With a Broadway show about his life, a series of reissues on the Knitting Factory label, biographies and tribute albums, the interest in the musician, independent thinker, cultural and political icon, and Nigeria's most famous musical export Fela Kuti continues to grow 15 years after his death. By fusing highlife, jazz and James Brown style, big-band funk and channeling his political struggle through music, he created his crowning glory, afrobeat, a style that would inspire musicians around the world, especially in South America, Europe, Canada and America.
It's only fitting that a celebration of his life and music takes place every year on or close to his birthday (15th October). In Europe and the States, Felabration is usually marked by a day of live music by Fela-inspired bands (according to the official Felebration website, there'll be 50 of these around the world this year), but in Lagos, Nigeria, Felabration is a week-long festival at the New Afrika Shrine. If you were at last year's festival (where the above clip was shot) and missed his sons, Femi and Seun Kuti, both of whom were on tour elsewhere at the time, you'll be pleased to know they'll both be performing at this year's event.
Fela was a pan-Africanist and believed that his music, in addition to entertainment, should also be the driving force for mental emancipation and a tool to initiate social, economic and political changes, so Felabration (in Lagos) also includes debates, and this year's topic will be “Social Media in Africa; good or bad”. Meanwhile, speakers like Prof Wole Soyinka, Dr Femi Falana, Carlos Moore, Prof Osinbajo, HE Fmr Gov of Cross River State, Mr Donald Duke, Mr Ben Murray Bruce will be discussing “Corruption and the Next Generation”.
The 13-member Zozo Afrobeat will be performing at Felabration in New York on Sunday 14th October, and two days before that, afrobeat co-creator Tony Allen will perform with Jimi Tenor and the band Kabu Kabu at the Amsterdam event. Also on the Amsterdam bill is Jungle By Night, an impressive group of nine young chaps who mix afrobeat with Ethiojazz, dub and rock. They performed at last year's Felabration, too, along with Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 (Fela's original band), getting the blessing of the band members. Their recent album, Hidden, is definitely worth checking out. Here are 4 tracks from the album:
Inspired by Fela
Fela is sometimes likened to James Brown: both were unusually prolific, they both marched to the beat of their own drum, their influence on other musicians was immense, and both continue to be sampled like crazy. We've already mentioned Jungle By Night, but there are too many other good Fela-inspired groups and cover bands to mention in this piece - the most well known of which are his sons' bands and the Brooklyn-based Antibalas (who arranged and performed the score for the musical Fela!, and who released their latest album, Antibalas, just last month, but here are a few others:
US group Nomo (we recommend their album Ghost Rock)
Canadian group Mr. Something Something (we recommend The Edge and Deep Sleep)
The British band Ariya Astrobeat Arkestra (check their self-titled album)
Germany's The Whitfield Brothers
Canadian band Afrodizz (listen to From Outer Space)
And for cover versions, we simply must mention Colombian group Cumbia Moderna de Soledad's stripped down take on Shakara, which they retitled Shacalao
But to get a clearer idea of how far Fela's influence has spread among musicians around the world, it's worth picking up the 15-track compilation album Black Man's Cry: The Inspiration of Fela Kuti, which features tracks from Ghana to the Caribbean island of Trinidad to Venezuela's Latin scene, and all the way up to modern-day New York and Munich.
The list of musicians who've sampled Fela is even longer. The Fela page on the WhoSampled website is incomplete, but the track Water No Get Enemy from the album Expensive Shit seems to be a particular favourite. Here's the original:
sampled by Cut Chemist on Sound of the Police (from the 01:28 mark)
and by Common on Pops Rap III All My Children, which appeared on the album Like Water For Chocolate
But it's not only hip hop artists who've sampled Fela to give a track a bit of vim.
Fatboy Slim sampled Roforofo Fight (from the album of the same name) on First Down (from the 01:34 mark in the video below); it appears on the album Better Living Through Chemistry.
And R&B singer Kiley Dean sampled Sorrow Tears and Blood (from the EP of the same name) on No
You get the idea. With over 50 albums in Fela's rich back catalogue to choose from, it's safe to assume we'll be hearing snippets of Fela's music in tracks by other artists for years to come. For now, keep checking the Felabration website to find out if one of those 50 will be taking place anywhere near you, And, if so, get ready to dance.