From Likembe: Cross – Dressing Fun with Area Scatter
I’ve recently learned that several years ago the Igbo traditional musician Area Scatter was killed in an auto accident. Area was a performer who achieved renown throughout Ala Igbo, and even drew some international notice. One of the more memorable sequences in the acclaimed television documentary series Beats of the Heart came during “Konkombe,” the segment on Nigerian music. It featured Area Scatter, who had a performing style that was unique, or unique for Nigeria, anyway. Let’s read the description of him in the book Beats of the Heart (Pantheon Books, NYC, 1985):
“. . . we headed off into the forests to the hut of an infamous ‘witch doctor,” or shaman, called Area Scatter. His home was filled with bones and skulls and paintings of the power of good and evil. A muscular, humorous man, he explained how, after living through the civil war, he had gone into the wilderness for seven months and seven days and had reappeared transformed into a woman. The day we visited him he headed off, dressed in white smock, polka-dot skirt and a shamanist bone necklace, to the residence of his Royal Highness Eonunnoke to play for the local king and queen.
“Area Scatter was a highly accomplished performer on his thumb piano which was decorated with a distinctive skull and crossbones. When the king and his wife ceremonially entered and seated themselves on their thrones, Area Scatter bowed deeply and started to sing in a soft, rich voice. . .”
Of course, in the United States there are well-known transvestite performers like Ru Paul or Divine, but I understand that this sort of thing is rather odd for Nigeria, at least among the Igbo. I’m not aware of any tradition of theatrical cross-dressing in Nigeria (as for instance in Chinese opera or during Shakespearean days), nor should we assume that Area was gay. While homosexuality in Nigeria is certainly not unheard of (a reading of Hints or any of the other Nigerian “True Confessions” – type magazines should dispel that notion!), it is surrounded by so many layers of scandal and condemnation that the idea that any Nigerian would flaunt his or her gayness is, frankly, mind-boggling. So let’s just say that Area Scatter was a guy who literally marched to his or her own drummer, and leave it at that.
Uchenna, from With Comb and Razor, was kind enough to rip that segment from Beats of the Heart for us, and here it is:
When my wife, Priscilla, returned from Nigeria a few years ago, she brought back an actual Area Scatter LP, Ugwu Anya Egbulam Musical Group led by Area Scatter (Namaco ENLPS 56), excavated from a used-records shop in Ajegunle. The name of the group, “Ugwu Anya Engbulam” means roughly “The Evil Eye Will Not Kill Me.” I was originally going to put up just one track from it, then decided that posting the whole album would give listeners a better feel for the talent of this unique artist, Area Scatter.
In the first song, “Uwa Marala Okaa Ome Nwachukwu,” or “the well-known Nwachukwu does what he says he’ll do,” Area Scatter sings the praises of a certain Mr. Nwachukwu, who built a big house, who helps widows, and who pays the tuition for needy students, among other things:
The title and refrain of this song, “Nwa Nnem Uwam Gbulam,” means “my brother, my sister ["nwa nnem," literally "my mother's child"], I am just fed up with this world”:
This is a long testimonial to the “Great Chief” (“Eze Ukwu”) of Ngwa-Ukwu, a township near Aba. The final part of the song apparently deals with a love triangle – there was a struggle, police were called, etc:
Ugwu Anya Egbulam Musical Group led by Area Scatter – Ajelele Eze Ukwu of Ngwa-Ukwu / Akwa Goddy Uwalalula
Many thanks to Priscilla for interpreting the lyrics. Albums of Nigerian traditional music like this are not rare – thousands of recordings of Igbo traditional music alone were issued during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. What is unusual is to find any of them outside of Nigeria. To be honest, I just love the stuff, so I will be posting more of it in the future.
If you would like to see “Konkombe,” or any of the other episodes of Beats of the Heart, you can order the DVD here.
From OKAY Africa, Femi Kuti joins his junior brother in condemning the Nigerian Same Sex Marriage Bill. He responds to those who ask if Fela would have supported this bill – the answer is Fela was at best ambivialant on homosexuality but he was adamant on upholding human rights.
‘The Right To Choose Your Own Sexuality is a Human Right’ by Femi Kuti
In the wake of the recently passed “anti-gay” law by our government and President Goodluck Jonathan, there has been much speculation online as to how Fela Kuti, my father, would react. So let us get this clear, and I will also express my own views on the matter.
My father would not support this law. He would know why the law was passed: as a way of distracting the population from the main problems we face today – poverty, lack of electricity and services, corruption, mismanagement, and so on and so forth.
That being said, Fela may have had some reservations about homosexuality itself. Who is to say? No one can speak for him. But Fela would not have had any reservations about upholding and protecting basic human rights. The right to choose your own sexuality and sexual behavior –as long as it is between consenting adults– is one such human right.
