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Opinions of Monday, 15 December 2014

Columnist: Appiah, Papa

From Afrobeats to Africoblues – Fela Kuti to Papa Appiah

There is only one true exponent of Afrobeat, and that is the maestro, and creator of the sound, Fela Kuti. Everyone else, including his own child Femi, may pretend to be playing afrobeat, but in truth, and they know it themselves, it's all a big joke. For afrobeat is not merely a musical style. It's borne out of the pain of a man, of the stripes on his back from senseless police brutality, and of his cry for justice. Even humour in afrobeat is laced with pain.

So afrobeat is as much a musical style as it was, a political stance against corruption and oppression. And the sum total of these diverse influences is what makes Fela unique. Not to mention the fact that, the man who pranced around his home and received visitors in only his panties, was a London-trained musician, who wrote every single note in his music himself; from the clappers, through the maracas to the baritone sax that characterised his sound.

And yet, despite his best efforts, not a lot has changed in Africa, and what little change we've had, like the acceptance of democracy and the rule of law, is as much, if not more, a product of western financial pressures as to Fela Kuti's singing. So what did Fela achieve from all the suffering? The publicity attracted the world's attention, not to the suffering of his people, but to the quality of his music and a multi-million musical empire has survived in his name that his descendants will forever benefit from. And that is all there is to it. Even Fela himself, in the latter stages of his life started questioning whether his songs had changed anything...

Wetin Fela go sing about again oh
Make I sing about corruption?
Na old old thing be that

That was an implicit admission, that while he had succeeded as a musician, he had failed miserably to effect societal change from lyrics in his music, and the torment he had to endure because of it.

So, Africa has moved on. We have democratic institutions which though are in their tottering infancy, will grow with time. With democracy has come a degree of press freedom. Not a single day passes by in Ghana for instance, when there is not a revelation of one corrupt deal or the other. The impression is that of a more corrupt society. I believe it is no worse than before, except that people have the confidence now to expose wrongdoing. So what we need in Africa is not more Fela Kutis to make us the laughing stock of the world, but to build strong institutions and allow them to work. Time will sort us out.

Any musical sound that calls itself afrobeat merely on account of the repeating chords, the percussion and visceral vocals and yet lacks the political sword and collective experience of a Fela sounds hollow. And come to think of it, is it not time that we started to sing about what is beautiful in Africa? And believe me, despite our numerous problems, there is a lot that is beautiful in Africa. How long can we continue to sing about poverty and hunger and disease and corruption. Not everything is right in Europe for instance. They have their own kinds of problems. Just recently Jimmy Savile has been locked in jail after a lifetime of horrific sexual abuse of children, most of whom were vulnerable sick children in hospitals. But I don't think any of their singers are going to try to announce that to the world in their songs.

African American slaves sang about their trials and tribulations and their quest for freedom. They sang about sweet chariots coming forth to carry them home. And they sang of beautiful lands yonder where they would finally have some rest when their days on earth were o’er. Now they have Beyonce.

We need to sing about what is good in Africa - our lovely weather, our beautiful women, our smiling people, the walk down the riverside, the stolen kiss through the window, even of our heartaches and heartbreaks, for aren't we human after all?. And Papa Appiah attempts to do that in his new album - Suicide Note - an African Love Story. He refused to call his album afrobeat because he could not reconcile a romantic message with that genre. He calls his new sound "africoblues" It is a love story that ends with a letter that sounded suicidal. Thankfully, there was no suicide or he would not have lived to tell the story.

Papa Appiah