Performing Arts

Retracing roots of the Afrobeat


Nigerian musician D’Banj who took part in the docuseries Journey of Beats which traces the roots of Afrobeats. PHOTO | POOL

As the Afrobeats genre becomes a global phenomenon, researchers, authors, and documentary makers are scrambling to provide context to this phenomenal success by tracing the history of Nigerian music.

“Journey of the Beats” is a new docuseries that follows the journey of Nigerian music and that of the African Diaspora, through music experts, industry insiders, and the country’s most successful artistes, including 2Baba, P-Square, Onyeka Onwenu and D’Banj.

The first episode of the 10-part series produced by Nigerian entrepreneur and founder of Storm Records Obi Asika, premiered on Showmax last week and is available to stream on the platform.

The series is a trip through generations of African music, from traditional rhythms to the disruption caused by slavery and imperialism, the global influences, and the emergence of authentic modern genres that have been developed from a fusion of cultures and rhythms.

The first episode traces the origins of African rhythms starting with the role of the drum as the heartbeat of traditional communities.

Even though Africa is made up of diverse cultures and traditions, the drum is the common denominator, the central core of expression across communities.

“Without the drum, the African connection cannot communicate,” says Asika, in the film.

“It provides the rhythm that drives the beat and the beat is the vehicle that drives the art form,” adds Ed Emeka Keazor, Nigerian historian and musician.

Enslaved Africans carried with them the traditional call and response to the Americas and that form of musical expression remains a distinct part of African- American music styles like Soul, gospel, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop.

It was descendants of African slaves that were at the forefront of the rise of Bebop, and other complex jazz harmonies in the 1930s.

The first major West African pop genre was highlife which became popular in the 1930s and 40s with the very first recording of a highlife album by The Kumasi Trio of present-day Ghana in 1928.

Thanks to this docuseries, we discovered African music pioneers like Gerald Pino, a singer and guitarist from Sierra Leone, who shook up the highlife music scene by adding keyboards, synthesizers and became one of the biggest influences on Fela Kuti.

Even though he was an accomplished pianist and saxophonist Fela experienced a rebirth when performing as an opening act for the ‘Godfather of Soul’ James Brown in Los Angeles in 1969.

Brown reportedly told Fela after the show: “Where you come from there is a lot more music than what you are playing here so go back to where you came from and find your voice.” That same year, Fela recorded “My Lady Frustration” which he described as his “first African tune” which created a template for a new genre known as Afrobeat.

The Switch Up era of the late 1970s/ 1980s witnessed the invasion of funk, disco and pop and the development of the Nigerian pop sound.

One of the biggest names from that era, Onyeka Onwenu says African pop music made by her contemporaries like Barbara Soky and Christy Essien Igbokwe was quite distinct from American and European pop because of the infusion of African rhythms.

By the end of that decade, a new wave of consciousness that defied social injustice swept Nigeria from Jamaica with the influence of reggae.

A new generation of Nigerian stars Infused Jamaican music with African rhythms to develop their reggae and dancehall that spread across the continent.

Among the notable stars from that era was Ras Kimono who became an international star with “Under Pressure”, Majek Fashek scored a huge hit with ‘So Long too Long”, and Sonny Okosun with the anti-apartheid anthem “Fire in Soweto”.

Even with the popularity of reggae, authentic Nigerian styles like Juju which was based on Yoruba traditional rhythms were thriving fronted by King Sunny Ade. The King of Juju made his international breakthrough by touring and signing a recording deal with Island Records who by then were looking for a musical successor to Bob Marley.

By the 1990s, the hip-hop generation arrived on the scene with groups like Junior and Pretty who made their music authentic by telling stories that people could relate to, therefore making rap music relatable.

The second episode in the series, available to stream on Showmax beginning today, chronicles the rhythms of the 1990s with disillusioned Nigerian youth turning to hip-hop culture for escapism and solace.

Each part of the series is accompanied by a Spotify playlist and “Episode One: Origins and the Switch up” allows fans to listen to classics from the highlife era like “Taxi Driver” by Bobby Benson, “Guitar Boy” by Sir Victor Uwaifo, to Afrobeat with Fela Kuti’s “Shakara” and reggae “Send Down the Rain” by Majek Fashek” and “Rosie” by Blackyy.