It’s a difficult topic for a lot of people in Nigeria to understand as it’s a very new issue that has never been quite public. Our culture and traditions and certain religious values make it more difficult for many to accept or understand, and it will take some time for those people to learn to respect the fundamental human rights of others to express themselves freely. People have said that being gay is “un-African” – I’m not an expert on our history, but I don’t know of anywhere the topic is mentioned in our history (I am not referring to Christian orthodoxy that was brought by non-African missionaries).
The gay community in Nigeria will have to be patient and realize acceptance of homosexuality is a gradual process which will take a very long time – especially in the north of Nigeria. But they must slowly put their case forward. They will need a lot of diplomatic support, and they will have to fight the law. They might definitely lose, but they will just have to keep on fighting for their fundamental right to live. There is no other choice.
We have to keep talking about the issue of gay rights, but it’s the government’s responsibility to take the lead to defend people’s fundamental rights. Citizens must have the right to be who they want to be.
This is the true story of the legendary Ugandan musician Philly Lutaaya, whose soulful AfroPop rhythms united a generation of Ugandans. Inspired by his continent and its people, Lutaaya kept faith in his beloved motherland in his music even while he was a struggling musician abroad in Sweden. This epic piece chronicles his transformation from an entertainer to a musical activist after he learnt about his own personal tragedy. “Today It’s Me” is an exploration of courage, passion and tragedy, featuring Philly Lutaaya’s exotic, riveting music. Best Performer, Dialogue ONE Festival 2008. Best Short Solo, United Solo 2011. Poster: Maya Lama. Recommended for: adults, elderly, ethnic community (African).
2013 United Solo, the world’s largest solo theatre festival, presents 121 productions! All shows are staged at Theatre Row: 410 West 42nd Street, New York City. TICKETS, with a price of $18, are available at the Theatre Row Box Office and online through Telecharge at www.telecharge.com. You may also call Telecharge at 212-239-6200. When placing your reservation, please provide: the FESTIVAL name (United Solo Theatre Festival), the name of THEATRE (Theatre Row – The Studio Theatre), and the specific DAY and TIME of SHOW you would like to see.
*The ENCORE tag marks productions with solo artists who performed successfully at the Festival in the past and came back again to perform this year.
Donald Molosi @ActorDonald
Souzen Joseph is an independent journalist, a musician, community activist and vodou practitioner. In addition to her job at TNH [Haitian National TV], Souzen is the host of a weekly radio show covering all aspects of health and self-care produced by the Haitian Red Cross. She is a founding member of a Haitian women’s intergenerational collective, ‘Back to Natural’ which works to encourage women to use Haitian traditional health remedies, wear natural hair and generally promote a pride in being Haitian. She is also a member of Fondation Felicité, a movement to promote Haitian history and culture, named after the wife of the leader of the revolution, Jean Jacques Dessalines.
In 2002 she began a career in music, initially singing at private parties then in 2010 following the earthquake along with five friends and family formed the band SALAH, which mean ‘joy Holders’. They play a mixture of jazz, roots, soul and bossa nova. As a vodou practitioner, Souzen’s way of living is an inclusive one which sees humanity and natural life forces at the center of our existence and
SE: Do you consider yourself a feminist and if so how do you explain your feminism, where did it come from and what does this mean in a Haitian context.
SJ: I didn’t know the word feminism, or realize when I would get mad when people talked about women. But I think it comes from my mother because from the age of 12 I lived with her and I realized how women’s lives can be difficult when they are on their own, even when they are not it is pretty difficult. I realized that something had to be changed and that this could be me in the future. My feminism is not like how they define it in Haiti because it is not a fight against men. It’s a fight to get what is my right. Sometimes these things could be small but you realize when you grow up that even a small act can be a big thing.
SE: You mentioned that sometimes in Haiti the word ‘feminism’ or being a feminist has negative connotations?
SJ: Yes, just like a lesbian. Before when you say you are a feminist they make generalizations. It’s not like this now but the general population still defines feminism as a fight against men. Even some women think this. In Haiti, rural women do not have the same relationship with men as urban women. It is sometimes more cordial but equally unfair to women. However, the women do not quite capture the importance of feminism and the duty to fight for their rights. And most Haitian women associations don’t act to try to understand its real definition. So that’s why I think people misunderstand the movement [feminism] and don’t get involved.
I am a feminist because I think women have rights and we have to get those rights but I don’t want to defend myself as a feminist in the way it is defined in Haiti.
SE: You mentioned earlier that life for women in rural areas is different to those in urban areas. What is the difference in the relationship to feminism between women in the rural and urban areas.
