“There is music, and then there is music like Fela Kuti or Bob Marley—music that speaks to people when they’re at a moment of struggle,” says Erich Ludwig of the local Afrobeat outfit Federator No. 1.
This Thursday night at the Middle East Upstairs, Federator will team up with Uhuru Afrika, a Boston-based “globetrotting” dance party that blends Afrocentric house sounds with live African drumming by Malian master percussionist Sidy Maiga. The two will come together with Afrobeat fans for Felabration!, a 17-year-old celebration with headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria that’s intended to salute the mighty Fela Kuti on his birthday.
Local Felabration! boosters say that their event is not only a tribute to Fela’s music, but also to his powerful political message. The Nigerian icon and activist’s art is known for serving as a voice against oppression and racial injustice in 1970s Africa, while rhythmically, he’s best known for developing the signature Afrobeat sound, a sophisticated yet accessible genre that blends traditional Yoruba flavor with jazz, funk, and soul.
Since his death in 1997, Fela’s music and message have lived on in numerous venues, reaching as far as Broadway in Manhattan where the story of his life fueled the sleeper hit and Tony Award winner Fela!. Spanning the struggle of multiple generations and places, his art continues to speak to contemporary social and artistic issues all across the world. In our interview about his coming bash in honor of the exalted Afrobeat originator, we asked Ludwig how the influence of Fela still thrives nearly two decades after his passing.
What inspired you to take part in Felabration!?
The inspiration of Fela Kuti is the message within his music. Also, one of the original impetuses for forming Federator was to collaborate with Uhuru, so certainly this event seems like an obvious place to do that.
Any reason why you specifically chose to pair Afrobeat with (Afro) house music for Felabration!? In what ways do house music and Afrobeat speak to one another, musically or socially?
I think certain types of house music (and definitely that which is played at Uhuru Afrika) and Afrobeat definitely share a lot. This collaboration between the two is not a unique thing in Boston—they come together in many other places across the world.
Both styles are dance music intended to get people moving. Both are also driven around community in the political sense … Fela’s Afrobeat was a weapon of the future, a message against corruption and a form of empowerment. So there’s an intrinsic political piece of Afrobeat … I don’t think one can play Afrobeat and have it not be political. [The type of] house music that is played at Uhuru Afrika follows this tradition, and the fusion of deep house and Afro-centric house share a lot of the political messaging that Afrobeat has.
There’s also an appeal [to both forms of music] in and around communities that feel threatened or don’t have political power. The dance and movement is a means of rebelling or fighting back or escaping the moment.
Do you think Fela’s music and message are relevant to current social justice issues? How so?
There’s definitely a message [in Afrobeat] that people are drawn to that [which] focuses on racial disparities … That people understand that message consciously or subconsciously is an important part of why Afrobeat is facing a renaissance or revival …
Take Fela’s song “Gentleman,” for instance: what he’s saying here is, “When I’m facing struggle, I don’t have to be nice. I can stand up and speak. I can be angry.” In this moment that’s really relevant, talking and thinking about Black Lives Matter and white people getting bent out of shape about it. Fela’s music speaks to the reality that we are in the same situation we’ve been in for a long time and it’s OK for people to be angry. It’s OK for us to express these things.
Also, take the song “Zombie,” which is about soldiers mindlessly following orders. In Ferguson, we saw police in riot gear mindlessly following orders. It’s the same thing, the message is, “Wake up, you’re being zombie” … If we open our eyes, these examples are there.
BONUS QUESTION: What do you see as the benefit of combining live music with DJing?
The combination of live music and DJing is hard to do well. I enjoy it as an audience member as well as a producer. An awesome piece of Uhuru is that the DJing is such a performance given the way that resident DJ Adam Gibbons and his guest DJs perform and interact with the crowd. Plus there is live drumming that replicates a full band experience. You can’t say this about every DJ or dance party … DJing is not always a particularly engaging experience from an audience perspective, but the audience connection with the artist at Uhuru is pretty strong, which is very respectful … People are there to dance and connect with the music in a positive way.
FELABRATION! WITH FEDERATOR NO. 1 + UHURU AFRIKA. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS. THU 10.15. 8PM/18+/$15 ADV/$20 DOS.
Micaela is a Boston-based journalist and sociologist who covers dance, culture, and immigration for DigBoston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and other outlets.