By Matete Motsoaledi with contributions from Kulane Mavikane, Khaya Simelane and www.richmedina.com
About a year ago there was a Louis Vega remix of Fela’s Gbagada Gbagada Gbogodo Gbogodo which was responsible for shouts and screams and ensured that dance floors’ capacity was exceeded every time it was dropped. Forget the new bass line, the heavy but playful percussion but the call and response between Fela and the crowd was what most of them lost themselves in. You see that and you begin to realize the power of Fela’s Afrobeat. I remember thinking, Fela shared his music in the most appropriate setting for it, a night club. Saturated with political and social commentary, Afrobeat is after-all dance/club music. Now picture this:
Friday night November 14th, 2014,19:00, Rockerfella club, Soweto. There are little groups of people outside chatting and laughing, a few cars parked and charcoal smoke from the braai-stand. There is jazz playing inside the club and the live band of the night is hanging outside. This is normally how Avant Garde Vintage Lounge (AGVL) set the wheels in motion. This is followed by the warning that you probably will encounter neo-soul, hip hop, funk, Latin, nujazz, broken beats, disco and other hard-to-pin-down sounds. On this particular night, there was a guarantee that Afrobeat was going to take the centre stage in a celebration of the genius that is Fela. AGVL have brought Rich Medina to Soweto and other venues across South Afrika for this annual Felabration, a tribute to the pioneer who pushed musical boundaries to give us Afrobeat.
Avant Garde Vintage Lounge is a movement founded by KsK (Khaya Dsos Simelane), Trev the Japanese (Kulane Mavikane) and SkinDeep. It was established with the aim of turning classic dance culture on its head by finding unique and innovative ways to incorporate alternative musical tastes. This has seen them sharing decks with (among others) Bubbles, China (Deep Inside), Positive K, Claude, Dr T, Kid Fonque, Greg Maloka(Kaya FM), Miggs, Nicky B(Kaya FM), Vick Lavender(U.S.A), QB Smith(U.K), Alton Miller(U.S.A), Reel Soul(U.S.A) ,Dego (UK) and Mark de Clive (USA).Thrown in there is the live band element which is inserted in the middle of the program and still manages to blend-in seamlessly regardless of the fact that the bands are mostly unknown, experimental and notably different in the style of music they play. In this segment, AGVL has featured bands such as: Guru Logic, JazzMeloz ̧ The Layders ̧ Planet Lindela ̧ Tumi Magorosi(Project Elo) and Impande Core. These are not selectors and players of musical sounds you bump into daily but dug out by keen ears, neither mass-produced nor consumed.
Rich Medina needs no introduction. He too was not immune to the galvanizing influence Afrobeat had on many musicians and Djs, such as Jazz musician Roy Ayers. Rich’s website (www.richmedina.com) describes him as “one of few on the planet capable of taking audiences worldwide on a sonic journey through hip-hop, house, soul, Afrobeat, funk, breaks and dance classics. Today, many artists who have been Rich’s idols have become peers, and his fans often become his friends, even if just through the shared experience of music.” Through JUMP N FUNK, his Afrobeat-themed party, Rich was able to return Fela where he belonged, moving people on dance floors.
It is longevity that sets Themed Party movements such as AGVL and JUMP N FUNK apart from many others blown our way by the winds popular but passing trends.
The authentic among them become institutions that have a strong influence on which music young people party to, the soundtrack of their young lives, their fashion sense and generally set modern cultural and social trends. In SA, these gatherings attract the fanatics who navigate hidden gems in the form of alternative-to-mainstream night clubs scattered through the country. From Cape Town to eMalahleni, Polokwane, East London, Vryheid, Soweto, Parys; and that just accounts for a few months of AGVL’s activities this year. Emerging clothing labels, graphic designers, photographers, wine makers and basically everyone who sees an opportunity to access this open-minded crowd of music lovers have found a way to associate/follow these gatherings. And to those areas that these movements have not yet reached, the mix-tape compilations, traditional promoter-run events and featured sets on digital television channels serve to fill the void and also to recruit more passionate followers.
South Afrika has quite a healthy dance/club culture. Some of the world renowned DJs have practically made SA their home or frequent the country so much so that it might be considered their current residence. We are quite an experimental crowd with a rich and diverse musical heritage (who isn’t?). Weed-out the pop commercial categories which are big business but disloyal to the music and then you’re left with niche DJs who, like AGVL, have taken matters into their own hands through complete control of their events. From booking of acts, venues, marketing and playing at their own events. It is this model that allows for those avant garde musicians who obviously do not appeal to mainstream audiences to deliver this unique music.
Fela embodied this spirit. He defined himself according to his convictions. He refused to follow the herd even though that became an unpopular decision in the then Nigeria. His dedication to perfecting his craft is evident in the extend and impact of the work that he produced over the years. For whatever reason, modern clubs seemed to ignore Fela. This clearly no longer holds true. Felabration is now an annual event on the AGVL calendar and in present day Nigeria. It continues to grow in significance judging not only be the numbers but by the calibre of DJs participating in this. Previous events have featured “Dego from the electronic music band 4Hero from London. Together with his partner ‘Marc Mac’ is known as the early pioneers of Break Beat and Drum n Bass Music. The group’s album ‘Two Pages’was also nominated for the best album from the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1998.” AGVL
We navigated these musical planets that night in November in Soweto through the ear and skilful hands of KsK starting the night with jazz and lost ourselves to Durban based Zen Kai Kai who hit a nerve when he dropped massive hit after another. We could not expect anything different from the force that is Trev the Japanese and the fresh sound of the band. By the time Rich took over, the crow was well marinated and worked up a thirst. With painted faces, lips and colorful African prints in dashikis and bucket hats, coming from as far as 200km away to be part of this music history, dancing well into the early hours of the Saturday morning. With just enough time to catch a breath on Saturday morning, ready to repeat the same experience if not better in East London, over 900km away.
Perhaps someday soon, Afrika will have its own Hall of Fame to honour our great. The likes of Fela will not fall through the memory cracks as the likes of Allan Kwela seem to have. Our hopes of preserving and continuing the legacy of those that came before remain alive, when in Philadelphia and Soweto, young people celebrate the magic that is Fela.