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Guide to Afrobeat Music: A Brief History of Afrobeat

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Afrobeat is a mesmeric blend of West African and Black American music that has inspired throngs of contemporary acts worldwide with its unique rhythms and melodies.

What Is Afrobeat?

Afrobeat is a music genre that fuses African music with Black American influences to produce a compelling hybrid of culture and sound. The genre is largely the creation of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti who, with his band Africa 70, forged a rhythmic mix of West African beats (predominantly Nigerian and Ghanaian) and American jazz, soul, and funk, which was shot through with a potent streak of political awareness.

Kuti’s music lit the fuse for Afrobeat, and the torch was carried forward by a mix of African artists, like Kuti’s former drummer, Tony Allen.

In the West, performers Brian Eno and David Byrne from The Talking Heads drew on Afrobeat for their groundbreaking album Remain in Light (1980). Listeners can still hear Kuti’s influence in the music of his sons, Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti, and modern Western bands like the Grammy-winning Antibalas.

Afrobeat music is frequently labeled as Afrobeats, an umbrella term for a far-ranging music scene from West Africa and the United Kingdom, which incorporates many popular music styles. The two sounds share only a common heritage.

A Brief History of Afrobeat

The history of Afrobeat began in the early twentieth century when musicians from Ghana combined West African regional music with Western jazz and calypso. The resulting new sound became known as highlife, which continued to fold additional Western influences into its heady mix over the next few decades.

  • Kuti and Africa 70 carve out the sound: Nigerian musician Fela Aníkúlápó-Kuti, who began his career playing in an array of African highlife and jazz bands, absorbed the sounds of soul, jazz, soca, and rhythm and blues during various tours of America and the United Kingdom. He then unleashed this formidable creation in his band, Nigeria 70 (later Africa 70), debuting his unique new musical style in the early 1970s.
  • Development of the core sound and politics: With their debut album, Zombie, Kuti and Africa 70 established the core sound of Afrobeat, which freely mixed jazz and highlife with the epic funk of James Brown, reggae and Caribbean rhythm, and psychedelic rock. Kuti sang over tracks in English and Yoruba, leading the band on saxophone, keyboards, and other instruments. He also lent Afrobeat a political side by criticizing the human rights records of Nigeria and the United States on record and in his marathon live performances.
  • Continuation under Egypt 80: Kuti remained a major artist in Africa and abroad until his death in 1997; his son Seun renamed the band Egypt 80 and continued to record and perform, as did Seun’s brother, Femi, who enjoyed a degree of popularity similar to that of his father.
  • Afrofunk is born: The most successful figure from Kuti’s orbit was undoubtedly drummer Tony Allen, who expanded on the Afrobeat sound by mixing in elements of hip-hop, dub, and electronica to form a new subgenre called Afrofunk. Allen enjoyed even wider exposure than his former bandleader through collaborations with Air, Zap Mama, and Damon Albarn of Blur, among others.
  • Crossover influence: The work of Fela Kuti and Allen was the bedrock of Afrobeat, but jazz musicians like Roy Ayers also recorded Afrobeat-inspired music in the 1970s. Ayers toured Nigeria with the elder Kuti in the late ’70s. Contemporary artists like Antibalas and Zongo Junction—both hailing from Brooklyn, New York— have carved careers out of the Afrobeat sound. Mainstream rock and soul bands, like TV on the Radio and the Budos Band, have also recorded songs with an Afrobeat flavor.

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