Over the years there have been efforts to adapt African music to Western "classical" instrumentation and forms. One of the countries where this has been most successful is Nigeria, where this genre is called "Art Music."
In his book The World of African Music (Pluto Press/Research Associates, 1992), Ronnie Graham briefly discusses Nigerian Art Music and regrets that it hasn't gotten more attention. Among the composers Graham cites are Lazarus Ekwueme, Samuel Akpabot and Josiah Ransome-Kuti, a pastor and choral music composer who was the grandfather of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
I've had little exposure to Nigerian Art Music. During a visit to Lagos in 1994, I came across a stack of LPs in the Jazz Hole, but passed them up (they were rather pricey), something I now regret. Recently, however, I was going through a box of my late father's things, and found a recording of African Suite (London LPS 426, 1951), probably the best-known composition of
Fela Sowande, left, considered by many the father of Nigerian Art Music.
Olufela Sowande was born on May 29, 1905, in Abeokuta, a historically important city that was the capital of the Egba United Government, an independent entity which became part of the British Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914. Sowande was introduced by his father, an Anglican priest, to choral music and was an accomplished pianist by the time he graduated from Kings College in Lagos. Exposure to jazz broadcasts from abroad led him to found the Triumph Dance Club Orchestra in the early 1930s.
During his studies in London to become a civil engineer, Sowande supported himself as a jazz musician, befriending a number of African American musicians in the process, notably Paul Robeson and Fats Waller. In 1940 he performed his own compositions on the BBC Africa Service and later served as Music Director of the Colonial Film Unit.
African Suite was recorded and released by Decca Records in the UK in 1951. This is apparently the same version, performed by the New Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Trevor Harvey, that I discovered in my father's posessions. The liner notes of a later recording state:
The African Suite, written in 1944, combines well-known West African musics with European forces and methods. For the opening movement, "Joyful Day," Sowande uses a melody written by Ghanaian composer Ephrain Amu, as he does in the fourth movement, "Onipe." In "Nostalgia," Sowande composes a traditional slow movement to express his nostalgia for the homeland (in itself a rather European idea). At the centre of the work is a restive "Lullaby," based on a folk original.Despite working in a "Western" musical idiom, Sowande was very much a cultural nationalist and composed his last major work, Nigerian Folk Symphony, to mark his homeland's independence from Britain in 1960. However, Bode Omojola writes in his 1995 book Nigerian Art Music that:
The finale of the Suite, "Akinla," traces a very singular musical history. It began as a popular Highlife tune - Highlife being a pungent, 20th-century style, combining colonial Western military and popular music with West African elements and a history of its own. Sowande then featured it as a cornerstone of his "argument" that West African music could be heard on European terms: the African Suite was originally broadcast by the BBC to the British colonies in Africa. Years later, in another colony far away, the sturdy Highlife dance tune became famous as the theme song of the long-running CBC Radio programme "Gilmour's Albums", a typically idiosyncratic choice of the host, Clyde Gilmour.
He believed in the philosophy of cultural reciprocity and argued against what he called "apartheid in art." According to him: "We are not prepared to submit to the doctrine of apartheid in art by which a musician is expected to work only within the limits of his traditional forms of music." He therefore warned against: "uncontrolled nationalism in which case nationals of any one country may forget that they are all members of one human family with other nationals."Following a long and fruitful career composing and teaching at Princeton, the University of Ibadan, Howard University and the University of Pittsburgh, Sowande died of a stroke in Ravenna, Ohio on March 13, 1987.
I confess that I'm not in a position to evaluate African Suite as a classical music composition, although it's certainly pleasant enough. The liner notes by Sowande (below, click to enlarge) shed some light on the thinking and influences behind the piece. I would be interested to hear from readers and listeners who have more personal knowledge of the folk tunes that were incorporated into the composition. African Suite is an illustration of the many varied forms that "African music" takes. Enjoy!
