‘Birth of Afrobeat’

Birth-of-Afrobeat-poster, ‘Birth of Afrobeat’, Culture Currents

Review by The Minister of Information JR

In September 2017, the Chicago Afrobeat Project released their fourth studio album, “What Goes Up,” featuring Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen. During their time together, Allen would recount his role in creating the Afrobeat genre.

“Birth of Afrobeat” is a seven-minute short that was directed by Opiyo Okeyo, and it has been selected to screen at the San Francisco Black Film Festival. Tony Allen is a legendary drummer, who is not as well known as his famous colleague, the late great Fela Kuti, in co-founding Afrobeat.

And although Fela is famous all across the world in certain circles, the rhythms of Afrobeat have not been widely recognized in the ghettos of the U.S. in the way that Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’s reggae is accepted, loved and known. So we in the U.S. have a way to go in learning about Afrobeat and the music of Lagos, Nigeria, and the San Francisco Black Film Festival is leading the way by featuring such an unknown international icon’s mini-biopic on its lineup.

“There wasn’t any Afrobeat before. It was Highlife Jazz. When we were playing Highlife, the way we played was as if something was missing. When I started to play drums, too, I found out that I’m playing the same way like them and I said, ‘Something must be missing, which is the high hats,’” Tony Allen explained as he described the difference in sound between Highlife Jazz and Afrobeat and the moment that the rhythm of Afrobeat was conceived. “That high hat there is the only thing missing from their playing. The high hat is there but it is closed because they never played it. I thought it shouldn’t be closed.

“I used to buy Downbeat Magazine every month. One day, Downbeat in the middle page, there was a high hat teaching by Max Roach, just strictly high hats, nothing but high hats, you know. And every afternoon, I’m in the club trying to work it out with this high hat, playing the high hat. And then to fuse it now with the Highlife.”

“Birth of Afrobeat” is a masterfully configured story about the Pan African music genre that was born in Lagos but of parents from Nigeria and the U.S., since Max Roach, James Brown and the Black Panthers also had an influence on its birth. This film is about an era in U.S. jazz history as well as African world music history, and we have a responsibility to teach current and past generations about the music of our ancestors on both sides of the world.

“I was listening to salsa music ever since I could remember. I was born in Puerto Rico. So I always grew up hearing that, which is very close to Afrobeat and the music of West Africa,” said Xavier Galdon, the trombone player for the Chicago Afrobeat project.

Check out SFBFF.org for more info on the festival.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportTV on YouTube. The 2019 San Francisco Black Film Festival runs June 13-16; learn more at SFBFF.org.