lost in the groove
one boy’s unhealthy obsession with afrobeat
In the future, when science identifies all the different species of human introvert, perhaps gathering them together into the world’s least exciting museum diorama, it’ll be easy to pick me out. I’m the one frozen in furious motion on the plaster sidewalk, headphones strapped to his ears—present for all the world to see, but hopelessly lost in the groove. My face says, “Talk to me, and you die.”
Every second of my life unreserved for human interaction, standardized testing, and minimal hygienic maintenance (I don’t sleep) goes to music. Anyone who knows me can tell at least one story about failing to get my attention on the street. Though this will often begin as a funny story, its teller will turn sad and worried when I insist that I never saw them. They say I should keep my eyes open. But it’s not true; I am engaged, just not with College Hill.
After three years in university, every emotional, intellectual, and social event has become a variation on one I’ve encountered before, but in music I can still find new pathways. Ghostface Killah’s rhymes can take me to a grimy New York bodega; a Travis Scott beat will offer me drugs I’ve never tried. Getting lost in a densely orchestrated Beach Boys song is like building my own universe, and listening to the rawest, most careless punk is like burning it all down. I let each note tell me what it felt like to play it. I live lives that are not my own.
And if I’m curious what German Marxists did with their time in the 1970s, there’s this one band I’ve been meaning to check out. They’re called *squints at iPhone* “Rufus Zuphall.”
But what I’ll never want is a soundtrack, some aural drapery to put up as a partition between myself and an active mind. I want to make discoveries in sound, to feel myself reborn in each roaring blast of a John Coltrane solo. If my own life can ever match it, maybe I’ll take off my headphones and give it a listen. But until then, my list of albums to hear currently sits in the thousands. In the event of my sudden disappearance, it’ll likely be seized as police evidence.
If you’re concerned, know that the universe is conspiring to keep me on the grid. Spotify, in a horrific betrayal, apparently now functions as social media, enabling friends to stalk me by observing my listening habits. I have the service synced on so many platforms that when I turn music off on my phone and open my laptop in class it’ll usually continue blaring. Not that it matters; my headphones are so beaten and abused they bleed sound. Even if I’m not telling the world how I’m feeling, my music will. This distresses me. Not because I’ll be embarrassed when you hear the sounds of Rufus Zuphall, but because you’ll assume the sounds of Rufus Zuphall reflect me. And they don’t; I’m a sonic traveller, but I don’t have any one destination. F*ck if I know where I’m going. F*ck if I know how I’m feeling.
Life, without music, is just kinda happening.
And as I sink deeper into my groove, I find less patience for music that pursues obvious emotional effects. I’m familiar with all those already. I instead seek sounds that force me to master them—sounds that are elusive, dense, cryptic. I hope that if I spend enough time within their walls, I might uncover new strains of human feeling—feelings known only to me.
With beating heart and thumping chest, I tell you I have found this music.
My 8:00 A.M. says it sounds like tropical casino jazz.
It’s more or less all I’ve been listening to this semester. People must think I’m feeling groovy.
The jazzman in question is Fela Kuti, and I’ll concede his music does indeed conjure images of warm climes. A Los Angeles nightclub musician before being deported to his native Nigeria, Fela spent the ‘70s merging traditional African stylings with greasy, deep-fryer American funk. Despite the fact that he was the only one playing it, he declared his creation a genre and named it Afrobeat.
Fela is perhaps the most famous non-Western musician ever; he is to African music what Bob Marley is to reggae. But the popular take on his songs—that one is always as good as another so you might as well listen to any—kept me away from him for years. Indeed, people talk about Fela’s music like it’s always the same. They don’t mean this as an insult. Rather, repetition is understood to be the whole appeal. Like Warhol’s soup cans or Monet’s haystacks, every Afrobeat jam represents a minor variation on a central ideal. Each is around 13 minutes long and divides into two parts that proceed according to certain rules.
At the beginning, the rhythm section is isolated; clattery percussion and a tight, catchy guitar riff combine into a simple, unchanging groove. It’s conceivable that at the end of each song the musician’s limbs fall off from the repetition. Their sacrifice does not go in vain—the groove makes crucial room for Fela to come in and do his thing on top. He’ll solo with keyboard, saxophone, and—in the second half—his own rap-like vocals. Usually incensed about some political injustice, he’ll rant for a while before ending the track on a hooky call-and-response chant. For example: Angry-sounding Fela: “them leave sorrow, tears, and blood!” Happy-sounding backing vocalists: “them regular trademark!” Any remaining empty space (like when Fela needs to breathe) is rounded out by a cycling section of loud, punchy horn players. Though these jams are distinguished by different hooks, arrangements, and lyrics, the feel they create is always the same. If one were to suddenly skip ahead two minutes, it’s unlikely that anyone would notice. The groove is endless. I figured a sonic explorer like myself had little to discover through active listening—just the same empty, pulsating throb over and over.