SJ: Women in the rural areas are more free than urban women. This is a paradox. Women in rural areas are the head of the family, the head of the land, the plantations. Officially they don’t have ownership of the land but they manage it everyday, they maintain it, they do everything and the relationship with men is so different. Men know they don’t have the right to beat the women. Of course everywhere there is violence, but it is there is less tension in the rural areas. But women in rural areas are still victims of laws for example if they don’t marry the man they have no land ownership rights.
SE: You have a degree in communications and a freelance journalist. You’ve worked in for MINUSTAH [UN force in Haiti] which is controversial and also you worked for TNH. What was your experience like working for MINUSTAH given that many Haitians see them as an occupying force?
SJ: First when you are in a country where there is little employment when a job comes you have to take it. I worked with UN civilians and had no relationship with the army. But there was still a daily tension with the civilian staff. Professionally they were great but in the personal relationships they were pretty bad. A lot of people resigned and others only stayed because the salary was reasonable. In summary, there is a lot of tension and we don’t appreciate them any more.
SE: As we come to the end of 2013, what is your opinion on the continued presence of MINUSTAH in Haiti after 7 years?
SJ: We made a mistake to accept them coming to Haiti but they are already here and though we must tell them to leave promptly, but not before we reinforce our structures ourselves. So we might ask them to leave partially under our supervision by reducing their army and civilians.
SE: So are you saying that Haiti does not have enough security eg police for the UN to leave?
SJ: No, it’s not about security. Haiti is a safe country, maybe the safest country in the world. But the UN have a lot of people working in Haiti, they have their structures in every part of the country so we have to prepare ourselves. If we want to do it in the best way for Haiti then we cannot ask them to take everything and go when we don’t have the government or the state to replace them. But still they have to leave and Haitians have to decide.
SE: You have been presenting and producing a radio program on health and self care for the Red Cross, can you talk about the program, your role and how important the program has been and what you will be doing next?
SJ: Just to be clear, the program had already started when I came on board. I was hired to rearrange it as professionally as I could. When I came I had to prepare the Haitian Red Cross volunteers to be able to run the program. In the beginning it was just after the earthquake and the objective was to inform people where they could get help, clean water, distribution and so on and then came cholera. Now it’s three years since the earthquake. We realized that we no longer knew who were our beneficiaries because three years on, the resilience of the population is OK . We need to move on to other things though they still need information about their health, about risk management. So now we provide information on cancer, sexual infectious diseases, breast feeding, disaster management, violence prevention and so on.
Also the purpose of the show is to increase the capacity of the Haitian Red Cross and to inform the population of what they do. No one wants to talk about the earthquake anymore so the International Red Cross is leaving and I will be leave-taking the program and they will manage it themselves.
When the program started it was on Radio ONE and more rural people called. After 4 months it moved to Radio Caraïbes and more urban people called. But really it depends on the topic so if the program is on sexually transmitted disease you will get more women callers because they know they are more vulnerable. If it’s about violence prevention you get equal calls. The program runs for one hour and is played twice a week and is very popular. We had a survey and discovered that people have been following it for 3 years and even ask for more time.
My next radio project is something I have been planning for three years. It’s called “Au Feminin Pluriel”. I realized that the program with the Haitian Red Cross was restrictive but if someone else was discussing a subject they could be more expansive. For example we could talk about family planning but we would not mention abortion. So in this new program there will be some difference but using the same format so that social issues and other topics are discussed.
SE: This sounds really exciting which leads to my question around your project ‘Back to Natural”
SJ: Yes, I realized that many Haitian women are using artificial things. It’s not about make up but false hair, false nails, skin lightening. I made a show about the skin lightening which is dangerous for us because every woman wants to have a light skin. There are some magazines which advertise the creams which are now being used by men and women. So we will also talk about medicine and traditional herbs. When I was young, the tradition was that parents keep their child’s umbilical cord. At 3 or 7 years old, the parents accompany the child to bury it while planting a plantlet [tree]. At that time, the parents explain to the child the responsibility henceforth to take care of this shrub and protect it until it becomes great enough. Now, this tradition is respected in very rural areas. I did have mine at 7 years old, in Carrefour. I had a coconut tree. I did it for my daughter and I will do for my son too.
SE: You’ve also expressed strong views on education which connects with your involvement with the Foundation Felicité.