The New Symphony Orchestra - Joyful Day
The New Symphony Orchestra - Nostalgia
The New Symphony Orchestra - Onipe
The New Symphony Orchestra - Lullaby
The New Symphony Orchestra - Akinla
African Suite can be downloaded as a zipped file here.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Saturday, November 14, 2009
If you like the music of Somalia's Iftin and Dur Dur, featured some time ago in this space, let me direct your attention to Andreas Wetter's new blog Kezira, whose latest post features a whole cassette by Dur Dur, recorded some time in the early 1990s.
As Andreas tells it, the developing civil war in Somalia forced the group across the border to Ethiopia, where Africa was recorded and released by Elham Video Electronics in the provincial town of Negele. Vocalist Sahra Dawo, who has drawn raves hereabouts, features on several tracks.
While I'm at it, let me comment on the current state of the African music blogosphere, whose quality has advanced dramatically in the last couple of years. Notable in this regard are three sites - African Music Treasures, Electric Jive and World Service, whose proprietors regularly grace us with their knowledge and insight. This is not to slight outstanding work also by Oro, Global Groove and Freedom Blues, whose copious postings of hard-to-find recordings have forced me to buy a new hard drive. I'm overwhelmed really - I just haven't had time to listen to all the great music that's come my way, thanks to these busy beavers.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
In 1971, after several years of musical experimentation following the breakup of the super-group Cream, British drummer Ginger Baker made his way to Lagos, Nigeria, where he helped set up EMI's new 16-track recording studio. It was here that Baker re-united with his friend Fela Anikulapo Kuti (then known as Fela Ransome-Kuti) and recorded Stratavarious (Atco SD 7013), one of the first collaborations between an African musician and a Western rock star.
To the best of my knowledge, Stratavarious has been out of print ever since it was released in 1972 and consigned to oblivion shortly thereafter, although one or two cuts from it may have been included in compilations. It is very much Ginger Baker's "thing," although Fela plays an important role on several tracks. Also present is Fela's American girlfriend Sandra Izidore (credited as "Sandra Danielle").
Strativarious is a fascinating look at a magic time when rock, jazz and Afrobeat were taking their first tentative steps toward each other, and a harbinger of fusions to come. It certainly deserves more attention than it's gotten. Like the recordings featured in the last two posts, Stratavarious was originally posted on Uchenna Ikonne's With Comb & Razor blog.
Fela and Sandra Izidore take center stage on Side 1 of Stratavarious. Izidore provides vocals on "Ariwo," an adaptation of a Yoruba folk tune, and Fela sings lead on "Tiwa," with Sandra included in the backup chorus. Fela plays keyboard on both tunes:
Ginger Baker - Ariwo
Ginger Baker - Tiwa
Fela's keyboard work also features on the next two tracks. Both are notable also for the lead guitar work of Bobby Tench (here credited as "Bobby Gass"), who had previously played with the Jeff Beck Group:
Ginger Baker - Something Nice
Ginger Baker - Ju Ju
Fela Ransome-Kuti plays no role in "Blood Brothers 69" or "Coda." "Blood Brothers" was apparently recorded in London in 1969, a collaboration between Baker and renowned Ghanaian percussionist Guy Warren, later known as Kofi Ghanaba:
Ginger Baker & Guy Warren - Blood Brothers 69
Ginger Baker - Coda
Stratavarious can be downloaded as a zipped file here.
Stratavarious was by no means Ginger Baker's first experiment with African music. Not only had he previously recorded Fela Ransome-Kuti & the Africa '70 with Ginger Baker Live! (Signpost SP 8401, 1971), but his two LPs with Ginger Baker's Air Force had a definite African "feel," notably this tune from their first album (Atco SD 2-703, 1970, right). Compare it with "Ariwo," above:
Ginger Baker's Air Force - Aiko Biaye
This series of posts was occasioned by the recent announcement that Knitting Factory Records plans to reissue the "complete" Fela discography, although as I pointed out here, there are a few titles missing. In addition to Stratavarious, Perambulator and I Go Shout Plenty!!! the 1985 Bill Laswell "remix" version of Army Arrangement (Celluloid CELL 6109) is long out of print with no plans for reissue (it was released while Fela was in prison and he is said to have hated it). Toshiya Endo's Fela discography lists a number of other tunes that have never been released in any form. Notably, Knitting Factory plans to release the "entire" catalog of recordings Fela made with the Koola Lobitos in the 1960s. This is good news indeed.
