Afrobeat 101

Fela Kuti on stage
Leni Sinclair / Getty Images

Afrobeat: The Basics

Afrobeat is a modern genre of West African music that incorporates elements of traditional Yoruba music and Ghanaian highlife with the Western sounds of jazz, funk, and soul. Afrobeat bands tend to be large (upwards of 10 members) and include both Western guitars and horns and African rhythm instruments, among others. The beat of the music is heavily polyrhythmic, and the vocals can range from traditional call-and-response and chanting styles to the stylized, wailing melody lines that one would likely associate with funk and soul music, particularly that of James Brown. Afrobeat songs tend to be long (well over 10-15 minutes, on average, with songs frequently entering the 20-30 minute range) and feature extended instrumental sections, punctuated by vocal elements.

Fela Kuti and the Formation of Afrobeat

Afrobeat was essentially invented by one man, the inimitable Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Kuti's experimentations with various pan-African sounds and exploration of African-American music led to his creation (along with substantial input from the members of his enormous backing band) of the genre, leading to a massive Afrobeat craze in Kuti's home city of Lagos, and throughout Nigeria and West Africa. Kuti's lyrical message was unquestionably political and was viewed for many years as a threat by the authorities in Nigeria and other African countries. The anti-corruption and pro-civil rights messages in Kuti's music tend to be present in the music of most modern Afrobeat groups as well.

Afrobeat's Influence on Western Culture and Music

The influence of Afrobeat on current Western music is subtle but noteworthy: seminal and influential artists like Paul Simon, Brian Eno, David Byrne, and Peter Gabriel have all used demonstrable Afrobeat elements in their music, as have more modern bands, such as Vampire Weekend. Fela Kuti himself might be the most name-dropped non-rapper in hip-hop history, and his songs continue to be sampled by producers, MCs, and DJs. Notable figures like The Roots and Lupe Fiasco have written whole songs about him, and still others cite him as an influence.

Afrobeat on Broadway

In 2008, a musical called FELA!, about the life and music of Fela Kuti, debuted off-Broadway, and in 2009, it moved to Broadway for a run that lasted over a year and garnered eleven Tony Award nominations and three wins (Best Choreography, Best Costume Design of a Musical, and Best Sound Design of a Musical). Choreographed by the legendary Bill T. Jones, FELA! featured a live Afrobeat band on stage (Brooklyn's excellent Antibalas Afrobeat Ensemble), and told Fela Kuti's lifetime story under the guise of a nightclub concert, with the whole theater decorated to look like Kuti's own Lagos music venue, The Shrine. It was the first Broadway show to ever be based fully on African music and was a major hit for both critics and fans.

Afrobeat Starter CDs

The Rough Guide to Afrobeat Revolution - Various Artists
The Best of the Black President - Fela Kuti
From Africa With Fury: Rise - Seun Kuti and Egypt 80
Security - Antibalas