Fela vs P-Square: Seeking the sounds of Africa

Ugandan music when we least expected it

Ugandan music inspired when we least expected it - this artist was singing in the foyer as the warm-up act for the National Theatre's comedy night

By anybody’s estimation my visit to Nigeria was a big, expensive detour in the Cairo to Cape Town trip.

There were many good journalistic reasons for going to Nigeria: its phenomenal growth rate, both in terms of GDP (8%) and in terms of population (1 in 5 Africans is Nigerian), its social enterprises and its ‘repat’ phenomenon – with Nigerians educated abroad all clamouring to come home – make it one of Africa’s most interesting countries.

But all these reasons were not quite as exciting as my big cultural reason: a man named Fela Kuti and his music which, in the late 60s, helped pioneer a wave of new African music called Afrobeat.

Not coming from a musical household, I was introduced to the Nigerian working-class hero who is Fela late in life, as a 20-year-old buying music regularly from my African pirated-CD-seller and music-adviser on a beach in Greece.

For me, like so many others, Fela’s music rocked my world.

Thanks to Fela’s hot sounds Nigeria developed as a party destination. That description still holds true but it is not exciting live artists that people dance to any day of the week. I’ll be honest: Nigeria’s music scene disappointed me.

Instead of brash new bands playing in sweaty clubs – new live music venues emerging every night (a tradition which I understand has been transferred to Senegal), Nigeria’s youngsters are mainly in the hands of pop – and in particular home-grown international stars P-Square.

Their music was played in every club and every long shared taxi ride we took (including the one where I was one of four passengers on the two front seats – the driver changing CDs, and gears, over another woman’s leg).

In the end, I couldn’t resist and bought a P-Square CD, their music – and the noise of generators – formed my soundtrack to Nigeria.

Of course I was only in Nigeria for 18-days. I was forced to choose between visiting the drill monkey ranch, with its formidable jungle sounds, and seeing Fela’s son Femi perform in the re-built Fela venue – the New Afrika Shrine.

Ex-pats who were there raved about Femi’s performance – both the music and the political monologues. Perhaps it was a mistake to miss it but the truth is I was sure we would find a young-up-and-comer in the bars of Calabar. We didn’t – just a Fela tribute act.

Of course there are other non-teenie-pop Nigerian musicians out there. Through friends we were introduced to Asa and Bez, both of whom produce great sounds. But Asha is produced in France – and besides, it was raw live music that I was really seeking.

And so we left Nigeria and my unfulfilled music mission has made me think more and more about the sounds of Africa.

While still at the beginning of our trip I remember telling a fellow traveller that I felt Egypt’s soundtrack was that of bad air-conditioning units – that, and football matches.

In Ethiopia, the distinctive, traditional, shoulder-shaking beats held sway.

In Uganda’s capital Kampala, still reeling from my lack of success in Nigeria, I searched out many live music opportunities.

The old-fashioned Afrigo Band was impressive, but having held court in Kampala for nigh-on 35 years it sometimes showed its age – at one point early in the night I felt like I was at a Caribbean resort and might any moment see a woman with blue-rinsed hair and knitting sticks!

I would, however, like to stress that this was only early in the night, the music and the crowd got hotter as the night went on.

I also went to the National Theatre’s weekly Monday night open-jam. It was fun but all the songs were covers and mainly Western covers at that.

On Thursday night salvation came when I least expected it. I was at the National Theatre again, this time for a comedy night, but there was a warm-up musician. His voice was deep, beautiful and raw and he interspersed Bob Marley and Cat Stevens covers with his own reggae-inspired music.

It was exactly the sort of unexpected treasure I was seeking and I knew Africa would at some point deliver.

Now in Juba, South Sudan, the newest capital city in the world, I’m writing this to a different sort of soundtrack. Fighting for aural supremacy are hundreds of little yellow birds chattering among themselves from their pretty oval nests hanging off four palm trees, and, building works: the noise of picks and the noise of generators powering electric tools as this frontier town expands towards its destiny.

Half the trip gone. So many sounds heard, so many sounds still to hear. 

Chrisanthi Giotis