Simonon’s slow-rolling bass line. As a single, it doesn’t make a deep impression...
It’s certainly a new direction for heavyweights like Tony Allen and Simonon, but you would expect this mix of artists to produce something interesting. Anyone out there see the band yet?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Lee Perry Gives Birth To Reggae

By Robert Fox

How was reggae born? Check out this video clip of Lee Perry's Black Ark Studios while the master records The Heptones for an illustration of how it's done (early 1970s?).

Grupo Fantasma Live

By Robert Fox
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to see a performance by one of my favorite active bands anywhere in the world: the eleven-piece Grupo Fantasma, straight out of Austin, Texas, USA.

Although their sound is often classified as cumbia, in fact they bring it hard from several different directions including funk, classic salsa, hip-hop, mambo and merengue. They feature a four-piece horn section, multiple percussion, two blistering lead guitars, and dynamite vocalizing in Spanish and English----all wrapped in an air-tight, JB-style groove.

It really doesn’t get much better than this, as far as I’m concerned. To my ears, Grupo Fantasma is the closest thing you’ll hear these days to the classic Fania All-Stars live recordings from the mid-1970s, which still represent the definition of elegant yet incendiary funk. Grupo Fantasma has the whole package working: the scratchy, charanga-like rhythm guitar, a powerful, unified horn section and a massive rhythm section attack that frequently catches you off-guard. Exciting lead guitar and up-to-date vocalizing add radical new elements.

I’ve loved these guys ever since Michael Shereikis of Chopteeth turned me on to them after seeing a Grupo Fantasma club show in Atlanta, GA a couple of years ago. They’ve been together for six years and have released two outstanding self-released studio recordings, titled “Grupo Fantasma” and “Movimiento Popular.” Band members have also collaborated with Martin Perna of Antibalas on the creative “Ocote Soul Sounds” recordings, and also have participated on a number of other interesting musical projects centered in Austin.

Now you can catch the band live yourself on their newly released live CD, Grupo Fantasma Comes Alive. I really like this recording. It captures the band at a new peak, and fans of afrobeat and funk will find much to love here. I especially enjoyed the blistering version of JB’s Doing It To Death, which connoisseurs will recognize from the classic “Rumble in the Jungle” recordings from Kinshasa, Congo (a bill also featuring the Fania All-Stars, featured here previously).

I can’t resist quoting the review of the new live CD from the Austin Chronicle, since it really captures the flavor of the new live CD:
It's been nothing but ascension for Grupo Fantasma since their self-released, eponymous 2001 debut. That turned ears, but 2004's Movimiento Popular rightfully earned this Latin big band Top 10 accolades and Austin Music Awards. On stage, the local groove collective hits like a ton of bricks, so earlier this March, Advanced Mirco Devices' custom recording rig captured all the harmonic magic flowing from Antone's storied stage. Three more things give Comes Alive its sabor grande. First, songwriting: Nearly all the baker's dozen tracks are original, blending seamlessly with "Cocinando," by the late, great conguero and bandleader Ray "King of the Hard Hands" Barretto. Second, the well-paced, bouncy songs pour with pure melodic energy, "Mentiras" into "Chocolate," and the one-two punch of "Dos Regalitos" into "Saca La Basura." Last, Grupo Fantasma's chops shine, free and in sync. And this ain't a prog trio, but an 11-pistoned Latino funk machine whose horns evoke like Nelson Riddle conceived in Spanish Harlem. What's more – save for the delicious, Santana-inspired rhythmic workout of "Rico Tumbao" – it's as if the band's tank remains full after each generous throttling. Get it, spin it, cherish it. Comes Alive is easily one of the finest live albums to come out of the ATX.
I saw Grupo Fantasma last year at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and again a few weeks ago at The Kennedy Center’s brilliant Open House Festival (which featured a number of other mind-bending acts—more to come). You can check out these performances for yourself using the free streaming video feed from The Kennedy Center website, which now includes three outstanding Grupo Fantasma shows.

For more info, definitely also check out the Grupo Fantasma website and My Space site. And definitely don't miss these guys if they come to your area.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


By Robert Fox

On September 23rd, Fela fans in Lagos had the chance to participate in the annual Felabration, a celebration of the life and meaning on Fela Kuti at The New Afrika Shrine. Held the day after Fela’s birthday, the event drew large crowds to memorialize Fela and witness the relics of his manic vision. In life, Fela was raised to a near-deity status by fans worldwide, a status that has changed little since his death, as described in The Daily Sun of Lagos:

Die-hard fans and apostles of Afrobeat last Saturday besieged the New African shrine off-Agidingbi Road, Ikeja, for a the celebration of the late maestro, Olufela Anikulapo Kuti…
The narrow entrance, built purposely to check crowd influx gave way to a narrow but culturally designed passage. Walled by ropes that bore palm fronds, the route that led to the main auditorium took passers-by through series of Fela’s mementos. There were about three stops. Each stop, a genuine hut played host to personal effects of the Abami Eda himself. One of the huts for instance had all the sleeve album covers of Fela on display. There was also an array of his clothes and shoes suspended on the walls of the huts. Other objects that drew attention were the age-long saxophone, cigarettes, photographs, and the statues of Fela.