SJ: Felicité, is one of the most fascinating elements I have had to date. When I first met Bayyinah Bello [the founder of Foundation Felicité] I was 22, my hair was permed like every woman in Haiti but I had a lot of questions and she was wow you have a lot of questions so let’s do it step by step. I asked about [Haitian] history, and then I realized our history was very much linked to vodou. When I was 22, I began to see my grandmother who died when I was 2. I explained it to my mother and she said how could you see her when she is dead. So when I talked to Bayyinah she said you are not so crazy and everyone in Haiti has these kind of experiences. She helped me with this and I was told to ask my grandmother what she wants me to do. I did and she answered me so after three months of seeing her often, Bayyinah Bello suggested I go to see someone so I can understand it better. I did and I met the Lwa who told me they have been waiting for me for so long and he explained to me about my family. It was something pretty impressive. He told me a lot of things about my father who was in New York and he was surprised.
I understand a lot of things now and my father was not in agreement with my choice to become a practitioner of vodou but my mother respected my choice.
Foundation Felicité was started by Bayyinah Bello and the objective is to research our history and to publish these; take care of the elders because some aspects of our history are kept by our elders who have a lot of information and to document this. The foundation also works to maintain our culture such as the event we had to celebrate the birthday of Dessalines. To remember the importance of our culture and history.
Felicité, is the wife of Jan-Jak Dessalines, a strong woman who was much older than him. He was her third husband. She was our first nurse. They talk about Florence Nightingale but she was before her. She took care of the soldiers even the French soldiers. She had a strong personality and told Dessalines ‘your enemies are not mine, let me choose mine’. Sometimes, she negotiated with Dessalines to return the French soldiers to France. She taught him to read and write as her first husband who freed her, taught her. She had no children but adopted all of Dessalines children. Her house remains in Dessalines ville [the first capital of Haiti called the Imperial Town] near Arbonite in the north.
In school, we do not learn any of these, they don’t tell us where Dessalines comes from, sometimes they talk about him as if he is a bad person. The problem is our history books were written by Frères de l’Instruction Chrétienne and the point is: how can you ask someone to write your story and this person is the one you beat up!
SE: Yes, I wondered about this for example why Alexander Petion is included as one of the founding heroes of the revolution in the museum? And even he is the one pictured in the PetroCaribe promotion in Petion-Ville [at a recent conference in Haiti]
SJ: Pétion was not part of the revolution but I think [and some Haitians are sick of talking about this] but up till now some countries are trying to prevent Haitians knowing about their history. Dessalines was someone extraordinary but they don’t want us to know this. Even now they are always talking about Toussaint Louverture just because at the end they captured him and he died in their prison. But Dessalines was killed by Pétion and they cannot say “we captured Dessalines”.
SE: So would you say there is some tension between those who want to engage with the history and those who don’t care?
SJ: Yes. It’s about class system too. Most of our ancestors [not to say all], those who really fought for our independence were Vodou practitioners. Last week I said to my husband: “don’t you realize vodou is in fashion? Everyone is in vodou now. They have bags, shirts with ‘vèvè’ [vodou symbols]. Maybe it’s a good thing! [Laughs]
SE: Just to develop this a little, you’ve already explained you are a vodou practitioner and although vodou was declared an official religion by President Aristide, it is still marginalized and demonized both in Haiti and beyond. For instances blaming vodou for illnesses. Last week I watched a TV drama which was a struggle between Christianity and Vodou – of course we know who won.
SJ: We are still marginalized but vodou practitioners are less impressed by this marginalization but we are still victims of their opinions. For example when the cholera started and they blamed it on vodou. In many cities, they assassinated oungan and mambo [vodou priests and priestesses] because of this and it was many months before the health authorities explained where it [cholera] came from and what it was. Nobody has been punished for these murders. But they use vodou to go to the international and talk about our culture but they really don’t care. For example everyone buys the vèvè on the bag but no one cares what its role is, why is it important. The international are fascinated by this but that’s it. It’s about sensationalism.
People should know that vodou is not a religion. It is a word that Haitians use to explain their relationship, the harmonization with god and our guides.
SE: Recently in Haiti there has been a change in the way Haitians relate to gays and lesbians when a christian group held a protest against homosexuality. Two people were killed and many more beaten. What is the position of vodou on homosexuality and sexual minorities.
SJ: In vodou, and that’s why a lot of people don’t like us, we don’t judge anyone we don’t have the right to. Usually they say when you assume yourself we don’t have the right to make a restriction for you and that’s why gay men and women they can be mambo or oungan. We don’t choose. Vodou has the saying: Every child is a child”, even sexuality, black, white, they are children and we have to protect them. All you have to do is have respect for the principals of life and of living with each other. A sexworker, this is about survival, gay is about feelings, how can I then judge, it’s not that which makes a person who they are.
SE: To end I want to ask you about your life as a musician and the band SALAH
SJ: When we first started it was just for pleasure and I used to sing for pleasure. People told me I had a beautiful voice. After the earthquake we needed something to keep us strong so after three months we started again playing together. A friend in Florida brought us another guitar and microphones and we start to make noise. People started to ask us to play and we realized we could make a band. There is a Lwa and he told me that’s your destiny, you are going to be a singer. I was so shy but he taught me how to sing and then last year he asked me to start playing the guitar, so it’s good. We are seven friends, father, husband, wife, brothers and friends in the band.
