This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), which I was editing at the time, with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia. The piece was accompanied by a set of sidebar interviews and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal [who was finishing his work on the manuscript that would be published as Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon]. The main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick). Main article text is online here: http://www.arthurmag.com/2009/11/02/fela-king-of-the-invisible-art
by Jay Babcock
David Byrne is a founding member of Talking Heads. When Fela was jailed by the Nigerian government in the mid-’80s, Byrne was one of the well-known American artists who worked with Amnesty International in an attempt to get Fela freed. Today, in addition to his solo career, Byrne runs the New York-based Luaka Bop record label.
Q: You first heard Fela in the ’70s, right?
David Byrne: Yeah. I don’t remember how, but I remember picking up the record…probably “Zombie” and “Expensive Shit.” And just loved em. The whole concept was different. An album that had two songs on it-each song 15 minutes long or 10 minutes long or whatever. It was like the James Brown songs that had the
two sides, part 1 and part 2, but were meant to be played together, one after the other. But in this case, they were all joined together instead of in two pieces. It was just the grooves were so great. The grooves are
I’d heard some South African instrumental stuff that had fiddles, accordions, saxophones. It was pop. It had drum kits and guitars and things. That was the first African pop that I heard, but it was nowhere near as funky [as Fela]. A lot of the South African stuff has a nice swing to it but it didn’t have the kind of syncopation that I heard when I heard Fela’s stuff.
Also, I’d heard and read enough about him somewhere or other that I knew that he was a phenomenon, a unique phenomenon, in that the music he was bringing together, it sounded like it, and it truly was, he had lived in the United States for a while, he was influenced by the Black Power movement in the late ’60s, by the different strands of American music at that time, whether it was Miles Davis or Coltrane, James Brown, etc. And you could hear all that, you hear him put it together with African grooves and create something completely new out of it. But it’s obviously informed by, he’s bringing a lot of what was happening on this continent back to Africa. Just amazing! The lyrics and everything, having something to say that wasn’t just party music, that made it pretty incredible too. All these things. ‘Oh boy, here’s the Bob Marley of Africa!’
So…in Talking Heads there’s a song we did called “The Great Curve” [on the Remain in Light album], where we tried to do a Fela-type groove and then kind of take it in another direction. There are some sections that are straight Afrobeat riffs and stuff.
Q: Do you have any favorite Fela tracks?
“Zombie,” “”Expensive Shit”…the first ones you pick up make the deepest impression, cuz it’s something that you haven’t heard before. And then I just bought more of them to keep the groove going! [laughter]