Fela Kuti and the Classical Music of Nigeria

by Ben Colvin on April 28, 2015

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Fela Kuti was a radical who utilized music to spread his anti-colonial message. He jumpstarted a social, political, and musical movement in Nigeria during a volatile era in post-colonial Africa. Fela was a Pan-African revolutionary who went to great lengths and risks to unify his people through music. His music—which he called afrobeat —was a synthesis of traditional West African dance music, American jazz and funk, Afro-Caribbean rhythms and Europeans writing and arranging. Though his unyielding message called for African independence from its European oppressors, one has to acknowledge how his experience in Europe and his studies of Western music was also vital in the foundation of his original music.

In 1958, Fela enrolled in the Trinity School of Music in London. It was here that he learned about western instruments and techniques, which he would later digest and integrate into popular musical genres back at home in Nigeria. Fela’s exposure to the multi-cultural music scene in London was just as important, if not more, than his formal training in music school. After World War II, there was mass immigration to London from Africa, Asia, and the islands of the Caribbean. London became a fertile ground for cross-cultural communication. This is where he was first exposed to calypso, highlife, ska, mambo and American jazz and funk (Veal 39). In an interview, Fela noted:

“The colonial government only let us hear what they wanted us to hear; I didn’t know black music until I went to England (Veal 45).”

It is interesting, then, that Fela had to escape the confines of colonial Nigeria to find his own musical identity and discover the different styles of African American music across the globe. The vibrantly diverse culture of London gave him this opportunity to absorb music and culture that he never would’ve come in contact with.

After studying western harmony and fully immersing himself in the diverse jazz scene in London, Fela moved back to Nigeria in 1963 to introduce jazz to his own people. He formed the Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet and played mostly jazz standards. The jazz that they performed was based off of the modern styles of bebop and modal jazz. The music of this group was not received well by the people of Nigeria (Veal 43). Bebop and modal jazz provided a different social function from the danceable swing music of the past. It was meant for reflective listening rather than dancing in a social gathering. Fela recognized this and strived to transform this music into something more accessible and invigorating for his fellow Africans. Highlife was the most popular style of West Africa at this time. It was characterized by Afro-Cuban rhythms, multiple guitars, and jazz horn lines. It was a powerful movement that Nigerians felt a strong connection with. Highlife was a synthesis of traditional African folk music with Afro-Caribbean musical elements. Fela took this trans-Atlantic fusion and added his own flavor to the mix. This was the birth of afrobeat.

Fela Kuti’s arrangements and compositions encompassed elements of western harmony and technique, along with jazz elements that he was exposed to while studying in London. His compositions were written in a big band style, with a larger horn section than most highlife groups. His music was characterized by elaborate horn themes, a modal harmonic approach, and tightly-knit Afro-Caribbean influenced percussion (Veal “Jazz Music..” 12).  The horn players reflected a jazz sensibility in their extended improvised solos that demonstrated the virtuosity of the performer.

Some of these elements can be heard in the song, “Zombie,” that he released in 1976. The song starts out with a repetitive guitar riff, going back and forth between a minor seventh chord and a minor chord with an added sixth, insinuating the four chord. This repetition creates a modal harmonic approach, allowing the soloist to improvise on a dorian scale over the entirety of the song.  The layering continues in the song as Fela, on the tenor saxophone, plays an intro solo that embellishes upon the melody which is introduced soon after this section. Then the full horn section comes in with a tight staccato melody that was hinted at in the previous solo. The use of this modal harmonic movement, the layering of parts, and the staccato horn line all display these elements of Western music that Fela Kuti incorporated into his own style. The power of this collaboration of traditional African music with European, American, and Afro-Caribbean musical elements proved to be a force to be reckoned with; especially in the eyes of the Nigerian colonial government. Fela called this music afrobeat; the classical music of Nigeria.

Works Cited

Fela Kuti-Music Is the Weapon. Dir. Jean J. Flori. Perf. Fela Kuti. Universal Import, 2004. DVD.

Veal, Michael E. Fela: The Life & times of an African Musical Icon. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 2000. Print.

Veal, Michael. “Jazz Music Influences on the Work of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.” Glendora Review 1 June 1995: 8-13. Worldcat. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous April 30, 2015 at 4:23 pm

Wow, so very much I didn’t know about Fela! The first time I heard Fela Kuti was definitely a unique experience not having heard Afro-beat before. It’s amazing that it took this musician getting away from Nigeria and going to the center of the colonial power, London, England, to create a music truly for his people- definitely a hero’s journey. Not being a musician, and because of that maybe having to listen extra closely to to be able to identify the different musical elements that are incorporated into Afro-beat, it’s enlightening to read about. Again, touching on the incorporation of different musical styles, including a significant western influence it makes me think of having to know the beast or the enemy to be able to fight it on its own terms, as Fela did through and attempted to through his music.

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Elijah Brown April 30, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Nice article. I like all of the parallels Fela Kuti’s style has with jazz. Prior to reading this, I would not have thought to compare the two genres and show that they are in many ways the same. I also like mention of other styles the had an effect on Kuti’s personal style. I feel that it’s these types of case studies that make up a good defense for the “Jazz is universal” motif. In all, I have no complaints. I learned that Fela Kuti’s style is influenced by jazz and why that is. I’m happy.

Though I guess I would’ve liked to see a video embedded of a song that embodies the comparison you’re making. Nitpick though.

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