From PRI The World – An interview and music by Malian singer, Rokia Traoré
How Rokia Traoré Created a Beautiful Album Amid Constant News of Torture and Killings in Mali
Last year, a coup d’etat in Mali fed an Islamist uprising in the country’s north. Thousands of Malians were displaced, and hundreds more tortured and killed. The French military went in earlier this year to help the Malian army stop the Islamists.
These days, stability seems to be holding.
Earlier this month Malians voted in a new president–Boubacar Keita. So many are looking toward a bit brighter future. But they’re still cautious. That includes singer Rokia Traoré. She says, “I’ve never stopped being optimistic and also hopeful concerning Mali. And yes, I know the situation is still definitely fragile.”
Rokia Traoré was born in Mali, the daughter of a diplomat.
She began recording her latest album Beautiful Africa when the conflict in northern Mali was at its height.
And although she produced the CD in the capital, Bamako, far from the fighting, Rokia Traoré says she and her band still felt it.
“When there was war in the country, it affected everything,” she says “It was difficult but we could make it and that’s great. I mean there was no delay and we could make everything on time.”
Rokia Traoré admits some people, especially here in the West, may think of places like of Mali–many countries in Africa–and wonder if they’ll ever be stable.
But she says the reality of the continent is far different from what’s often portrayed in the media.
Though like her father, Traoré wants to be diplomatic.
“The title of my album is Beautiful Africa and I guess this title just pushed people wondering about what is beautiful about a place which can be considered hell on earth and it’s not. It’s life of everyday, of beautiful people, so it was important for me to sing it.”
Beauty in Song: Chiwoniso singing and playing the mbira [See Below]
Rebel woman. Sister-fire. Fingers that brought down the rain. The power and joy of your voice, a portal to past and future and worlds we could dream in. The light and heart and force of you.
For all the stages we rocked together. Nairobi. Amsterdam. Durban. Blantyre. Capetown. Jozi. Medellín. Quibdó. Harare and Harare and Harare.
For all the conversations – on buses and planes, in cafes, dressing rooms, airport lounges. We talked agents and business, stagecraft and art, love and family. We talked politics and struggle, heartbreak and vision, migration and return, soul-nourishment and soul-poison.
You taught me not to eat chocolate backstage: it creates mucus. We were united in our insistence on getting the sound right, our loathing of sloppy production, our outrage over artists not being treated as professionals. When you were on the program, I relaxed – I knew that anything I missed in tech, you would catch and fix.
You and Chirikure, hamming it up against the grey skies of Amsterdam. You at HIFA, saying to me, eyes tender: Isn’t it a beautiful country? You onstage at the Harare Book Café: the rest of us had wilted, and you were just warming up. You sang that night down. As you have sung so many nights down. As you have brought the sun up for so many around the world who long for home.
The first stage we shared was Poetry Africa at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, 2007. My first time to hear the mrimba, to be blown away by your virtuosity. I played your CD over and over for weeks after. Of our company that night, three are gone now. Dennis Brutus died in the fullness of his 85 years. Bantu Mwaura, we could not save. But you, Chi? In my body there is a deafening NO. This was NOT your time. Your daughters. Your unwritten songs. The world stages waiting for you.
I don’t know how to say goodbye to you, Chi. I don’t know how to hold the reality that we will never share a stage again, never talk again, never celebrate again on the dance floor. Out of my tiny right to mourn you, I imagine the hugeness of loss and grief for your children, your family, your people.
Rebel woman. Sister-fire. Fingers that brought down the rain. The power and joy and complexity of you. The light and heart of you. You are so deeply and widely loved. For all time.
Additional tributes from Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes
Your fingers bear the callouses
of the artist’s sacrifice of blood
and flesh. We do not know
the wounds behind the box
of magic smoking out rings
of pure grace, ribbons
of music as impossibly lasting
as stars over a village
of lament and laughter.
And when your voice,
husked and seasoned,
transforms the babble
in the room into a single
prayer, we know the meaning
of mercy, Chiwoniso, we
know the glory inside
that fragile womb of light.
You taught us the pitch
of sorrow, you taught us
the pitch of gladness,
you have left in the air
an unspeakable awe
– Kwame Dawes
THE BEND OF TOMORROW
A great psalm brews on her face.
A revolution in her eyes, her hands
poised over metal keys ready to pluck
a new dawn, a new song for Zim.
In the bar she laughed, husky,
a voice well lived in, well travelled
across the sinewy terrain of a heart
ravaged by love and tenderness.
