- Interview by
- Simon Adetona Akindes
Born and raised in San Martín, a suburban town near Buenos Aires, Ezequiel Tedesco started playing compositions by Fela Kuti in 2009 in a band called Antropofónica. In 2013, with a group of colleagues, he created the Festival de Afrobeat Independiente (FAI). Also in 2013, together with a fellow trombonist, he founded El Gran Capitan Afrobeat, a band that explored the universe of Fela Kuti and his exciting discourse. He retired from the band in December 2021 and formed a new group called Tengu.
Since 2016, the FAI has been in charge of the official Felabration in Argentina. The goal of the festival is to keep Afrobeat decolonial, adopting a posture of critical resistance in the face of the continuous commodification of artistic production financed by hegemonic organizations.
Please, introduce yourself, family background and education.
Well, I am Ezequiel Tedesco, my father’s last name comes from an Italian family and my mother’s from a family with a Lebanese father, so I have always had some relation with immigration. Since I was little, I was marked by politics in my country. I studied music, and I continue to study music, in various conservatories. I studied philosophy, particularly decolonial philosophy. I make a living as a teacher, producer and interpreter. I lost my father at the age of 14, so I grew up only with my mother and my sisters, which also marked me a lot. Things got complicated economically, because my father first worked in construction and, in the later stages of his life, he owned a small printing press. My sisters and I were the first generation to go to college.
What impact did a single mother’s education have on your way of seeing the world?
I experienced my mother’s effort to run the family, but also the absence of my father figure, which I mostly formed in my imagination. Not easy, many problems also surfaced between my uncles and our nuclear family headed by a woman.
How and why did you start making music?
I discovered music late in life, at the age of 17. I took private electric bass lessons, and when I graduated from high school, I entered the San Martín Conservatory to learn guitar and piano. In my house, music was not a central element until my brother-in-law’s arrival with his Bob Marley’s records. Until then, I was listening only to mainstream and folklore, tango or pop musicians, like Mercedes Sosa, Victor Heredia, Julio Sosa, Goyeneche, Anibal Troilo, Spice Girls, Rolling Stones or the Beatles. The stereotypical taste of an urban, cosmopolitan, middle/upper-class person in a South American country.
What were your greatest artistic influences?
My early interests focused on the relationship between music, culture, and politics, especially the transversal concept of identity that crosses those axes. I first simply listened to what was there, and then I had to define my musical identity by exposing myself to artists like Chuchi Leguizamon, a composer from Salta, Osvaldo Pugliese, Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Touré, Raúl Barboza, and Juanjo Dominguez. In the academic world of classical music, authors such as Béla Bartók or Rimski-Kórsakov reflected on the question of nationalism as an aesthetic movement. Then, I started paying attention to extra-musical factors that create artistic and aesthetic expressions, and not just technical execution.
Wasn’t there an influence from Chile with the “new song?”
We listened to Inti-Illimani a lot, the Jaivas, and other artists who connected with the indigenous peoples of Latin America. I considered myself a Peronist, but today a Kirchnerist. Kirchenism is a version of Peronism that has existed in Argentina since 2003. Peronism had a serious flaw [in the way] they addressed the problem of indigenous peoples.
How was “El Gran Capitán?” formed? Tell me a little bit about it.
I created the band with the trombonist Facundo Vacarezza, with whom I played in a band called Antropofónica around 2010-2011. We were interested in putting together a band that would more closely follow Fela’s aesthetic. As Antropofónica sounded a bit different from Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, we created “El Gran Capitán”
Why the name El Gran Capitán?
El Gran Capitán was the name of a train that ran from Buenos Aires to the province of Misiones, in Northeast Argentina Mesopotamia, which borders Brazil. In Argentina, railways were British-made until the arrival of Peronism. People depended on them. I traveled on the train when it was already doing badly. Because the station from which it departed was close to our rehearsal room, I thought El Gran Capitán would be a good name, and so we named it. The railway’s collapse is a symbol of how neoliberal policies negatively affected Argentina in the ‘90s, and recently again, from 2015 to 2019.
How did you discover Afrobeat?