It’s no understatement that a first timer would scamper for dear life on entering the last hut. But for the water works, every other object there were fit for a shrine. And truly, there among the water fountain, busts, and other images of the deified Fela. Seated beside the god was a shrine priest, naked, save for the half-yard cloth appearing as a pant. His posture was harmless, only that the shrine make-up could arrest a novice’s courage. On the floor were broken kola nuts.

Two flat ceramic plates, one containing palm oil and the other salt, sat comfortably as he did at either edges of a bit raised concrete ground fencing the shrine. Huge even in his sitting position, the priest occasionally sprinkled the running water on the fixed Felas around him as if he had received a warning; "We must not be thirsty for a second". He never spoke all through the presence of this reporter….
Artists performing at Felabration included: Sound Sultan covering Fela’s “United Nations;” D’banj who did a remixed version of “Sorrow, Tears and Blood,” as well as Alariwo and Segun Adefila’s Crown. A concert festival scheduled for later this month at the New Shrine will feature South African reggae star Lucky Dube, who will headline “Afrika Unite for Fela-a showbiz re-union celebrating Fela” on October 14th.

Felabration organizer Tunde Oshnubosi, a.k.a. Laface, argues that “Fela is the most popular Nigerian in the world,” and he sees the annual event and concert series as a way to increase Fela’s profile within Nigeria and also to help develop the Nigerian tourism industry. As quoted in The Vanguard (Lagos):
All over the world, other countries celebrate their own icons, in grand style and on a yearly basis; Bob Marley and Elvis Presley. They build major tourist attractions around their icons. The time has come for us to do the same in Nigeria with Fela. We need to attract people from all over the world to Nigeria. In the name of Fela and building our tourism industry and making Lagos a major tourist haven. Nobody will do it for us, we shall have to achieve this ourselves--Fela like football unites Nigerians across religion and ethnic background.
If any readers have a first hand report on this year's Felabration, please send it to The AfroFunk Forum and we’ll post it!

The painting included in this post is Barklay Hendrix's portrait of Fela from the 2003 exhibit Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Antibalas Streaming Video: Oh Yeah!

By Robert Fox


Check out this superb streaming video of the incomparable Afrobeat super-heroes Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, straight out of Brooklyn, NY. It’s a live performance in the studios of KCRW, the music-oriented public radio station based in Santa Monica, California, USA.

As you would expect, the band is super-tight and grooves hard to classic Antibalas highlights including “Big Man,” “Indictment,” “Government Magic,” and “Who Is This America?” The streaming video has excellent sound quality and also includes an interesting interview with band leader Martin Perna and other members of the group. It’s amazing how these guys can bust it out even in a live studio setting.

Since forming in 1998, Antibalas has helped keep alive the spirit and music of Fela Kuti, and they have been a crucial inspiration to the worldwide Afrobeat Renaissance that gains momentum daily. I remember the physical rush I felt the first time I saw Antibalas at a club in Brooklyn, thinking “how can this be possible?” They were a local sensation in NYC before becoming internationally-known neo-Afrobeat pioneers.

While Antibalas has toured in more than 13 different countries and has performed with artists such as Tony Allen, Femi Kuti, Baba Maal, James Brown, Burning Spear and Taj Mahal, they expand the Afrobeat genre considerably with their own original material, which is doused in latin funk, roots dub, free jazz and political confrontation. It’s a flaming, super-funky mix that remains among the most vital music being produced today, if you ask me.

In the video clip, Martin Perna of Antibalas expands on how Antibalas came to lay down the Rosetta Stone of the modern US Afrobeat movement:
KCRW: Obviously Afrobeat is at the root of what’s going on for you guys, and picking up the Fela Kuti torch. Why did you guys decide that this was music that needed to still be heard, and heard in a modern context?

Martin Perna: Well, it had never really been heard too much in the United States. Even though it was created in the late 60s and early 70s, Fela and the Afrika 70 and the Egypt 80 did most of their performing in West Africa, and a little bit in Europe. And it only got over here towards the end of Fela’s career and life. In Fela’s own words, “music is the weapon of the future.” And there is so much stuff going on in the United States, so many ways that we’re oppressed, taken advantage of. This model, this idiom that he created is the perfect way to express ourselves artistically, politically, spiritually, musically, all these things in one. We all partake of other kinds of music, and are really deep in other kinds of music. But Afrobeat is what brings us together as Antibalas, that’s how we speak.
Definitely check out the Antibalas website if you haven’t already. Pick up their CDs and see for yourself. From All-Music Guide’s review of their first major album, Liberation Afrobeat, Vol. 1:
A slab of pure, hot, and heavy Afro-beat from the heart of Brooklyn. Antibalas is a musician's collective dedicated to furthering the Afro-beat gospel at any cost, and with 13 members and a boatload of frantic, bass- and drum-heavy chops, they're likely to succeed. These cats don't just have the form down; they're not just aping Fela, they're deconstructing the Afro-beat rhythms and harmonies down to the last detail and composing new sonic architectures from which to groove and improvise. This is deep, funky, political, spiritual, and greasier than a chicken bone out of the fryer. Tracing in just enough Cuban son to add dimension and the ghost of a sleng-teng rhythm here, a dub bass out there, and the ever-shifting polyrhythms of Afro-beat jazz and hypnosis of James Brown's funky soul, Antibalas takes eight tunes and turns them all into floor-burners.