Afrobeat futures

In the first of five articles on Afrobeat in South America, Simon Adetona Akindes discusses Abayomy Afrobeat Orquestra and Bixiga 70 from Brazil.

Abayomy Afrobeat Orquestra. Image credit Festival Contato via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

In 2021 and 2022, I conducted research on Afrobeat in South America. Here, in the first of four articles on this music, I examine the emergence of Afrobeat and its evolution through two bands: Abayomy Afrobeat Orquestra (Rio de Janeiro) and Bixiga 70 (Saõ Paulo). Although their origins reside in Fela’s Afrobeat, they have evolved in different directions, producing different musical aesthetics.

According to geographer Wolfram Lange, Afrobeat may have had its experimental beginnings in Brazil in 1957 with the release of “Obaluayé” by Afro-Brazileira Orquestra, a band created in 1942 by Afro-Brazilian percussionist and trombonist Abigail Moura. Lange specifically identified the track “Libertade,” recorded 14 years later, as possessing striking similarities with Fela’s “Shenshema,” released in 1971. In my view, the resemblance is only limited to the percussion, use of brass instruments, and call-and-response patterns. In 1945, Afro-Brazileira Orquestra already had 20 musicians, was strongly influenced by US American jazz and big bands, and had a large brass section, all of which also shaped Fela’s Afrobeat. Abigail himself, a Candomblê worshiper, used his music to create privileged spaces for struggle against racial, political, and cultural oppression.

No clear evidence exists that Fela was influenced by Abigail Moura, who died in 1970. However, the sound that emerged from his 75th anniversary album, released in 2017, does exhibit possible influences from Fela’s Afrobeat, especially with tracks such as “Saudação ao Rei Nagô,” “Canto para Omulu / Obaluayê,” or “Canto Damurixá.”

The transatlantic exchanges between Afrobeat and Brazilian popular music began in the early 1970s and increased after Gilberto Gil and other Brazilian musicians visited Kalakuta Republic in Lagos, where Fela organized his 1977 shows in defiance of FESTAC, the military government-planned festival of black arts and culture. A few months after his return from Nigeria in 1977, Gilberto Gil released Refavela, with tracks like “Balafon” inspired by West African genres. Nevertheless, with its Candomblê-inspired songs such as “Babá Alapalá” or “Patuscada de Gandhi (Afoxé filhos de Gandhi),” which featured lyrics in archaic Yoruba, Rafavela remained an intrinsically Brazilian release in its instrumentation.

Fela’s name or lyrics did pop up in songs such as Marisa Monte’s reggae track “Ensaboa,” where she sings the chorus of “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” and mentions “Colonial Mentality.” As Raphael Amaral put it in his book chapter, “O Afrobeat No Brasil: História e Memória Musical,” “Marisa Monte offered the Brazilian audience Fela Kuti without Afrobeat.”

Only after Fela’s death in 1997 did Afrobeat enter the vibrant, innovative, and diverse scene of Brazilian popular music, already inundated with rhythms from South West Nigeria, Eastern Benin (formerly Dahomey), Angola, and South West Congo such as samba, ijexá, maracatu, capoeira, jongo, and others. Such rhythms emanated from religious rituals and found their way into popular culture, most notably into carnivals. Actually, the impact of people of African descent and their cultures on Brazil and on the music made it easy for Brazilians to connect with Afrobeat. In addition, the shared experiences of racism, deprivation, and deculturalization facilitated this reception.

In the 21st century, cultural and political exchanges multiplied and prompted the emergence of a new racial and political consciousness across Brazil: the revival of Negritude, especially after the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Worker’s Party in 2003. The latter, through education, social programs, and support for cultural programs, highly promoted popular music. La Bolsa Familial, which has lasted beyond Lula, remains a popular program to give poor families—many of them black—access to education and health care. Lula’s two terms gave more and more musicians, including the Afrobeat ones, opportunities to attend college, seeding hope and belief. US music, from the blues to trap to reggae, has brought together African people around the world in their fight against racial oppression—and Afrobeat solidly belongs to that continuum.

In 2009, drummer Thomas Harres and DJ Lúcio Branco organized a Fela Day to celebrate Fela’s birth. About 30 musicians were on stage, all frenetically playing Afrobeat. As Gustavo Benjão, the band keyboardist, explained, “Strong energy on stage that day! Powerful music! From that came Abayomy. We came from different places, with a variety of experiences in Brazil, but the origin of Afrobeat and our own origins united us; organically, this would lead us to a Brazilian re-adaptation of Afrobeat.”