I discovered it by chance, with a friend who at that time was living in a house that my mother owned, an abandoned house. One day, we were listening to music together, and in the middle of a Rap compilation, the song Sister by Antibalas played. I thought it was incredible. It clearly had an anti-radio [theme], massive anti-fusion, and a jazzy instrumentation I liked.
What attracted you to Fela’s music?
How Fela developed a pan-African consciousness. An upper middle-class person, politically unaware, making music only to entertain, who discovers his “Africanness” in England and the US. Anthropologically speaking, his relationship with Egyptian religions in the final stage of his life seems very intriguing. He ended up becoming a despotic, violent, macho, and patriarchal person, but his life is that of a very curious spirit and very strong personality. It is representative of what it is to be born and to live in South America or Africa. It is an extremely complex and violent state of realities, interests, emotions, and aesthetic expressions—all a very violent mixture.
What has kept you with Afrobeat for so long?
Until I left, El Gran Capitán was always a place where I said and did what seemed relevant to me at the production level. Beyond composition and arrangement, I dedicated myself to producing the band, looking for places to play, making sure politics was discussed, both in networks and live shows.
The Festival Afrobeat Independiente (FAI) project that I wrote tried to capture the spirit of El Gran Capitán: the great possibility of educating and organizing ourselves politically and aesthetically, and not waiting for megaproducers with a lot of money to put on a show and organize a festival for us, or record an album.
What happens is that most musicians have no interest in politics, it’s all a matter of narcissism and selfishness, and it makes everything very difficult. I’m interested in changing that a bit with other musicians. Actually, political content mobilizes great artists, and later it becomes washed-out rhetoric.
Today, very few musicians playing Fela Kuti would even think of not collaborating with the hegemonic music industry and neocolonial politics. I have seen many examples. But the point is that, precisely,we deal with Afrobeat, an eminently political music that is not just about dancing and having fun. I mean, there is no greater hypocrisy and lack of respect toward a musical style and its creator who, despite his mistakes, lived and died being consistent with his ideals.
The FAI is a unique concept. Are there other types of independent music festivals?
In 2001, a very big social crisis prompted the formation of several neighborhood assemblies to discuss community matters and to barter. Therefore, in that period, many niches of self-management and independent culture emerged, without state financing. As far as I know, that is gradually being lost.
No independent festivals today?
Perhaps small production units can be found today carrying out cycles and festivals, but I am not aware that there is a determined search to recover a musician from the past and his political imprint (like Fela) regarding musical production and the formation of a collective.
How about the Festival Latinoamericano de Afrobeat (FELA)?
There are independent music festivals in the INDIE sense, without labels and production companies. I did not suggest “independent” in the sense of merely alternative music, but in the sense of the possibility of making decisions at the production level, which was not the case in Argentina at that time.
The need to create FELA had a lot to do with the birth of FAI itself. FELA had financial resources (better to not know where they came from) we did not have, had to do with large productions, and took place on mainstream and hegemonic stages in the city of Buenos Aires. At this festival, the African became an extremely superficial and a very hypocritical cliché. El Gran Capitán performed at FELA, but for me, an Afrobeat scene has to talk about politics, thrive on what is happening in spaces where popular culture is really popular culture, not places for business. Bands have to be in conversation, not just in competition.
What year was the first FAI organized?
In 2013. Before the pandemic we organized two festivals annually. From 2015 on, we have had the license to organize the official October Felabration in Buenos Aires.
I think Argentina had more Afrobeat bands than other South American countries. How can you explain the popularity of Afrobeat in Argentina?
In Buenos Aires, there is a cosmopolitan culture. Whenever a relatively new or unknown genre arrives and produces an explosion, several artists turn to it, and soon it is abandoned and reduced to a small expression. It happened with reggae before Afrobeat and it happened with punk. It’s a Buenos Aires characteristic. Here in Argentina, sometimes there is an appropriation of a genre, and then boredom, just as if everything were a short experience, with a lot of anxiety. I’m actually referring to Buenos Aires, but sadly, here one equates Argentina with Buenos Aires.