It’s never what I hear in my head, she says,
shaking the locks piled on her crown.
Never the wonder I approach on the inside.
Then she laughs, easy, an ease, ah.
She says, who can know the song
of tomorrow. It lives somewhere down
the river, around a bend we never reach.
Cesaria Evora comes on the iPod -
A huddle of poets hushed by a voice
from our hearts. That, she says,
as the last whispered note dies.
That is from around the river bend.
Noah laughs as though he knows
all things. And he does. Lebo
is holding TJ’s hand. Sisters.
Khadijatou is rubbing the djembe’s skin
lost in a possible tomorrow. But I
know when Chiwoniso holds that half womb
of song to her body and leans
into the microphone we see only grace.
And for a moment, around the river’s bend.
– Chris Abani
Nina Simone wears an enchanting and endearing detachment on her face. The kind worn by people who have seen a land flowing with milk and honey.
Then she smiles, raises her hands. The video closes in on her face — her brown, smooth, skin.
Her voice gains power…voice of free.
“I’ve found out how it feels…to be free.”
She genuflects to the audience…
The interviewer asks Nina Simone the meaning of Freedom – she begins by saying its like being in love – you know it when you feel it but you cant describe it. Then in a moment of revelation she declares
I’ll tell you what freedom is to me! No Fear! like a new way of seeing
Possibly not realising that moments before she had declared her own freedom when she states
“I wanna go in that den of those elegant people with their old ideas, smugness and just drive them insane… I want to get a show, a real show thats calculated from the beginning where I haven’t sacrificed any of my principles “
Freedom to me is having no fear but its also being afraid, seeing beyond the fear and doing it anyway. When I give in to my fears, I am distressed,, its like loosing control and being at effect of others.
*Guest Post by Dami Ajayi, a medical doctor, of Saraba Magazine.
On October 15th, 2012, Fela would have been 74 years old. My little sister, in her mid-teens, is clueless about this legend that died at the climax of Military Rule in Nigeria. Worse still, she is an undergraduate and together with her fellow freshmen, the likelihood of drawing blanks at the mention of Abami Eda is a definite absolute. And even if they are knowledgeable, the myth would resonate ahead of the man. A famous musician who lived on Gbemisola Street, Ikeja with his harem of wives. A weirdo who smoked a lot of Marijuana and was always in trouble with the Nigerian Government. This perhaps will have been the myth handed down to the younger ones as Fela’s legacy, if not for timely interventions like the Kalakuta Museum.
Nigeria’s major export of late, save crude oil, is her contemporary music. The prolificacy of locally-produced music is incredible; there must be an appropriate demand to incur such an overwhelming supply. While the anti-intellectual content of most of these songs is another kettle of fish, I have tried to understand the philosophy of Nigerian Hip-pop. It often eludes me.
Highlife music, for instance, can be described as West African Independence sound as well as a Neo-colonialism totem; it was essentially dance-room orchestra bands that had played for the colonialists now playing indigenous tunes with the same ensemble, a sort of syncretism between the Western culture and ours, a blend, an amalgam if you wish. Juju music, arguably a variant of Highlife, is no different, but please what is Nigerian Hip-Pop music? A syncretic imitation of American popular sound and the Nigerian bourgeoisie dream? Music, as an article of culture, should be a continuum: the tradition of forebears should resonate and reflect in their progenies. Again, this is another kettle of fish.
Fela’s LP records are journeys, often torturous and consequently abandoned by the impatient, the uninitiated. Look and Laugh, a mellow reflection critical of Nigeria’s 2nd Republic lasts for a whooping 30 minutes; Fela’s chant does not waltz in until about thirteen minutes after the opening tunes. The fashion of Afrobeat is a lot different from Highlife: it is intellectual languor to appropriate both genres. The difference between both genres is a doctoral thesis by itself.
Fela began his musical journey as a Jazz musician playing Highlife. The music was so called Highlife Jazz and it was different from the Highlife of his contemporaries–Roy Chicago, Orlando Julius and Rex Lawson–and his forebears, Victor Olaiya and Bobby Benson. His music was deviant and richly influenced by American Jazz, even though his vocals were clearly Yoruba and his themes ranged from folklore to love songs to quotidian issues. The ripe riffs of his trumpet solos were delightful; it was jaunty music with a tinge of genius and a promise of greater things. His songs were rife with foreign influences that perhaps were not popular with his fans. The typical Fela session in the early Sixties was not known to drag a lot of ladies to the dance floor, but his charisma was known to lure women to him after his shows. It would take a trip to America, from which he returned impoverished but where he met the Black American lady, Sandra, to be set on the path of invention.