“Abayomy,” said Benjão, “was not a band of musicians who got together to study Fela or music. It was a band born in an atmosphere of celebration—hence the name Abayomy, ‘being happy together’ in Yoruba.” It was the first band to explicitly carry Afrobeat in their name, and the first Afrobeat band in Brazil.

Garnizê, one of Abayomy’s founders, was introduced to Afrobeat through Fela’s “Mr. Follow Follow,” released in 1976. Garnizê is an activist, directs the Bloco Tambores de Olókun, and is a Candomblê priest of Olokun. He hails from Pernambuco, where his father served 60 years of priesthood. Garnizê has provided training in Brazilian rhythms or performed across Latin America and in 17 African countries. He believes Afrobeat fills a serious gap. It allows people in Brazil to talk positively and know about Africa, which is not the case in the media or education.

Benjão’s experience affirms this. For him, playing Afrobeat turned out to be an unlearning experience. He stated that “Afrobeat looks so much different, but so much similar… I had to break away from Eurocentric constructions and concepts of music to start to play Afrobeat. It was like opening a new world as a musician.”

Abayomy has released two albums—Maluguinho (2012) and Abra Sua Cabeça (2016)—and a single, “Adárá,” with Orlando Julius from Nigeria. They are also working on a third album, to be released late 2022 or in 2023. In their own view, “Maluguinho,” a religious candomblé chant from Recife they transformed into an Afrobeat track, best represents their style, identity, and their approach to music-making. According to Thiago Queiroz and Benjão, many songs in popular music, like “Mas Que Nada,” do originate in folklore or African-Brazilian hymns. For Thiago, Maluguinho is the “symbol of the encounter of Nigerian Afrobeat with the real roots of Brazilian religious traditions.” The saxophonist believes Afrobeat (as conceived by Fela) comprises three facets: the political, the ritualistic/spiritual, and the musical. In fact, all three make up Abayomy’s repertoire and praxis. Each of the musicians combine at least two of those dimensions with their backgrounds in political activism, Afro-Brazilian religions, and traditional/folk musical training.

For Benjão, “Obatalá,” “Eru,” and “No Shit”—all from the same album, which took three years to create—symbolize their effort to propose to the Brazilian public what may be termed Brazilian Afrobeat from an aesthetic, spiritual, and musical standpoint. “No Shit” specifically addresses the political drive of Abayomy to fight for a better life.

Still, according to Benjão, “People like the band, like the music, but they do not understand what the band is about.”

“Abayomy followers,” he said, “are middle-class individuals who espouse the country’s socio-cultural progress during the Workers’ Party tenure from 2003 to 2016. They can recognize and celebrate their African and/or indigenous beliefs and roots, breaking some chains and taboos that bourgeois elites—those who share a legacy of slavery and conservative ideals—maintain and have tried to recover under Bolsonaro’s term.”

However, adds Benjão, Abayomy’s fans do not believe in a revolution. The Abayomy fan is first and foremost “anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian, respects diversity and freedom of belief, and shares in some way our social and cultural vision and political positions. He also loves Brazilian and African music, and loves dancing!”

But Abayomy, a complex band with only one woman, risks being remembered more as the first Afrobeat band than as the band that would have taken Afrobeat to new heights and directions, especially among common Brazilians.  Their next album and activities will reveal whether they will make a stronger imprint on the Afrobeat scene.

Bixiga 70 is a band that possesses a different outlook on Afrobeat. The Bixiga 70 experiment began on August 12th, 2010, barely a year after Abayomy. The name bears resemblance with Fela’s Africa 70, but it differs conceptually and historically. Bixiga is the Italian-colonized neighborhood of Saõ Paulo where the band was created—it was formed in Rua 13 de Maio, a historic and emblematic street in the neighborhood. Saracura, the first urban quilombo —settlement of black runaway slaves and Native Brazilians— also established itself in Bixiga, before Europeans arrived and nearly erased that legacy. On May 13th, 1888, Princess Isabel of Bragança signed the “Golden Law” that officially abolished slavery in Brazil.