In Brazil there are fewer bands, but each of them creates a deeper path and blends their regional music with Afrobeat. In Buenos Aires, the hybridization process is not positive. I do not have a negative opinion of what tradition is. Obviously, we are part of a culture, and culture is in itself unquestionably a continuous process of miscegenation. However, the hybridization process that occurs in Buenos Aires peaks and declines quickly. FAI provided a reference for many bands, a place to be together and know each other. That changed with the pandemic. Many musicians could not overcome economic difficulties, which led to mental health trouble. At the FAI, we had episodes of disorganization and anxiety. Only now, in 2023, have we started recovering. We take it easy; the pandemic, in many cases, brought out the worst in us.
You talked about a few issues with El Gran Capitán about your departure. Why form another Afrobeat band?
I felt the El Gran Capitán episode was over. I distanced myself from El Grán Capitán. I didn’t want to work with certain people anymore, and the firepower the project occupied in my life diminished. With Tengu, my new band, I recovered those possibilities. We’ve only done two shows and recorded three songs. I am very excited about the shows and recordings that will happen soon. However, my sense of belonging to Afrobeat and everything I learned from it continue to be profound expressions of me. I find various forms of my vocabulary in the language of Afrobeat. I’m closely linked, both musically and politically with Afrobeat as a movement, with Fela Kuti, with his relationship with Thomas Sankara, with Sandra Izsadore, with the Black Panthers, and with pan-Africanism. It is not because I want to do it like in Africa, but because I believe Fela addresses many problems that exist in South America and Argentina. Fela’s voice, what is said in his songs, how long they last, the interactive nature with the audience, the songs themselves (not like pop music) are all connected in a festive whole, similar to a bacchanalia, a carnival, where in reality, the dominant element is a kind of combative spiritual positioning.
Could you please, explain what you mean by bacchanalia?
In the Western Greco-Roman tradition, a bacchanalia is a situation of social decompression in which many barriers are brought down. Therefore, passions are released and there is a lack of control. The carnival is a continuity of these characteristics. In South American music, in the Uruguayan Murga for example, a carnival is spoken of as a bacchanalia and this situation is taken advantage of to make strong political denunciations. The case of Fela Kuti and his music represents a situation where trance is sought, collective dance, the dissolution of individual barriers while calling for a state of war and an energetic response to political reality. That is Fela Kuti for me.
Fela changed the structure of the music, the length of the tracks. There was no commercial, there was no advertising, he was his own advertising.
Of course, that is what pushed me to propose the FAI, what kept me in El Gran Capitán and what keeps me in Afrobeat. Fela is complex. Regarding music production, marketing, and why one has to make music, he really is a very rich personality.
Please, talk about El Gran Capitán’s lyrics in general? How were they written and by whom?
In no case was there a situation of more than one author, except for A.A.J.G.G. in which I made small modifications to a letter by Stavros Chattah. On the first album Fanga, “Soy la Espuma” was written by Joaquín Sáez and I wrote “Llanuras.” On the album Martedí, I wrote the only lyrics: the one for the song “Higui.” The song is about Higui, a lesbian who, in 2016, in self-defense killed one of three attackers who wanted to sexually abuse her. In the album “Le Ponemos Nombres a Las Cosas,” the lyrics of “Tics para atomizar” were written by Facundo Vacarezza making a mix of words from several poems. “Mariposa” is an adaptation by Juan Manzini of a poem by León Felipe. Lastly, I wrote the one of “Hacha y Tiza.” The lyrics of “Juana” (2015 EP) are my adaptation of the original lyrics by Félix Luna from the song “Juana Azurduy” by Ariel Ramírez. It has to do with Juana Azurduy, a Bolivian mestiza who participated in the Argentine War of Independence in the armies of northern Argentina. She died in extreme poverty without military honors. Cristina Kirchner’s second government gave her a posthumous rank of general of the Argentine army and erected a statue of hers in Buenos Aires in July 2015. The fact that she was a woman and Bolivian put into relief the question of identity in Argentina and South America, and the deep artificiality of our borders, like in Africa.
How many members did El Gran Capitán consist of, and which tracks strongly represent El Gran Capitán’s style and personality?
Difficult! Depending on the moment and on the number of musicians , all albums and EPs are a reflection of a stage of the band. Not just the compositions, but also the recording. The whole band recorded all the songs of our first album at ION, a studio in Argentina where many important national rock albums and tango orchestras were recorded. Later, with Martedí we won a subsidy from an institution called Estudio Urbano, so we recorded in a much smaller studio, separated the bases and the winds, which gave us another sound. The last album was recorded in the University of Lanús studio, which is one of the largest in Latin America. Sometimes we had a mixed production, working together or separately.
