I discovered Fela Kuti in college. Sometime in 2000 after listening to Common’s album Like Water for Chocolate on constant repeat, I sifted through the liner notes, drifted into Fela’s music and fell in love with afrobeat. The more Fela I found the more I noticed his influence on the music I enjoyed the most (more on that in later post).
Fast forward a decade and FELA! is a musical on Broadway based on lyrics and music of Fela Kuti. In February I was fortunate enough to see the off-Broadway edition of the musical which featured Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child as Sandra. Since then I have played the soundtrack a lot. I bring this up because there is no doubt in my mind that Michelle’s fellow band mate Beyoncé took note of the set. Now, I’m not saying that Beyoncé was not aware of Fela before the musical; I am certain a musician of her caliber knew of him before his presentation on Broadway. Her album 4 had several nods toward African rhythms and conveyed how her journeys to distinct lands shaped the music on that album. I also recognize however, that being immersed in something at a particular moment will seep into everything you’re working on at that time. Not only did she witness her band mate in the show, but her husband Sean “Jay-Z” Carter was one of the executive producers of it. So even if I over spoke and Beyoncé was not “immersed” in the musical, there is definitely some influence reflected in her latest song.
Since I recently started watching Are We There Yet in syndication (don’t judge me), I have had Beyoncé’s Grown Woman subliminally planted in my brain due to the Pepsi commercial that runs multiple times during the show. It crept in my soul and became so much of an ear worm that I had to find a recording of it to get it out my head. Like most Beyoncé songs it is catchy as hell. I probably played it a least four times a day for a full week after I found it. One thing that stuck out was the rich African backing vocals. Then, round the 3 minute mark when the background vocals are brought to the front and the syncopated rhythms are highlighted, I felt myself thinking of The Dance of the Orisas (Shakara) from Fela! the musical. To be precise it reminded me of the switch in rhythms that occur after the 2:40 min mark in the Dance of the Orisas just as the soloist began to chant. Although this is not a sample, but what appears to be Timbaland’s own vocals supplying part of the “drumbeat”, it’s worth noting that producer Timbaland is known to sample Fela Kuti’s work.
I encourage you to listen to both songs in completion, even thought they are both pretty lengthy. I am sure you’ll like one if not both of them.
Dance of the Orisas (Shakara)