During the first act of Fela!, the Broadway hit about legendary Nigerian musician/activist Fela Kuti, the Fela character addresses the audience while building a groove. After various percussion and guitar parts are added, he asks if anyone knows the missing “secret ingredient” that gets butts shaking. The answer, he reveals, is the bass line.
Bass is indeed the agile anchor and adhesive in Fela’s fiery brand of funk, which he dubbed afrobeat. Kuti combined his formal training at London’s Trinity College of Music and subsequent jazz gigs on saxophone with traditional African percussion, West African highlife, and American funk (particularly James Brown) to forge the idiom, which gained worldwide popularity. Fela hit his stride in the ’70s, when his 15-piece band, Africa 70, took up residence in his Afrika Shine nightclub. Musically and politically influenced by his 1969 U.S. tour, Kuti went on to record over 50 albums enroute to becoming a global voice for human rights.
In 1986, 11 years before he succumbed to complications from AIDS, he made his only other U.S. appearance. His music then virtually disappeared from these shores until a late-’90s revival led by the Brooklyn band Antibalas, and similar Gotham groups such as Kokolo and Daktaris.
While Antibalas’s unique blend of Brooklyn-ized afrobeat and “Nuyorican” and Afro-Cuban influences have culminated in cult status (via worldwide tours and five studio CDs of original music), the ensemble’s precision and passion for Kuti’s music resulted in their key role in the development of Fela! This includes the ten-piece unit’s onstage presence as Kuti’s Africa 70 band throughout the show. To get an inside view of afrobeat bottom, we sat down with Antibalas bassist Nick Movshon plus Jeremy Wilms, a longtime Antibalas bass and guitar alternate who has assumed the bass chair for the Broadway run.
How would you describe afrobeat bass?
Nick Movshon Essentially, it’s one- or two-bar syncopated, melodic patterns that repeat endlessly, without variation, improvisation, or fills, for songs that can run anywhere from ten to 30 minutes. Most of the songs are just onechord vamps, almost always minor. Some describe the overall concept by saying that every instrument in the band is functioning as a drum. Who were the key bassists?
Jeremy Wilms That’s my viewpoint—we’re all playing drum parts in a sense. Apparently, Fela would just come in and play everyone’s part one-at-a-time on keyboard, building these usually Dorian-mode-based, interlocked pieces of music. That’s the James Brown aspect: It’s not about you; it’s about how everything locks together. Instead of making up your own bass line to a set of changes, you play a part for 20 minutes, so you have to really internalize it.
JW Franco Aboddy was the main bassist during Fela’s Africa 70 period; there was Maurice Ekpo before that, who Ginger Baker [of Cream] may have brought in. And I’ve spoken to other bassists who played with Fela later on, like Francis Mbappe here in Brooklyn. Is there a rhythmic key or clave?
NM Certain parts of the African 70 band were consistent, including its great drummer, Tony Allen. Aboddy appears to be the most regular bassist. With only the drums and lead percussion allowed to improvise, to some degree the musicians are interchangeable because they were playing Fela’s parts on instruments he owned, and if they didn’t play them exactly as specified, he replaced them.
NM Yes; every song is either in 2:3 or 3:2 clave, but oddly, the actual clave sticks play on every downbeat or upbeat. The clave rhythm is in the shekere [a bead-covered gourd], and it can be outlined by other instruments, like the snare drum or a guitar.How do you view your role?
JW Also, in Fela’s music the three and the one are often interchangeable. The rhythm section may start on what is actually the three, on the back side of the bar; then when the horns come in later on the one, it shifts the listener’s perception of where one is.
JW My mantra is to be centered—to play evenly and steadily, and be the center for everything else going on. There are times when I feel I have to push or pull, but I still try to be the band’s core and focal point. I don’t play with the drum kit as I would in R&B or jazz; I’m more locking into the shekere and sticks. What’s your approach tone and technique-wise?
NM That’s how I see it; I’m left with the task of playing in the middle of all the other instruments. Usually, I’m somewhere between the drummer and the two guitars. The drums set the tempo and create the dynamics, but the kick and snare are not on two and four, so it’s a little different. I just try to put the bass in the center; even if it’s not my natural center, I put it where it sounds like it’s in the center.
NM On Fela records, probably due to the mix more than anything, the bassists have a really round, warm tone with a bit of growl and attack. I turn my neck pickup all the way up and I usually play between that pickup and the base of the neck; I pluck with my fingers and sometimes my thumb for the E string, and I’ll mute the notes mostly with my left hand. With set parts, where does the expression and interpretation come in?
JW I have only my combo amp onstage, so much of the sound is determined by my hands. I play either over the EB-O neck pickup on my bass or the bottom of the neck, using fingers with some thumb plucks for softer parts.
JW Through the feeling and intent you put into the parts. They’re rigid, but there’s also a looseness that exists on the dynamics side. There’s an interaction based on call and response; if someone plays a phrase with a certain accent, the dynamics of the whole band will suddenly shift way up or way down, in synchronized fashion. The improvisation is more about levels and intensity as a band. Afrobeat also has its own swing. It’s different from jazz or Afro-Cuban.
NM Right—dynamics is the biggest aspect. The way Fela’s band moves dynamically is beautiful to pick up on; it occurs in places that are counterintuitive to the untrained Western ear. They may bring it down in the outro and suddenly they’re racing ahead as if big solo is happening. Listening to the records to learn the phrasing of the bass parts is really important. When you play afrobeat right, it’s like nothing else, and that’s a very satisfying feeling to have.