I could say that “Soy la espuma” is a great song, that “Arturo” pays homage to Arturo Jauretche the great Argentine thinker, that “Higui” is about the problems related to being homosexual and poor, that “Hacha y Tiza” evokes the Palestinian cause and its global invisibility. “A4” and “Ensayo sobre la ceguera” have a fresh and brave sound that, to me, seem unique in the history of the band. I think “Tinnitus” also represents us well.
You described some themes as originating with thinkers.
“Arturo,” from the first album, is dedicated to Arturo Jauretche, a national thinker and political philosopher, who denounced the neo-colony, dedicated his work to fighting against corruption in politics and for national sovereignty. He was first a political militant, and then adhered to Peronism. Another title called “La Felicidad del Pueblo” is named after a painting by Daniel Santoro, a Peronist. In this painting, he expressed Peronist achievements and milestones. Great paintings by Santoro are for example Evita castiga al niño gorila (2001) and Victoria Ocampo observa la vuelta del malón (2011).
Can you speak about criticisms that El Gran Capitán appropriates Nigerian/African culture?
It happened a little bit on social networks and once when leaving a concert. I am very aware of it, but if we believe that in a society we do not have the right to interpret others’ culture, basically I do not understand exactly what culture is. I am not of African descent, but I know what it is like to be discriminated against and mistreated by the police. I was born in the conurbano outside the capital Buenos Aires, and people like us are discriminated against because of social class.
In all the shows, I clarify that the music is from Nigeria, that it is owed to Nigeria. I do not feel that we are stealing something, we are doing it with respect and an open heart. We know what it is like to be stigmatized by social class or skin color. It is difficult to imagine a culture, or simply that culture, could exist without this type of appropriation.
Does this type of “cultural appropriation” criticism also exist for rock and roll?
No, it’s very strange. Some cultural expressions or movements receive this type of treatment and others do not. In Buenos Aires, rock predominates, and not a lot of expressions have to do with the core of our culture. I am not going against rock. You just have to observe that the industry shapes and directs taste. Everything is so asymmetrical, there is so much power in the culture industry that issues are swept away. This criticism of cultural appropriation only occurs when the music comes from Africa, which ends up generating tension. When musicians from the interior of Argentina play genres like Chacarera or Zamba, we do not talk of cultural appropriation. It is normal not to talk about cultural appropriation because culture is precisely about the acquisition of symbols through societies and languages.
How is it possible to attract many more people to Afrobeat?
Given our experience with FAI, (the audience always grew until the pandemic), I am confident that Afrobeat should not compete with other genres on the networks. No doubt that people on Spotify or on YouTube listen to short or short-lived pieces, where lyrics appear immediately. Afrobeat requires live emotions, a festive environment with songs lasting 20 minutes or more. I think that Afrobeat should emphasize its own specificity to avoid being diluted in a lot of other expressions. Today, people listen to short, synthetic music on the radio and elsewhere. So Afrobeat must focus on meaningful and political content, and strive for some form of “violent” disruption. For the latter to happen, it must create a form of hedonism, not in the sense of pleasure, but by asking hard and provoking questions in a festive situation of dance, long stretches of playing time. Afrobeat should not become a product of the industry.
How do you see the future of Afrobeat in Argentina and South America?
If the relationship between Fela and Afrobeat and Fela’s language is understood again, it will be a meaningful future. Now that the moment of explosion is over, it is important to reconnect with Fela’s message. It seems to me that both in Chile and in Brazil the level of professionalism is much better than in Argentina. Newen Afrobeat, Bixiga 70, Funmilayo are high-level bands, for example.
Do you think that the future of Afrobeat depends on its professionalization?
In one sense, yes, and in the other, it is about listening to the teacher, going back to the source. When I talk about professionalization, I am not referring to simply earning money or playing well, I am referring to consciously taking the genre to another level. It has to do with recovering Fela Kuti’s specific and powerful language. He privileged a complete aesthetic experience and was not concerned with beauty only.