That Monkey Is Wearing the Emperor’s Clothes!


Fela Kuti’s Gentlemen (1973) is an Afrobeat magnum opus, so it makes the cut for Dancng Shoes Saturday. I got on a big Afrobeat kick in college. It wasn’t a far jump from James Brown and P-Funk to Fela Kuti. All three create dense funky grooves with a heavy emphasis on the percussive and counter-rhythms. All three channel chaos into a groove, allowing instruments to simultaneously play individually and collectively. In short, it’s unkut democracy expressed sonically. Unlike most other forms of music, funk emphasizes the one and the all, recognizing that every sound, no matter how minimal, is equally important. Whereas in rock music, it is often the lead singer and lead guitarist who are the front and center, or the emphasis on the singer in soul groups.

In fact, the congruence between the three funk groups was more than a coincidence of the Zeitgeist. In fact, Fela’s afrobeat army met James Brown’s funky gang. Even before meeting Fela was already on his way to developing afrobeat, a fusion of high-life, jazz and funk rhythm; however, James Brown’s political songs, especially exhortations to get involved, added another degree of depth to the soul funky. ‘Afro-beat’ was used because of the combination of African styles, but also as partly as a critique of African performers whom Fela felt had abandoned their African musical roots in order to follow current American pop music trends. This was related to the rising black nationalism, Fela was influenced by, along with P-Funk and James Brown, and many others.

As Fela was influenced by this movement, and by James Brown pushing the boundaries of soul music, Fela merged the political to the dance. Fela pushed against the boundaries in his own country, Nigeria, which was run by the military. The result was increased, often violent, government repression, including a raid of his compound that killed his mother. His music progressively mixed politics and propulsive, funky grooves. Fela’s introduction to the black power movement occurred during his band’s first trip to the United States in 1969. He met Sandra Isidore, a member of the Black Panther Party at a gig in New York. Becoming lovers, she introduced him to the work of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X and persuaded him to write ‘conscious’ lyrics.

James Brown singing passionate singing style had impacted Geraldo Pino of Sierra Leone, who promoted JB and his band while touring around Africa. Geraldo influenced Fela with his deep groove and success.

Just as Fela was influenced by James Brown, James Brown was influenced by his experience in Lagos. Bootsy recalled, ‘[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.’ Brown took some notes while he was there sending his arranger David Matthews to check out Tony Allen. In an interview, Allen stated, ‘He (David Matthews) 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.’

Later, the Parliafunkadelicment Thang exploded when Bootsy, Catfish, Fred, Maceo, and Frank Waddy came over from James Brown, bringing the heavy emphasis on the one over in the mid-1970s.


After returning to Lagos, the band, titled Africa 70, produced a steady stream of music over the decade of the 1970s. Dubbing the music ‘Afrobeat,’ Fela . He also set up Kalakuta Republic, a commune, which also functioned as a recording studio and rehearsal space. Numbering up to one hundred people, where his many wives, bandmates, roadies, and other helpers lived, Fela later declared the Kalakuta Republic independent of Nigeria. Furthermore, Fela had set up a nightclub/community center called the Afro-Spot and then the Shrine. The politics of his music and lifestyle made him a rebel to the government and a hero to the people.

On Gentlemen, Fela is at the top of his game. The arrangements are crisp as classic Afrobeat is dropped. Intoxicating deep grooves chug along underneath allowing the instruments to work on and around the pulse. Call and response and counterpoint were as important to the proceedings as is the sociopolitical awareness. Igo Chico, Africa 70’s tenor saxophone player, left in 1973, so Fela took over the tenor sax part to go along with being the arranger, organ player, and bandleader. He picked the instrument quickly and efficiently, which is shown on “Gentlemen.” But often the attention on Afrobeat is heaped upon Fela without looking deeper into the sources of creation and inspiration. One reason Africa 70 grooved the way it did was because of drummer Tony Allen, who is still pushing the boundaries of rhythmic music. Each instrument had its’ own part which would fit the larger pattern. Everything was tied together by the drums.

“Gentlemen” mocks Africans who dress like westerners. Pointing out the persisting colonial mentality, Fela also points the finger at his past self. He went sent to London in 1958 to study medicine, but only stayed in London until 1963. Beginning with Fela on sax, Allen joins along until the rest of the band drops in.

“Fefe Naa Efe” is a slinky homage to women’s breasts. As Seven minutes into the song hits a organ crescendo which is followed by a blast of the horns.

“Igbe (Na Shit)” has one of the best rhythm guitar parts I have heard. Rhythm guitar played a crucial role in holding down the funk groove.

Fela was a man of many hats, often choosing to wear as many of them as he could simultaneously. A man of excess, whether with music or wives, Fela lived authentically, though his sexism is a glaring strike for many. Dying on August 3, 1997 of complications from AIDS, Fela lived a dynamic life. Having recorded and released over fifty albums, Fela’s musical legacy is only a small part of his contribution to the world.


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