From his nightly stage-right perch, Jeremy Wilms interprets over 20 bass lines from Fela’s most famous songs while gauging the groove needs of his bandmates, dancers, and cast.
Example 1 contains the one-bar ostinato of “Gentleman,” which begins as the audience finds their seats. “I approach this like a James Brown bass line: heavy on the one and bouncy on the rest of the notes,” offers Jeremy.
Example 2 shows the two-bar groove of “Yellow Fever”; dig the downbeat rests and the almost-hidden Eb tonic. “This is laid back but intense at the same time,” says Wilms.
Example 3 is the “Upside Down” bass line. “I play on top of the beat and imagine my shoulders going up on the syncopations in the back half of the bars. If you watch the dancers you really see how it’s supposed to feel.”
Example 4 is from “Expensive Shit.” “Again,” stresses Jeremy, “the weight is on the downbeat phrase, and I push a little on the descending bar-2 pickup.”
Moving to the second act, Ex. 5 shows “Water No Get Enemy”; note the interesting back half of bar 1, which anticipates the coming Ebm7 chord. Wilms offers, “Here, I try to get the melody across and I play all the notes short leading to the half-note in bar 2.”
Example 6 is the ostinato of “Na Poi.” “This has a Meters vibe and should lay back, feeling almost slower than the tempo.”
Example 7 is from “Sorrow, Tears and Blood.” “This sits in the middle, and I try to make the syncopated upper notes really pop out.”
Finally, Ex. 8—with its ear-catching melodicism and descending chromatic move across the bar line—is “Coffin for Head of State.” “The tenor guitar part is busy and provides the foundation, so I lay back with the drummer,” says Jeremy.
Manhattan-born Nick Movshon, 27, came to bass at age 11, after trying clarinet and piano. With a Mexican P-Bass in hand, he dug deeply into P-Funksters Bootsy Collins and Cordell “Boogie” Mosson, and worked his way back to Paul Jackson, George Porter, James Jamerson, and the bassmen of James Brown. At 15 he and his friends formed the Mighty Imperials, “a Meters knock-off band,” and two years later they released a record on Desco (now Daptone) Records. The group found themselves under the umbrella of the label’s burgeoning Brooklyn retro-soul scene, and soon they were subbing in bands like Sharon Jones & the Dap- Kings and Antibalas. By 1998, Movshon had claimed the Antibalas bass chair, eventually recording all of the band’s CDs and taking part in the various workshops and the threemonth Off-Broadway run that led to the current Broadway production of Fela! He opted out of Fela! to work on Mark Ronson’s upcoming solo disc and to further expand his recording credits, which already include Ronson, Amy Winehouse, Nas, Bebel Gilberto, and Foreigner. Nick continues to handle Antibalas’s road schedule, including a trip to New Zealand this past January.GEAR
Basses 1973 Gibson Ripper, 1974 Fender Precision Bass, 1972 Gibson EB-3 (all strung with old, unknown roundwounds) CAN BE HEARD ON
Amps ’70s Ampeg SVT
Lee Fields, My World [Truth & Soul, 2009]; Antibalas, Security [Anti, 2007]; Mark Ronson, Version [Sony, 2007]; Amy Winehouse, Back to Black [Republic, 2006]; El Michels Affair, Sounding Out the City [Fast Life Music, Inc., 2005]; Antibalas, Who Is This America? [Ropeadope, 2004].
Born in Miami in 1972, Jeremy Wilms came under the influence of his jazz-guitarist dad, seeing a George Benson concert at age four. Three years later he began playing the instrument, adding bass guitar at 11. A key influence was the work of Noel Redding and Jack Casady on Jimi Hendrix’s Live at Winterland [Rykodisc], particularly Casady’s fuzz solo on “Killing Floor.” After his family moved to Atlanta, Wilms focused on guitar from age 14 to 23, gaining the guidance of pianist Kenny Werner and drummer Woody Williams.
Relocating to New York City to study with Werner and explore the emerging downtown jazz scene, Wilms found his way back to bass through a friend’s upright. A six-year stint with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley in the band of Christina Rosenvinge gave bass equal footing in his playing career. In 1999, Wilms began subbing on guitar in Antibalas; 2004 brought his first bass sub for Nick Movshon on a European tour. He then moved back to guitar for the Fela! workshops and Off-Broadway run, assuming Movshon’s bass role for the Broadway version. Although eight shows a week consumes much of his time, Wilms also plays bass and guitar in the Brookyln electronic funk band Chin Chin, as well as serving as the guitarist in jazz legend Chico Hamilton’s group.GEAR
Basses 1968 Gibson Melody Maker, 1996 Fender Jazz Bass, 1969 Teisco-style Japanese-made Demain (all strung with old, unknown roundwounds) CAN BE HEARD ON
Amps Ampeg BA-115 onstage at Fela!; Ampeg SVT for live gigs
Chin Chin, The Flashing, the Fencing; Chin Chin [Definitive Jux, 2009, 2008]; Christina Rosenvinge, Continental 62; Foreign Land [Smells Like Records, 2007, 2004]; Rev. Vince Anderson, 100% Jesus [Dirty Gospel, 2006].
Beginning with the compilation Fela: The Best of the Black President, Knitting Factory Records has launhed a massive series of re-mastered Fela Kuti reissues.