Every year since 2002, the Bloco Ilú Obá De Mi—hundreds of women drummers, dancers, singers, and performers all dressed in white—have reconvened in a ceremony called “Lavagem da Escaderia do Bixiga e da Rua 13 de Maio” to cleanse the Bixiga stairs and May 13th Street. In their opening speech on May 13th, 2022, they reminded the audience of 134 years of lies about the false abolition, reasserting that antiracism was, for them, a “moral and ethical duty.” The ceremony also denounced social inequalities, machismo, misogyny, and homophobia. In their speech, they remembered black Brazilians, especially Mariele Franco, Kathelen Romeu, Cláudia Ferreira, and menina Ágatha Félix—all assassinated by the police—as well as George Floyd. They voiced their support for Lula and wished for the reinstatement of programs and ministries of culture, women, racial equality, and human rights to back their causes.

Bixiga rehearses every week and records their albums (5 albums and 4 singles) in Traquitana, their studio located at #70 in Rua 13 de Maio, an area itself charged with history. One of the first and most renowned samba schools, Vai-Vai, was located in Bixiga. Bixiga 70 band members liked this “happy coincidence” with history.

Most of Bixiga 70’s musicians boasted 10 to 15 years of individual career experience before creating the band. But they came together desiring a stable, long-lasting band. They considered Afrobeat a conduit, a process. Staying close to the Brazilian popular music they have been familiar with remained a fundamental goal, but they also desired the freedom to explore and be eclectic. Their beginnings saw more influences from Fela’s Afrobeat, with tracks like “Zambo Beat” and “Ventania.” But as Mauricio, their keyboardist, remarked, “We couldn’t pretend we were not Brazilians or we couldn’t pretend that we were like, you know, in Nigeria in the 70s. We didn’t even try. As soon as we had the band, as we figured it out, it was better not to try to emulate any situation… we were looking at other fusions, you know, and this kind of urban and traditional fusion you know that you have in Afrobeat was something that interested us a lot.”

The band eventually developed an original instrumental and percussive music style, with strong jazz fusion and funk accents that appeal to international audiences. Some music critics even call it Afrofusion or soul jazz. Bixiga 70 successfully used Afrobeat as a tool to fuse and combine different elements of American jazz, big-band jazz, and Brazilian jazz and bossa nova standards, using a great variety of African instruments.

According to Mauricio, “We thought we could use Afrobeat as a tool to approach and combine different elements that we had in our minds. We had listened to a lot of Afrobeat but we are also listening to a lot of Brazilian music and African music from other countries in the world.” He goes on: “We always saw Afrobeat as a hybrid genre, a genre of fusion, you know, so if we had to find our own Afrobeat, we would mix up elements related to Africa 70 and Fela’s music, but also related to Brazilian musicians we admired.”

Bixiga’s experience of exclusively instrumental music without lyrics demonstrates how post-Fela Afrobeat, as a musical genre, is moving into directions distinct from those intended by Fela during his career, while still retaining some of its characteristics. A considerable part of Fela’s music was itself instrumental, which vindicates Bixiga’s choice. But the “real” Fela—who used people’s language and vocabulary; who gave voice to people’s daily lives; who endeared himself to activists, common people, and the downtrodden through his yabbis (political declamations); who talked to local elites, (militarized) power, and multinationals—was missing. Bixiga 70 gave Brazil Afrobeat without Fela, mostly for dancing and listening. That may explain their international success.

The biggest challenge of Afrobeat in Brazil is to bring it to the favelas. Abayomy sometimes performs in the favelas, where they have painted murals of Fela and Tony Allen, but their direct presence and impact are limited. Competing with samba, axé, and forró is a mammoth undertaking. For Bixiga 70, an all-male band, the future may gravitate more toward some form of jazz with a fusion identity. Afrobeat does have room for instrumental music, but lyrics and singing do matter, especially in Brazilian musical culture.

Bixiga 70 and Abayomy have participated in community programs, dedicated their songs to activists or favelas, and supported social movements and other blocos and bandas da rua (street bands), keeping Afrobeat political to a certain degree. Because of its rich culture of resistance through music, Brazil has been a natural home for Afrobeat, integrating Afro-Brazilian religious chants, amplifying African presence, and maintaining its emancipatory discourse.

Further Reading

Yoruba Cool

Africa is everywhere on “Landing on a Hundred,” the new album by American guitarist and singer, Cody ChesnuTT. It’s in the instrumentation, the arrangements and in his voice.