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Funsho Ogundipe


Funsho Ogundipe

Ogundipe, Nigerian pianist, composer and movie-maker is leader of the band, Ayetoro, and has been variously lawyer and banker. He counts Fela as a major influence in his composition and performance, and had previously played with the late Afrobeat innovator. Ogundipe's CDs include Afrobeat Chronicles: Vol.2, including the signal track, Revenge of the Flying Monkeys.

In this piece, illustrated with his photographs of Fela in performance, Ogundipe recalls his days of observing his mentor create hit after hit.


Finessing the Grooves



In the afrobeat underground it normally starts with the whisperings. One of the guys in the house may have observed the master humming a melody... or clapping a drum pattern... or scribbling away at paper. Perhaps, simply writing some chords...

The next stage would see him at the old upright piano, which sat in the hallway  of  his house, Kalakuta, checking out different chords and working out individual parts for each instrument in his Egypt 80 Orchestra. He would usually be joint in hand, in Y-fronts, and not much else.  Hitting notes and feeling them.  Then you knew for sure — if you lived in the house, or were one of the frequent visitors — because his dancers and the girls in his harem would start the rumours.

Fela don get new song... Fela don begin new number...Fela dis... Fela dat... Na fire......

By this time, the word was up. Everyone knew. From the runners selling weed on the streets to the call girls by the street corners waiting for their johns to relieve their boredom. Everyone knew a new number was coming.  The punters in the local pubs, musicians waiting on the latest tune in case they wanted to sit in with the band later... Students, workers,  market women... The closer you were to Ikeja — the Lagos surburb where Fela both lived and worked before his transition — the stronger the rumours grew, and as the days went by, they became more than rumours.



Soon Wednesday evenings at the Shrine would have the familiar  sounds and smells that accompany a Fela Kuti rehearsal.

First, having decided that the tune he had been hearing in his mind had come to stay, he would  send for his rhythm section, jazz drums and miscellaneous percussions: five in all... add to that twin guitars (tenor and rhythm),  then twin basses and electric piano. Since he writes his music line for line, he would dictate parts to each musician. They would work on their parts until the whole thing became the groove he wanted, adding layers and layers of sound, until the wall of sound was ready to hit you.

By this time fans would be waiting outside his house — drinking, smoking, flirting, eating or just listening to the sounds conjured by the sonic scientist. A few bold enough to venture inside would press their bodies against the walls adjourning the rehearsal rooms and cup their hands to their ears for a closer listen to the band. At this stage only the diehards would be around. You could hear the harmonic carpet but not much else. No majestic horn melodies, no breaks — and yes, no killer vocals. Those would come later.  What you had now though was a wicked groove and some super bass lines.....



He sits facing the band. Shirt open, smoking a cigarette. He drags on the cigarette and looks at the horn section. Sitting opposite him, ten-man strong, they range from trumpets through flugal horns to the reed section with twin alto tenor and baritone saxophones. They are flanked by the chekere and sticks players.

He counts off a tempo and the rhythm section come in on the one. He plays a melody again over the groove. The horn players pick up the melody and play  together with different degrees of success. He plays the melody again. Some musicians have scraps of paper with the melody sketched out  and they look at this while they blow. Others prefer their ears and play patiently listening to his lines on the electric piano.

After a few attempts they get it right. Then he guides them more gently, sketching the form of the tune aurally: how many times the melody must be played; how many sections there were; what harmonies were for the horns... He plays the backing riffs for instrumental solos and they fall in behind him, riffing away until they were one tight, loud, section. 

When Fela has a new number to work on, Wednesday nights at the shrine were rehearsal nights.  The club is as full as on a regular, paid, performance, with people listening intently. Only the vibe is different: there is no dancing. Everyone is quiet. Lagosians are witnessing one of their most innovative composers at work and  the atmosphere is one of respect for his craft. At the first sign of the melody from his keyboard, someone somewhere picks it up and starts humming.

Then you begin to hear the usual praises:   Aaah  Fela, you are too much!   Baba 70, Choirmaster... They die down quickly though. They're 'short and sharp'. Just long enough for him to know that we all know he is the man. Nothing is allowed to disturb his concentration.

When the band stops to try something different, or correct a mistake, there is no reaction. The crowd knows they are privileged observers of a ritual, as band and maestro do their thing.  When the tune begins to take shape, people nod heads appreciatively, and in amazement, at the gift of a man whose music moves people.


'I go play una my new number'

He turns to the rhythm guitar player and mouths the pattern. The guitar player nods and corrects the mistake. Now the band as a whole gets his attention. You notice the little things, like his attention to detail. He glares at the chekere player when the latter flags a little. He notices when a member of the horn section fluffs his lines and calls his attention. Sharp ears. Once again, he works the band as a whole until they smoothen out the rough passages. The band now begins to feel it. The crowd knows it too. Some members of the horn section push out their chests and blow as if their lives now depend on it.  When the song has a definite intro, middle section and ending, the female singers climb on stage, and you can feel the anticipation.

He takes out a sheet and consults it.  "Oya make una begin", he tells the singers, and each one approaches the microphone and delivers her lines. When he is satisfied, they do it together in unison at different sections of the song, until gradually they have mapped out an entire vocal arrangement. Now with each member knowing roughly his or her place in the piece the band starts working on the trickier sections. Breaks. Starts and stops. With his adoption of a second bass guitar and the large gbedu drum, the layers in the music are more pronounced. It is groovier and funkier at the same time. 

This would go on once weekly, for about a month or two, depending on the complexity of the music and the form the band was in. A band can be like a sports team. Some days it works like a finely tuned sports car, on others it is so-and-so. We all wait now: for him to like what he hears enough to look at the band leader, Lekan Animashaun (Baba Ani), and nod his head — then go on to utter those magic words at any of his weekend shows:

"Brothers and sisters, e be like say i go play una my new number next week"

and you confirm it when you see the band at what is usually the last time they will rehearse the song. Bar its use as a sound check now and again, this tune whose birth you witnessed will now only be played live at shows, until it is recorded and released on a long play record, and then rested, as the band goes through the process once again.

Don't they know it. The shrine has a carnival atmosphere. Smoky bluesy and funky. Everyone who is anyone is around. Fans, musicians, groupies, journos — everyone who is clued up into the underground African system. You know you have to be there: it is the last time you can hear the song for free! The band plays like they know they can. You feel it too. They know the song now. That knowledge allows you all to enjoy the moment for what it is.  Fela is happy: you can see it in his steps... the spring... the wry smile as cries of Black president, Baba, Eleniyan echo .

The band plays the theme to end the song and at the wave of his hand the machine that is the Egypt 80 Orchestra stops the song, on the beat, as he wants, and as we like:

Every body say yeah yeah!

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