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The Legacy of Fela Kuti’s Music of Resistance: Hear 15 Essential Songs

Resistance is etched into Afrobeat, the music forged by the Nigerian bandleader and activist Fela Kuti in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s in lyrics that denounce brutality, corruption, apathy, fear and the legacy of colonialism. And it’s in songs that deliberately stretch out, seizing time itself with African-rooted funk grooves that don’t rush but don’t ease off either, merging dance propulsion with unmistakable tension and determination.

Fela, as he was universally known, decided in the late 1960s that he had no use for love songs or party tunes; he wanted to challenge unjust authority. He battled Nigeria’s government, which repeatedly had him beaten and imprisoned. His music, Afrobeat — not to be confused with Afrobeats, the computer-driven pop-R&B currently emerging from Nigeria and across Africa — steered his knowledge of American funk and jazz back toward African modes and rhythms. Most of his start as simmering instrumentals, methodically layering little riffs and long-lined melodies into burly grooves; they make way for the messages he sings, then surge ahead with even more urgency. It’s music that’s braced for a long struggle.

Afrobeat hardly disappeared after Fela’s death in 1997. It was carried forward by two of his sons, Femi and Seun; the style was also maintained by bands well outside Nigeria. And it has stayed all too relevant with anti-racism protests happening today. Here’s a starter kit for Afrobeat from Fela and some of his musical heirs.

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“Shakara” is one of Fela’s Afrobeat X-rays, with each part clicking into place neatly, transparently and inevitably — a funk clockwork deliberately disrupted by his unruly voice.

The beat is brisk and Fela sounds playful at first, bouncing syllables off his percussion players. But things turn frenetic when the horns arrive; trumpet and saxophones aggressively jostle each other, forecasting the confusing fight that Fela arrives to sing about in music that feels just as contentious.

Fela lets loose his James Brown shout in this raucous early blast of funk. Everything’s in overdrive: the opening stereo jabs of saxophones and trumpets, the percussion hitting every eighth note, Fela’s sharp exhortations and his distorted electric piano.

There’s more than a touch of Nuyorican Latin swagger in “Gentleman,” starting with the boogaloo-tinged electric-piano vamp in the intro; Fela’s 1960s bands, like many bands across West Africa, were well aware of Afro-Caribbean music from the Americas. The lyrics cheerfully mock the pretensions of a “gentleman” who’s wearing stifling Western clothing on a hot African day: “He go sweat all over,” Fela predicts.

Horn-section melodies like fanfares and processionals introduce “Water No Get Enemy.” As the lyrics contemplate the universal need for water, the groove moves serenely and steadily, like a previously unnoticed force of nature.

Nonstop nervous energy courses through “Zombie,” Fela’s denunciation of soldiers who would mindlessly follow any order. (It was aimed at the Nigerian military.) From the restless two-guitar tangle that starts the track and continues virtually all the way through, into a saxophone melody that expands and contracts like a coiling snake, the song keeps gathering tension; now and then, the band drops away for a few suspenseful beats, then leaps back in with even fiercer scorn.

Fela declared in 1970 that his compound in Lagos — the home of family, band members and a recording studio — was the Kalakuta Republic, independent of Nigeria. In 1977, after “Zombie” taunted Nigeria’s military regime, soldiers attacked the compound and burned it down; Fela’s mother was thrown from a window and later died of the injuries. Over a wiry, stubbornly repeating guitar line, “Sorrow Tears and Blood” calmly narrates the scene — “Someone nearly die/someone just die/Police they come, army they come/Confusion everywhere” — and envisions a climate of state intimidation: “We fear to fight for freedom.”

This is no more or less than a speedy, steamy, atmospheric 23-minute live workout by Fela and his band, who regularly performed six hours a night and four nights a week during the 1970s. It flaunts the pure stamina of the rhythm section, the riff-by-riff construction of horn solos, the call-and-response of Fela with the backup singers, and the way the crowd cheers every crest in the music. There are plenty of crests.

The groove is patient and determined, the harmonies are thick and ambiguous, and the spirit is implacable as Fela takes on the educational system, government mismanagement and failed democracies. Wally Badarou’s production gave Fela and his Egypt 80 band the most spacious, three-dimensional sound it ever achieved in the studio; every detail has seriousness and heft.

The title track of Fela’s final studio album, “Underground System,” is at once dense and sprawling. It reclaims Fela’s connection to the jazz he embraced in the 1960s, with harmonies verging on polytonality and saxophone solos that work up to free-jazz squeals. A gruff-voiced Fela preaches about African leaders and denounces the assassination of Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso from 1983-1987, amid the band’s furious momentum.

The enigmatic Nigerian musician William Onyeabor was by no means strictly an Afrobeat artist; he followed his own path, particularly fascinated by synthesizers. But in “Something You Will Never Forget,” singing about mortality in his plaintive high tenor, he used the unhurried tempo, call-and-response vocals and nudging horns of Afrobeat to give the music his own twist: introspection.

Syncopated, scrubbing rhythm guitar, pushy little organ lines and staccato horns chortle their way through this advisory about the physical uselessness of coins and currency — and a sly dig at materialism — from the long-running Brooklyn band Antibalas.

Two of Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun, both lead Afrobeat bands that carry their father’s principles into the next generation. In “Africa Will Be Great Again,” guitars, keyboards and horns converge to build cascading chords, as Femi Kuti spells out what’s needed: “Africa will be great again when we have first class institutions, infrastructures and not political destruction,” he insists.

Fela’s band Egypt 80 is fully revved up as it backs Seun Kuti, Fela’s youngest son, railing at corruption and at politicians who tolerate it. Terse little licks from guitars and horns seem at first to dart here and there, but converge to punch alongside Seun Kuti’s angry checklist of graft.

Tony Allen — the drummer at the core of Fela’s groundbreaking Afrobeat bands in the 1970s — and the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who died in 2018, recorded together in 2010, though the sessions were completed and released this year. As the small-group setting unveils the jazzy subtleties within the beat of Afrobeat, Masekela plays fluegelhorn and sings a straightforward tribute to Fela.

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