It irks me sometimes when studio acts like D’Banj are referred to as Afrobeat musicians by Europeans. Fela was also irked by the European coinage of Afro-Rock to describe his music. To say this is to undermine what Afrobeat really is. D’banj shares some similarities to Fela alright. The lean body frame and light complexion, the formidable stage presence. The similarities stop there. Any Afrobeat musician worth his ilk plays proper wind instruments; Still, any Afrobeat musician should perform live music with a band–there is no place for lip-synching over a recorded song, or worse, an instruction to a Disc Jockey to blare tracks from a Compact Disc. Army Arrangement, mastered while Fela was in Police custody, was done with studio synthesized string intros. This incurred his wrath and necessitated another version.
Fela decline’s, if there is anything such called, most critics believe began in the Eighties when he became critical of the Nigerian Government and his politics resonated the most in his tunes. It was indeed a torturous journey from where Fela began. He had returned from Britain to play stylised Highlife, returned from America with a fistful of Black identity, and set himself in the path of a musical odyssey.
In the Sixties, Fela played his Highlife Jazz songs about soup and witchcraft to empty dance halls. His activist mother told him that there was no way anybody would listen to him if his band was called Koola Lobitos. His American girlfriend told him that he needed to pursue more ambitious subjects beyond soup and food. Then he discovered the miracle of chanting: his dance floor flourished.
In the light of the Oil Boom of the Seventies, there was attendant corruption and the masses needed to raise a voice: Fela raised his. For this, he was often censored and punished. His house was razed down twice by havoc wrecking soldiers; his mother was thrown down and injured; Fela’s bones were broken. These events were catalogued on several of his songs: Kalakuta Show, Pansa Pansa, Sorrow Tears and Blood, Coffin for Head of State, Unknown Soldier, and Overtake Don Overtake Overtake.
How does one now begin to criticise Fela’s plough into the deep reaches of Nigerian politics after all these unfortunate events? Fela’s Afrobeat was a fraternal twin of circumstance. Music had to become a weapon, albeit that of self-defense and also a vessel for societal criticism.
Afrobeat, an abstract odyssey from Highlife, carried a Mission Statement from the outset. Don’t Gag Me was one of the early tracks on that road to greatness that carried a manifesto that would define the maestro’s career: a vehement struggle against censorship at the cost of both physical and character injury.
Fela has been dead for seventeen years. Afrobeat is not dead. It lives on in the horn of his sons, both consanguineous and by ideological proxy. There is no doubt that Afrobeat has evolved since Fela waxed his tribute to Thomas Sankara in the early Nineties, his last record. Afrobeat has risen from its country of origin to become an international concern. Every practitioner has imbued the sound with their various input and idiosyncrasy. There has been robust dialogue and criticism within the music itself, those that bother on technique and style.
I remember vividly the ascent of the sandals-wearing Masked One in the mid-90s into the Afrobeat scene. How he deployed the talking drum–an article of Juju music and South-Western Highlife–in his music. How he invigorated the dance-floor with his Bata dance.
Femi Kuti has refused to remain in his father’s shadow; rather he does his own style of Afrobeat, a fine version in its own right. His music is less brash; he has equipped the complex amalgam of Afrobeat with a recipe that make the sounds better cohere. The benefit of this is an international attraction which one cannot also be divorced of Fela’s indirect refusal at international acclaim. Seun Kuti leads the Egypt 80 band and has been recording his tunes which are often full of nostalgia; his subtleties are his but his entire build is reminiscent of his father. Funso Ogundipe also brings a refreshing outlook with his laid-back Afrobeat which appeals to Jazz soothingly.
Afrobeat’s earlier concerns, of militancy and socio-political criticism, seem to have dwindled considerably from the contemporary Afrobeat sound. There must be a socio-cultural explanation for this. We are in a democracy that has not been displaced by a military junta for more than a decade. Nigeria is not quite at the “promised land” in the light of colossal corruption, severe poverty, gross insecurity and lack of basic social amenities but censorship and withdrawal of freedom of expression are things of the past. Governmental criticism takes place everywhere: from barrooms to Twitter Timelines to Facebook status updates.
About this time last year, I began a series of internet blog posts on Saraba Magazine called Felabrating from a Distance. What I hoped to achieve was to advocate for a far-reaching introspection into the philosophy of Fela.
I wrote that Afrobeat was the love child of oppressed humanity and African resilience. I reiterate, now, that Afrobeat is borne out of necessity. It is the piquant voice of outrage when governance runs amok. It is the bedroom voice that comments on societal vices.
Afrobeat is a range. It spans from Afrocentrism through to socio-political criticism. Afrobeat, a graft from Highlife, is based on the musical idioms of Jazz. It is an admixture of Western sounds and African concerns. It is not music to be made by a studio producer using Digital Fruity Loops and other Pro tools.
