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How late Afrobeat King, Fela composed his songs

By FUNSHO OGUNDIPE

Late Afrobeat master, Fela Anikulapo Kuti had something mystical about his very engaging musical career. This mysticism that defined the life and musical times of Fela popularly addressed as Abam eda has given birth to all kinds of scholarly investigations both by scholars of popular culture and scholars of music, who through their different accounts try to unravel the Fela mystique.

In this abridged essay, Funsho Ogundipe, Nigerian pianist, composer, movie-maker, leader of the band, Ayetoro, and one, who was also privileged to play in the band of the late Afrobeat attempts to lead our teeming readers into the  musical world of Fela and how he did his thing.

In the afrobeat underground it normally started with  whisperings. One of the guys in the house may have observed the master humming a melody… or clapping a drum pattern… or scribbling away at paper. Perhaps, simply writing some chords…

The next stage would see him at the old upright piano, which sat in the hallway  of  his house, Kalakuta, checking out different chords and working out individual parts for each instrument in his Egypt 80 Orchestra.

He would usually Have a joint in hand, in Y-fronts, and not much else.  Hitting notes and feeling them.  Then you knew for sure — if you lived in the house, or was one of the frequent visitors to Kalakuta — because his dancers and the girls in his harem would start the rumor:.

Fela don get new song… Fela don begin new number…Fela dis… Fela dat… Na fire……
By this time, the word was up. Everyone knew. From the runners selling weed on the streets to the call girls by the street corners waiting for their johns to relieve their boredom. Everyone knew a new number was coming.
The punters in the local pubs, musicians waiting on the latest tune in case they wanted to sit in with the band later… Students, workers,  market women… The closer you were to Ikeja — the Lagos suburb where Fela both lived and worked before his transition — the stronger the rumors grew, and as the days go by, they became more than rumors.

Soon Wednesday evenings at the Shrine would have the familiar  sounds and smells that accompany a Fela Kuti rehearsal.

First, having decided that the tune he had been hearing in his mind had come to stay, he would  send for his rhythm section, jazz drums and miscellaneous percussions: five in all… add to that twin guitars (tenor and rhythm),  then twin basses and electric piano. Since he writes his music line for line, he would dictate parts to each musician. They would work on their parts until the whole thing became the groove he wanted, adding layers and layers of sound, until the wall of sound was ready to hit you.

By this time, fans would be waiting outside his house — drinking, smoking, flirting, eating or just listening to the sounds conjured by the sonic scientist. A few bold enough to venture inside would press their bodies against the walls adjourning the rehearsal rooms and cup their hands to their ears for a closer listening to the band. At this stage, only the diehards would be around. You could hear the harmonic carpet but not much else. No majestic horn melodies, no breaks — and yes, no killer vocals. Those would come later.  What you heard now though was a wicked groove and some super bass lines…..
Fela:

He sits facing the band. Shirt open, smoking a cigarette. He drags on the cigarette and looks at the horn section. Sitting opposite him, ten-man strong, they range from trumpets through flugal horns to the reed section with twin alto tenor and baritone saxophones. They are flanked by the chekere and sticks players.

He counts off a tempo and the rhythm section come in on the one. He plays a melody again over the groove. The horn players pick up the melody and play  together with different degrees of success. He plays the melody again. Some musicians have scraps of paper with the melody sketched out  and they look at this while they blow. Others prefer their ears and play patiently listening to his lines on the electric piano.

After a few attempts they get it right. Then he guides them more gently, sketching the form of the tune aurally: how many times the melody must be played; how many sections there were; what harmonies were for the horns… He plays the backing riffs for instrumental solos and they fall in behind him, riffling away until they were one tight, loud, section.

When Fela has a new number to work on, Wednesday nights at the shrine were rehearsal nights. The club would be as full as on a regular day of performance with people listening intently. The only difference would be that only vibe will be heard and no dancing. Everyone is quiet. Lagosians are witnessing one of their most innovative composers at work and  the atmosphere is one of respect for his craft. At the first sign of the melody from his keyboard, someone somewhere picks it up and starts humming.


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