Fela Kuti didn’t need you to feel comfortable. Yes, he made famous the infectious groove of Afrobeat. It is hard to imagine a music more characterized by sonorous motion. He and his bandmates refined the tightest, funkiest beats of Ghanian highlife, American funk, and the mellifluous, endless groove of Yoruban rhythm (filtered through the genius of drummer Tony Allen) to create a music of incomparable beauty and burning intensity.
But at the center of that beauty, rhythm and movement was the raw energy of Fela himself. From his experience as an upper-middle-class child of a mother who was a Yoruba chief, and a father who served as a minister, school principal, and education leader in 1950s Nigeria, Fela left Africa in his youth to England, where he abandoned his medical studies to take up music full time. Music led him to the United States, where as a band leader he was active for ten years in Los Angeles in the heyday of the Black Panthers movement. When he returned to Nigeria after his long sojourn in Europe and the US, he didn’t just establish a legacy as a musician, bandleader, and producer, he lived his truth as a fiery voice of conscience, a near-prophet raging against oppression, corruption and inequality in his home country.
Along the way, Fela became an icon of Black liberation, of fighting injustice, colonialism and cultural hegemony — all through the power of his righteous grooves.
In no small way, Fela, who died in 1997, hovers over this moment in world history.
And it was this in mind that I invited Jon Madof, guitarist, producer, composer and band leader, founder and leader of Zion80 and, with bass player Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz the indie label Chant Records for an interview on Crisis and Hope: YU Voices, an online interview initiative of מדעי יהדות / Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University. Created in May 2020 by Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history and Director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, Ronnie Perelis, Director of the YU Schneier Program for International Affairs and professor of Jewish history (both the CIS and the Schneier Program are sponsors of the series), and me, a professor of Jewish history, Crisis and Hope: YU Voices aims to bring together Jewish cultural figures to reflect together on the tumultuous events of the day.
Those of you unfamiliar with the Radical Jewish Culture movement may never have heard of Jon Madof. Madof is a protege of avant garde jazz legend John Zorn, whose label Tzadik Records and his former East Village venue The Stone (superseded by the current The New School Glass Box Theater) has served as the nexus and incubator of much of the newest and most exciting modern Jewish music. Madof already earned an international following for his jazz trio, Rashanim. But in 2011, while getting ready for Shabbat one Friday afternoon, Madof started humming a Shlomo Carlebach tune. As he writes, “The drum patterns of Fela’s music were still in my head from the day before, and the light bulb went off!”
Thus was Madof’s fusion band, Zion80, formed. Featuring instrumentalists from among the vanguard of the Radical Jewish Culture scene, the band maintains Fela’s Afrobeat tradition of a very big lineup for a modern band — ten pieces in most of their concerts — including a drummer and percussionist, two guitarists, three saxophones, trumpet, keyboards, bass, and a rotating lineup of other sounds depending on the gig. As Madof described, the melodies are the tunes of Shlomo Carlebach, to this day one of the most famous liturgic composers of the twentieth century. Although Carlebach’s personal history has recently come under well-deserved scrutiny for his behavior towards women in his circle, Carlebach as a creator of Jewish melody is unsurpassed in the twentieth century — it is fair to say that anyone who has stepped foot into a synagogue has, at one time or another, heard a Carlebach tune from the bima.
But it is the groove of Afrobeat that is the heart and soul of Zion80, as the band’s name underscores — Fela’s bands, successively, were Nigeria 70, Afrika 70, and Egypt 80. “It is really the rhythm, the ‘endless groove’ that drives the music,” Madof elaborated. “The Carlebach melody ties it together.” And since the band’s origins, Zion80 has widened its repertoire to other composers, including John Zorn; the band appeared on the final album of the acclaimed Masada series, Book of Beri’ah (2018; Tzadik).
Given the events of the day, the question of race and music — especially relevant in the history of jazz — hovered over our conversation. For Madof, as for any jazz musician, the interplay of race, politics and art come second– it is really about the music. But, I asked, surely the deeper meaning of Fela’s life and project inspired him. Afrobeat, and especially Fela, is a music of liberation, of the downtrodden seizing their power with the righteous anger and joy of movement and sound. And indeed, as Madof confirmed, though a political statement was far from his musical intent, this theme was part of the power that drew him to his original synchronization.
Inevitably, of course, the question of Whiteness, appropriation, and jazz — really, all popular American music, based as it is on the experience of Black people in America (regardless of genre — rock, pop, jazz, blues, hip-hop, R&B — the list goes on) — was also a presence in our conversation. On this Madof had a definite opinion. “It is the music that is most important. It is what I’m thinking about. But it comes from a place of respect and admiration.” He referred us to the comments of Angélque Kidjo, whose recent re-recording of the Talking Heads 1980 album Remain in the Light — a collaboration with, among others, Fela’s drummer Tony Allen, which redefined the sound of the venerated downtown New York band. “No matter what we call ourselves, we all are inspired by somebody, by music we’ve been listening to.”
In this sentiment is a message for our time: no matter what we call ourselves, we are all inspired by somebody. We are all interrelated. We are all brothers and sisters in this world — made b’tselem elokim. And we are blessed because we are musical animals. And it is when we share our music, the language of the deepest part of our soul, whether it be as an American Jew or a Nigerian activist, that speaks in consonance.
“Crisis and Hope: YU Voices” will appear bi-monthly, on alternate Thursdays. Please visit our website: https://www.yu.edu/crisisandhope for recordings of previous offerings and live presentations.