Monday, November 2, 2009
Here's another Fela rarity for your musical enjoyment: The Afrodisia disc I Go Shout Plenty!! (DWAPS 2251), released in 1986 but apparently recorded earlier. Like Perambulator, featured in my last post, I made this available to Uchenna Ikonne's With Comb and Razor blog a couple of years ago, and as it is no longer online, I'm making it available again.
According to Toshiya Endo, Side A ("I Go Shout Plenty") was recorded in 1977 as DWAPS 2038 but never released (the B Side was to be "Frustration of my Lady" or "Frustration," which later became the B Side of Perambulator).
Side B, "Why Black Man Dey Suffer," was also recorded in 1977 as the A Side of DWAPS 2036 (Side B was to be a song titled "Male," which I don't believe has ever been made public), but also not released. This is a different version of the tune of the same name that was released as African Songs AS001 (and recently reissued on CD) in 1971 (that version features Ginger Baker).
No personnel listed, but I wouldn't be surprised if Lester Bowie played on these tunes also. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if these tracks were recorded in the same set of sessions as "Perambulator" and "Frustration." These aren't really primo Fela tunes, and he is said not to have approved their release. I suspect that in 1986, however, shortly after the Black President was let out of prison, Afrodisia Records thought it could make a few Naira off of the attendant publicity and put them out.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti & Afrika '70 - I Go Shout Plenty
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti & Afrika '70 - Why Black Man Dey Suffer
You can download I Go Shout Plenty!!! as a zipped file here. In my next post I'll be discussing Ginger Baker's LP Stratavarious, recorded with Fela in the early '70s.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
By way of Undercover Black Man I learn that Knitting Factory Records intends to remaster and reissue the "entire catalog" of Nigeria's late Afrobeat King Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in the next 18 months.
I'm wondering what the difference is between this project and the extensive Fela reissue that saw the light of day about 10 years ago. Not that I'm complaining, of course, but I can think of several Fela pressings that are not among the "entire catalog" of 45 recordings listed for reissue on the Knitting Factory website. A few years ago, before Likembe got started, I made these available to Uchenna Ikonne to post on his With Comb and Razor blog, and as these are no longer online, it seemed like a good idea to put them out there again.
Perambulator (Lagos International Records LIR 6) was released in 1983, following a rather fallow period in Fela's career, and just before the jailing on trumped-up charges that would bring him back to the world's attention. "Perambulator," the song, was apparently recorded a number of years earlier. Toshiya Endo writes in his Fela discography that it was the B side of the French issue of Shuffering and Shmiling (Barclay 829 710-1) in 1978 while "Frustration" was recorded as "Frustration of My Lady" in 1977 as the B side of an Afrodisia LP that was never released.
If you look closely at the credits on the back of Perambulator you'll see Lester Bowie credited as a "guest artist" (I think that's his trumpet solo about 6 minutes into "Frustration"). Bowie lived with Fela in Lagos for three months in 1977. A co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, he was also married for a time to Fontella Bass, who did the awesome 1965 R&B hit "Rescue Me." So contrary to the record cover and label, I don't think Perambulator is a "true" Egypt '80 record, as it was recorded several years earlier, when Fela's band was still called Afrika '70. The record was not included in the "official" Fela CD reissue of the late '90s, although it did come out combined with Original Sufferhead (Lagos International Records 2, 1981) on a CD in Japan in 1998, a pressing that is no longer available.
As to why Perambulator is not considered part of Fela's "official" canon, I suspect it was an unauthorized release. While it may be sub rosa it is certainly not sub-standard. "Frustration" in particular is a killer track. Enjoy!
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti & Afrika '70 - Perambulator
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti & Afrika '70 - Frustration
You can download Perambulator as a zipped file here. In my next two posts I'll discuss two more "unknown" Fela releases.