The Occupy Nigeria protests against removal of subsidy which took place earlier this year featured copious reference to Fela’s music. It goes without saying that in the hiatus occasioned by Fela’s death, there have not been adequate protest songs good enough to displace or upset Fela’s position. Instead, reputable musicians join voices to record campaign jingles and songs during the election periods, the likes sponsored by the late despot Gen. Abacha, when he was about to do a dress transition of his military rule to an autocracy.
Indeed, there have been wars fought under the auspices of Afrobeat. Seun Kuti spoke to power against the contrived Five-thousand Naira note scheme on Twitter. This leaves hope in our hearts that the spirit of Afrobeat lives on: on our streets, on social media, on every Fela Vinyl Record, on every Fela cassette, on every MicroSD card, on every blaring car stereo, on every Home Theatre System, in every Nigerian heart, in every African heart.
Somebody say yeah yeah!
Nina Simone sings about feelings in this autographical rendition of Stars. As always she has the audience in the palm of her hands including stopping her song to demand one of them “Sit Down”! The song is full of stories from her life, all our lives. Stories of loneliness, stories of lust for power and fame, of pain of betrayals, of pretense. Some make it young before the world gets to do its dirty job. Some may make it when they’re old only to be told to move out of the way…
These are the stories we love to recite knowing deep down we never owned the names we gave ourselves or others gave to us. Most of all it’s about Nina’s life as she lived it
Stunningly beautiful performance of ‘Djorolen’ by Oumou Sangare from the documentary “Throw Down Your Heart” by Bela Fleck. The film is a musical adventure to discover the African roots of the Banjo…..
Ever since he started playing music, BÃ©la heard stories about where the banjo came from. To many, the banjo is seen as a uniquely American instrument — and even conjures images of white Southern stereotypes. But the banjo is actually a descendant of an African instrument. West Africans have long played an instrument that looks and sounds much like the banjo. When slave traders captured West Africans, many of the slaves brought that instrument, and the knowledge of how to make it, to the United States. On plantations in the American South, slaves were not allowed to play drums, but they were allowed to play the banjo. Soon, whites started copying it, and the banjo evolved into the instrument we know today — and became a part of American culture. BÃ©la wanted to go to Africa to trace the roots of the banjo, the instrument that defines who he is.
Stunning performance of “Djorolen” by the great Oumou Sangare from Bela Fleck’s documentary “Throw Down Your Heart” (edited version of similar Youtube video)
just a feeling
a new way of seeing
being able to dream
a moment or two
knowing its gonna be OK
I humble myself before the mystery of Yemoja.
You are the Queen of Mothers.
You are the Mother of the Orisha.
You are the Womb of all Life.
You are the Feminine Manifestation of the Ase.
You are the Womb of the World.
You are the Goddess of the Oceans and Rivers.
You are the Owner of the Mystery of the Feminine Principle
Thanks to Ola Osaze for the translation.
A musical and family commentary on the life of Miriam Makeba – “I do not talk politics, I say the truth”! A beautiful and special film.
In 1963 she spoke to the United Nations and became a figurehead of the anti-apartheid struggle in her country. It earned her the nickname Mama Africa and led to thirty years in exile. Makeba married five times, lost her only daughter and lived in the U.S., Guinea and Belgium. She was in high cultural and political circles and was itself surrounded by people like Ella Fitzgerald, Marlon Brando and John F Kennedy. Her most famous hit Pata wasPata. The light made â€‹â€‹her sad that the very apolitical dance song was so successful, but they are not complaining about “the audience chooses what it wants.” In 1990 Nelson Mandela asked her personally ‘come home’ and return to South Africa. She died in 2008 of a heart attack. This richly documented ode celebrates her unforgettable voice, her charisma and her highly paid idealism.
The cover illustration which features a beautiful nymph blowing bubbles in the air is by Diriye Osman.
Wangechi Mutu is one of the best artists of her generation. She talks candidly in the next issue about how she got into art as well as her hopes and dreams for the future. The gorgeous portrait of Wangechi is illustrated by Kichau Ramlaul.
Grammy-award winning musician Meshell Ndegeocello has written a beautiful meditation on ‘Freedom’ for the next issue of SCARF, which comes out next week. This image is illustrated by the amazing Lyndsey Winnington.
In the continuing African election series, I discuss the intersection of politics and music in Senegal with Senegalese activists and artists.
Kadialy Kouyate performs at TEDx the music of Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Gambia which dates back to the 13th century. One of the oldest instruments is the Balafon whilst the Kora is newer and dates back to 17th, 18th century when it became one of the main instruments of the Girots. Kadialy’s plays and sings in the traditional style of the girots.