This article originally appeared in Bass Player magazine.
BACK IN 1991, WHEN KUNLE JUSTICE first met Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the godfather of Nigerian Afrobeat hadn’t been in a recording studio in more than two years—but at age 52, he felt he still had plenty left to say. “The music was a passion with him,” Justice says, his accent liberally tinged with a mixture of Yoruba and the Pidgin English he grew up with in Lagos, Nigeria. “And I got the passion too. That’s the reason I’m there. The music was for the people, for everybody, so Fela ask me if I was okay to join the band, and of course I said, ‘Me? No wahala—no problem.’”
The outfit was called Egypt 80, and the following year, Justice nabbed a guitar spot on Underground System, which would be Fela’s last album before his 1997 death. But the band itself wasn’t finished. Fela’s youngest son, Seun, took over, and Justice switched to keyboards (his first instrument) and eventually the bass. His sinewy, insistent, and straight-up funky lines are a key part of the driving rhythmic force behind Seun’s latest fulllength CD with Egypt 80, and the first to feature Justice alone in the bass chair.
With Afrobeat enjoying a youthful resurgence Stateside— thanks to bands like Antibalas, Budos Band, Chicago Afrobeat Project, and more—it’s refreshing to hear a veteran of the Lagos scene tear up a groove with authority. “Afrobeat rhythm is very different,” Justice explains, “because you have to know how to get the feel. When the bass starts off, you can’t just walk with the drummer. Sometimes you play with him, and sometimes you play around him. So the bass has a lot of room to move, but you must remember you are part of the house, too. Nigerian music comes and goes, but Afrobeat always stays in that groove.”
Rise was tracked in Rio de Janiero and produced in London by Brian Eno and John Reynolds, so there’s a tape-saturated fullness to the mix that harkens back to vintage Fela. But the real low-end depth comes from Justice’s raw, no-frills bass sound. Reliable gear is hard to come by in Nigeria—he’ll play through whatever he can get—but he loved the sound of the Yamaha BBT500 1×15 combo he used for the Rise sessions.
Using his thumb and two fingers, Justice adjusts his technique to fit the song, whether it needs a nimble touch (on the wickedly up-tempo and slippery “Mr. Big Thief”) or a bit more heft and crunch (on the hard-edged “Slave Masters”). Whatever the approach, he’s always right in the subtly tempo-pushing pocket that is the backbone of the best Afrobeat. “There’s no room for anything fancy. The music is raw, so the whole instrument is raw. Really, the sound comes from your hands and the way you play. For someone who has not played this music before, the best thing I can tell them is to try to use different parts of your [plucking] hand when you play the strings. You will get different sounds and tones. When you play those in a rhythm that repeats, you are starting to get to Afrobeat.”