Afrobeat: Beyond Fela and After: “Nigerian Muse-ic: Crisis of Creativity or…?” – 03/22/08

March 22, 2008

This article originally appeared on Afrobeat: Beyond Fela and After on 03/22/08.

When I was first approached to write an article on Nigerian music for Muse Magazine, I accepted the invitation without hesitation. Truthfully, I was quite excited. Being an ethnomusicologist who had recently returned to Nigeria from the U.S. to do fieldwork in the area of popular music, the prospect of contributing—giving back, as it were, to the society which not only had spawned me, but which had now become the bedrock of my academic research was indeed delightful. Almost immediately, I started to think about a topic to write about. It did not take very long, however, for me to realize something that I had known for a long time; something I should have first considered before my initial gleeful acceptance of the invitation to write. My muse was long estranged.

Benumbed by the fear of that daunting realization: that I was going to fail to deliver, I relapsed into a state of crisis. My muse, you see, is highly unreliable. She disappears for stretches at once, and then, when least expected, reappears. Sometimes her reappearances are fleeting; a hint of an idea, a spark of creativity, followed by long periods of darkness. But at other times the visits are protracted and rapturous. I wished I was experiencing one of those longer reunions. Maybe I was. Slowly, but very clearly, revelation came. It occurred to me that my current creative crisis, the relationship between my capricious muse and I could be a metaphor for the state of affairs of Nigerian music.

Historically, Nigeria has produced some of the most exciting music to have emerged from the African continent and its far flung Diaspora. Most of these musical genres formed over time within the cauldron of crises, socio-cultural and political. Pre-independence, highlife emerged in Ghana, Nigeria, and other countries along the West African coast as the transethnic soundtrack to nationalism. Highlife’s brave brassy chorus line and sinuous guitar rhythms embodied the struggles of diverse ethnic groups to forge urban identities which registered, yet transcended the colonial affiliations of newly emerging polities. Its potpourri of local rhythms, melodies and polyglot palette consolidated emergent national identities.

The crises of the Nigerian Civil War contributed to the decline of highlife music in the West, simultaneously opening up space for the rise of juju music in this region. Championed by exponents such as I.K. Dairo, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade, juju music would achieve international success as a “world” music genre proffered to be in league with reggae. In Eastern Nigeria, the devastation of the War stripped most people of all means of livelihood. Musicians were not exempt. Shorn of all but the most portable, cheapest and easily accessible instrument of the highlife band, the guitar, highlife musicians in the East developed a guitar band variant of the genre. It is from this Eastern school that the memorable Sweet Mother, still the most well known popular song across Africa, emerged.

By far the most explosive musical genre to have come out of Africa so far is Afrobeat. Created by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Afrobeat’s staggered rhythms, boisterous horns, stark poetry and antiestablishment ideology gave voice to the teeming Nigerian grassroots, articulating their disenfranchisement with the postcolonial state. It is a testimony to Afrobeat’s universality that today, the genre can be heard live in the bars, café’s, clubs and concert venues of New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, etc.

The global flowering which Afrobeat has encountered since the death of Fela in 1997 seems to have eluded the genre’s country of origin. While bands like Antibalas, Akoya, Chicago Afrobeat Project, Aphrodesia, Fanga, Afrobeat Academy and Albino continue to spring up all across the U.S and Europe, only a few stalwarts—the Kuti siblings: Femi and Seun; Dede, for example, have been able to successfully carry on the tradition in Nigeria. To be sure, there are other Nigerian Afrobeat ambassadors, but most of these musicians have had to relocate to Europe and America where their roles in the perpetuation of Afrobeat music continues to be significant. What could be responsible for the stagnation of the Afrobeat tradition in Nigeria? Where has the Nigerian muse gone, and should we be concerned?

Many reasons have been proffered for the crisis of creativity that we are currently experiencing, most of which center around the dearth of live music which the country experienced in the 90s. The economic decline that gripped the country during the military era resulted in a situation where only a very few could afford musical instruments. It also meant that for most people, budgetary decisions were reduced to the choice between a loaf of bread and live music patronage. Most people naturally chose the former. With poverty, the attendant problem of poor security kept most people indoors at night even when they could afford to spend some money at live music venues. The decreasing bar and club crowd was matched conversely by the church and mosque going demographic as Nigerians became increasingly religious, seeking spiritual succor from the economic hardships they were facing.

There are other factors unique to the retarded growth of Afrobeat in Nigeria. The fact of Fela’s larger than life imprint on the genre is of course an issue that cannot be overlooked. Most Nigerian musicians shy away from being identified as Afrobeat musicians because those whom have thus ventured have been shortchanged financially due to criticisms of either trying to copy the Chief Priest verbatim without displaying much of their own creativity, or, taking the genre too far away from its essential elements, distorting a musical style which many hold as somewhat sacred.

Although many would argue that Nigeria is not yet experiencing a true economic rebound—and perhaps this may be so—the live music scene is definitely experiencing a revival not unconnected to increased private investments and urban development. Several clubs, bars and restaurants have sprung up in Lagos, some of which are owned by foreigners whom as a result of the government’s economic reforms have been emboldened to make monetary investments in the country. However, with this influx of private investment, the country has also been opened up to a fresh bombardment of foreign musical culture. This influence is most significantly felt in the growing ascendency of hip hop music and the competition it is posing against the time tested Nigerian musical forms: highlife, juju, Afrobeat.

Of course, Nigeria is not new to the impact of foreign cultural influences. In the 60s and 70s, the nation, along with other West African countries was deeply influenced by the worldwide explosion of African American soul. During this time, several “copy cat” bands emerged whose sole repertoire consisted of covers of soul hits or local compositions which aped such hits. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the “copy cat” bands of the 60s and 70s and the current Nigerian hip-hopers, namely: medium of performance. While the “copy cat” bands were bands, playing live musical instruments, the deejay culture with its heavy reliance on electronic gadgetry appears antithetical to live music making. Ultimately, there are fewer “true” musicians, and musical development is stymied—(I once attended a hip-hop concert in which all the musicians lipsynced to their prerecorded tracks). On a more positive note, its is commendable that some Nigerian hip-hop musicians have been incorporating elements of Nigerian rhythm, melodies and languages into their music, carving a distinctly Nigerian hip-hop niche for themselves in the popular media. It may be argued, then, that the economical conservativeness of hip-hop music has provided an alternative outlet for a younger generation of Nigerian musicians whom have not been privileged to learn musical instruments. However, it is yet to see whether as it happened during the soul/funk era, a Nigerian musical form that is as unique and explosive as Afrobeat will emerge from our current musical experience.

It is yet too early to tell what the Nigerian muse of musical creativity is up to, whether what we are experiencing is really a crisis of creativity, or if there is some latent creativity in the cultural crisis we are currently experiencing. Has the Nigerian muse absconded, leaving Nigerian musicians to their floundering antics? How long will she be gone, or, did she ever leave to start with? After all, some musical genres: fuji, apala, juju etc. continue to thrive in uncanny byways all across the country regardless of the superficial vagaries of the corporate music industry and the polity as a whole. Everyone knows that sometimes, the best places to eat aren’t posh restaurants but those lowly and obscure sheds far away from opulence. Perhaps similarly, the best places to hear the most contemporary African music are those byways where accomplished bards historicize through song and rhythm the current moods and experiences of the ordinary Nigerian. And because through all the political and economic turmoil that have befallen our nation these musicians were never silenced, it can be debated whether live music ever really died in Nigeria; whether our muse ever really left.

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