Straight outta Lagos


In continuing with the theme of rehashing pieces I’ve already written and posting them here as though they are new and exciting, here’s a longer, improved version of a column I wrote a couple years ago on the link between Lagos and the development of my beloved Afrobeat. Having spent this pleasantly sunny afternoon half-heartedly attempting to pack a suitcase whilst blasting out the Fela, it seemed pertinent to post this edited tn2 piece up:

Though its founding fathers can be linked with many cities, it is only right to trace the development of Afrobeat back to Lagos, Nigeria. In 1963, after several years in London studying music whilst playing jazz and highlife, Fela Kuti returned to his native Nigeria seeking to form a band. Kuti asked drummer Tony Allen to join his new band Koola Lobitos, having previously played with him around the Lagos gig circuit. Allen was an unusually talented percussionist, effortlessly playing an eclectic blend of traditional Nigerian yoruba rhythms and Western jazz – it is no coincidence that Damon Albarn famously sings “Tony Allen got me dancing” in Blur track ‘Music Is My Radar’.  Allen’s was an unprecedented mix of rhythms which, along with Kuti’s fantastic musical fusions of soulful Western funk and African grooves (topped characteristically with pidgin English), would form Afrobeat.

The band returned from a stateside tour with a new name: the Afrika ‘70 (after trying out “the Nigeria ’70” whilst on tour). Lagos became home to Kuti’s nightclub, the Afrika Shrine, where the group would become renowned for raucous performances as well as practicing yoruba ceremonies.  But their American odyssey had led to a different agenda too, and Kuti held a newfound fascination with the Black Power movement. Throughout the 1970s the band would live and record in a communal compound in Lagos they named “the Kalakuta Republic,” highlighting its independence from the corrupt government.  The music of the Afrika ‘70 took a distinctly political turn, which marked a significant break from their previous focus on carefree love songs. Zombie, their 1976 album, was perhaps the most important release recorded in the compound, lyrically attacking the Nigerian military whilst retaining the band’s revered style of exotic, polyrhythmic jazz. The album was hugely successful although, unsurprisingly, less so with the military, who retaliated by sacking the Kalakuta Republic and burning it to the ground.

The loss of their home and recording studio was not the only problem for the Afrika ‘70, as arguments over royalties fractured the relationship between Allen and Kuti, with rumours circulating that Kuti was planning on taking all the band’s profits in order to fund his political career. Allen left the band in 1979, taking many members with him; it is said that Kuti hired four drummers in an attempt to recreate Allen’s signature sound.

Fela Kuti remained politically active both through his personal life and his music, and – for all his surprising misogyny and borderline megalomania – is rightfully still held as a true icon of modern music. His funeral in Lagos was attended by over one million people, and he was buried – of course – dressed in ostentatiously bright clothes, holding a massive joint.  Meanwhile Tony Allen would further his musical explorations, going on to develop the Afrofunk genre – he too continues to be hugely prolific. Afrobeat Proper had been established, influencing local and international musicians alike: Joni Haastrup and Ginger Baker amongst them. Ultimately, the legacy of Kuti and Allen can be traced back to those nights of gigs in the Afrika Shrine, and the recordings done in the Kalakuta Republic; indeed, it was in Lagos that the glorious Afrobeat truly came to life.

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