Pan African voyage on Afrobeat: West African influence on music Part : Nqaba Mpofu

It is no secret that music has been a notable part of African people's existence across the world. Music is the primary mechanism of retaining and disseminating culture, it has also served as a source of resistance against oppression in Africa. Throughout the ages in African societies, music has served in ways that reflect the people's beliefs and value systems. 

This was no different in Western Africa, our focal point for this week's blog.

We kick off in Kalakuta republic. "Where?" you might ask - 14 Agege Motor Road, Idi-Oro, Mushin, Lagos, Nigeria is the answer. In the background you can hear electrifying music being performed by the father of Afrobeat - Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The music is a cry against the legacy of colonialism in the form of corruption, fear, brutality and apathy. Kalakuta republic, which gets its name from Calcutta prison in India where Fela served a sentence in 1974 for possessing marijuana, housed Fela and his family. It was more than just a residence - it was a theatre of dreams. Fela is reputed to have referred to it as a country on its own. Why Kalakuta you might wonder. Well, more than a thousand armed soldiers descended on Kalakuta republic on February 18 and assaulted those they found in Kalakuta. In a similar way that the colonial forces had done in other parts of Africa, the soldiers raped and looted the family compound and threw Fela's mother - a fall she never recovered from. Kalakuta is but only a microcosm of what was happening elsewhere on the continent. Despite the heavy repression and suppression the people experienced, Africa still gifted the world with more than just wonderful melodies and rhythms.

After studying music in London, Fela had returned to Lagos where highlife music was very popular. He went all out in search of avenues that would satisfy his musical talents and experimented with his own take of highlife music with Koola Lobitos, a band he founded with J.K. Braimah. Highlife had been made popular in Ghana from Trinidad’s calypso rhythms by the likes of E.T Mensah and The Tempos . It is characterised by jazzy horns and multiple guitars which lead the band, and got its name from the high class audience who enjoyed the music from select clubs. Ironically, the people outside those select clubs called it the highlife because they did not reach the class of the couples going inside. Some of the earliest bands to play highlife music include the likes of the Jazz Kings, Cape Coast Sugar Babies, and the Accra Orchestra. The genre spread via Ghanaian workers to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Gambia among other West African countries, where it quickly gained popularity. Some scholars have hailed it as the articulation of the zeitgeist. Ghana was important to Fela’s musical career because he first became popular there since the Ghanaian audience had an appetite for his variation of highlife music, which tended to lean toward jazz. Ghana also happens to be important for the liberation of the African continent as a whole because it is the first country on the continent to gain independence. 

During the wave of independence across Africa, there was, and continues to be, a distinctive sound of music depending where you find yourself on the continent. Cuban rhythms prevailed in most French-speaking African countries. Leading groups in West Africa included the Star Band de Dakar (from Senegal), the Rail Band (Mali), and Bembeya Jazz National (Guinea). In central Africa, Grand Kalle and l’African Jazz, Franco’s O.K. Jazz, and Tabu Ley’s African Fiesta (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire) and Les Bantous (in the Republic of the Congo) were prominent. Each band had its own particular sound and style, but all were influenced by full-blown orchestras such as those of Johnny Pacheco and Orchestra Aragon and by the smaller, guitar-based groups of Cuban singer-songwriters such as Guillermo Portobales.

Beyond Kalakuta, in neighbouring Cameroon, a different sound to highlife was being heard courtesy of Manu Dibango. Manu was one of the pioneers of Afro-jazz in the 1970s. He blended American funk and traditional jazz with local Cameroonian rhythms to form a genre which would later influence many other musicians of his time and a younger generation of artists. Alongside the likes of South Africa’s Miriam Makeba and Ghana's Osibisa, he is among the great pioneers of African music. 

Manu's life is a prime example that music is a great unifier because his parents came from separate ethnic groups and were tied up in song. Whether it was Congolese rumba in the 1950s, disco in the 1970s or hip-hop in the 1990s, his contribution to the development of modern music cannot be overstated. His 1972 hit, “Soul Makossa”, was yet another African example of music that connects people. The song, came at a time when Africa was caught between brutal military dictatorships and corrupt one-party dictatorships. Its vibes had unique cheerfulness and evoked a sense of cosmopolitanism that transcended borders. This is evidenced by the fact that Manu collaborated and played with musical talents from Herbie Hancock to Sinead O’Connor. The ease in which he merged different cultures through his music is what made his music have an international reach. Manu was a talented multi-instrumentalist who played the piano, mandolin and vibraphone, as well as the saxophone....


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