Many things are to be said about Fela’s work, and I won’t try to tackle them here, but something I think gets very little attention is how beautifully orchestrated his afrobeat is. And not just in terms of instrumentation, or form, or melodic call and response. Afrobeat is full of lengthy solo’s and political rants, but what makes this sort of long-form structure is the solid foundation underneath all of this soloing — the micro-level interactions between instrumental voices.
Like a freight train, the Africa 70 rhythm section provided a meticulously put together set of poly-rhythms that drive the beat. While he rarely draws directly from traditional Yoruba oriki rhythms, his music maintains the multi-vocal quality of traditional ensembles. The aggregate result of these is a wonderful rhythmic texture, but within this is a network of micro-musical conversations that makes it so irresistible and danceable.
Because explaining this is so cumbersome I’ll show you a chart. While Fela has quite a few magnificent compositions, one that represents this the best is “Colonial Mentality”, from the Black President album. It’s in TUBS notation (click on the link for an explanation) but its really just a graphical way of representing the basic rhythmic structure of the song. First, let’s take a look at the drumset part.
Take a look at how the Hi-hat, bass drum, and snare parts fit together like puzzle pieces. The groups of three in the bass drum provide a very strong emphasis on sub-divisions 1&3 of each beat that is answered by the snare. The asymmetry of the snare gives it a gait (or clear beginning and end), but as you can see it’s really just a difference of one sub-division. The hi-hat, which serves as a “connector” between the bass and snare, also gives the drumset part a clear beginning and end. That third fast hi-hat note can also be played open.
The percussion heavily reinforces the first sub-division, but what really gives it the “lope” is the space right before the downbeat. On sub-divisions 8 and 16, nothing is played. Not only does this leave room for other instruments to accent here, but it places the quietest beat directly before the heavily emphasized downbeat.
Soft –> Strong Soft –> Strong Soft –> Strong Soft –> Strong
This extreme level of contrast within on sub-division creates a horse like gallop; and a groovy ass beat. But look what happens with the guitar parts:
This one is a bit more confusing, but it’s really not very complicated. True to his Yoruba roots Fela composed the guitar and base parts as tri-tone melodies, mimicking the three tones prevalent in the Yoruba language and by extension Yoruba drumming styles.
You can see from this arrangement are the ways the guitar rhythms interact with the percussion and drum parts, much like support drums would interact with a lead drum. If you look at Guitar 1, it reinforces the bass-drum groups of three on beats 1 & 3. This line is answered by the bass-guitar part on beats 2 & 4, which in turn reinforces the snare part. More importantly, the A-flats in the bass part occupy that formerly empty space in the drumset, highlighting its downward cadence to the root note on the downbeat. This jump from A-flat –> C on the fourth and first sub-divisions further reinforces the galloping rhythm.
If this explanation sounded confusing, the major idea here is that the different voices in the drumset and rhythm guitar form a composite rhythm that emphasizes the last and first subdivision of each beat through dynamic contrast and the way in which the bass phrase connects naturally draws the groove towards those beats.
Unlike nearly every other afrobeat in which the claves and congas reinforce the third and fourth sub-divisions, the implied cadence in this song lands on the downbeat. This creates a loping quality that makes you want to strongly emphasize the downbeats when dancing or even soloing. Perhaps this is why this song stands out among his repertoire. While the parts might sound very similar to other songs, the way in which they fit together creates a very different texture and feel to the song. It feels urgent but relaxed; bitter but playful. The ways in which this rhythmic texture complements the lyrics makes it a truly powerful song.
In my next post I’ll bring in the horn lines to show how this sort of call and response between parts is present in the longer melodic lines.