My interest in Afrobeat had been so low, in fact, that when I first made my acquaintance with it, I deployed it as no good music should be deployed: background noise. But when you’re exercising, it’s good to have something behind you, and Fela’s music occurred to me as an athletic ideal: energetic enough to keep me moving and without surprises that might trip me up. Plus, it was all the same, right? If I ran longer I’d never have to scramble for anything else, just toss a random song on and keep going. So my relationship with Fela began innocuously enough, with me queuing up three or four of his jams as I ran sprints.
I’m lucky I exercise like a weirdo because the 100-meter dash unlocked a unique understanding of Fela’s music. Bolting as fast as I could, over and over, isolated the degree of passion coming from his end. Our energies synchronized in special moments—when the horns blew extra loud, when the keyboards were stabbed with murderous intent, and when Fela’s screaming vocals seemed to tear at his larynx. Conversely, I also noticed whenever the musicians sounded tired. I found these wavering emotional shades annoying as a sprinter but intriguing as a music listener. Walking the length of the straightaway as I rested, survival-head-rush-blood heightening my senses, unexpected notes came floating out of the funk. A particularly heavy bass ostinato in one song, a surprisingly subdued keyboard line in another—subtle compositional differences that captured my imagination before I lifted my legs and charged back into the groove again.
Without necessarily intending to, I found myself taking it with me back out on the street. Fed up with some go-nowhere song but not wanting to risk my time trying something else, I’d reboot a Fela jam on the way to class and see what else I could discover. More often than not, I had to rediscover the original song. Is “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” the one with the water-wrinkled electric guitar? Or is that “Colonial Mentality”? And this is the one with the freaky organ texture? Each re-listen was that same sort of battle—my sonic memory versus labyrinthian African funk—but I was gaining ground fast, memorizing the tracks and learning their contours. Pretty quickly, I regretted the years I had been misled. The Afrobeat experience wasn’t about one lengthy song. It was about four or five or six or twelve lengthy songs. And I was hooked. I had to hear them all so I could hear them again.
What’s important to understand now is that Fela Kuti is absurdly prolific. In the 1970s alone, he released 33 albums. At the beginning of the decade, he even founded his own country—the so-called Kalakuta Republic, really just a large compound in Lagos—so he could run his own recording studio and release music without being bothered by the Nigerian military junta (and, also, so he could marry his 27 backup singers—as mentioned, the dude was prolific). Luckily, most of his albums are pretty short—usually two songs for a total of 25 minutes; it was easy to fit them in on walks back from class or schedule in new ones as study breaks.
Moving through Fela’s discography is, essentially, listening to the chronological evolution of a single song—the arc of an artistic vision. After mastering the subtle instrumental variations, I start to wonder if they may contain clues to Fela’s life and how he was feeling. Why are the horns on Opposite People so especially triumphant? Why does “Mr. Grammarticalogylisationalism is the Boss” sound like a Doors song? Was he going through a Jim Morrison phase? Why is the guitarist on Authority Stealing mixed so low as to be almost inaudible? Was Fela mad at him? Oh no—did he sleep with one of his wives? Sometimes the lyrics offer hints, but they’re often even more mysterious. The 1975 album He Miss Road brings the deepest, saddest organ work of Fela’s career, but one song is about returning to work on a Monday morning after a fun, drunk weekend with your friends, and the title song is a quasi-diss track aimed at another band’s frontman. By direct contrast, 1981’s Coffin for Head of State is about how the Nigerian government threw Fela’s mother out of a window, and it’s built around the dinkiest, most sunshine-happy keyboard melody I’ve ever heard. His own messages are literally undercut by the funk. What was he trying to tell people? Am I the only one who notices? Is it just tropical casino music to everyone else?
About halfway through the semester, I start to get lost in my own groove. The dangling interest that’s kept me engaged in my classes falls off at once, and I ghost group meals to go on long walks without direction or destination. My internship emails are being returned as rejections. My ex-girlfriends haunt the streets as tormenting specters. And after all the time and energy I’ve committed to him, I still have no clue how Fela feels—I have even less of an idea what I feel, and I see no future for life except to repeat, repeat…and repeat. My most meaningful, slaved-over human project is a ranked list of Afrobeat albums that changes every time I listen to them.
Finally there comes a Friday when I can no longer claim to be busy, and my friends drag me out for the night. At the second party, I recognize a girl I know from my hip-hop class. I try to flirt, but life right now is so narrow that my conversation quickly and inevitably turns to Fela. Luckily, she’s a fan. We geek out over polyrhythms, Tony Williams’s drumming, and the lyric “them go use your sh*t to put you for jail.” But when I start to rattle off my expansive theories about Fela’s murky messages, things turn sour. “Fela wasn’t trying to confuse anybody,” she tells me, her drink splashing around in her hand. “He literally sang in pidgin English so all of Africa could understand him!” I mumble out some brief justification and back gradually away from the girl, leaving the party and my friends early.
Once into the night, I move quickly, as though with haste I might save the schema that crumbles all around me. But it’s too late. In less than an instant, the existence of other people has booted me out of my groove, out of my own personal Kalakuta Republic, and now I’ve been left to fend for myself. As symbolic closure, I consider deleting my Fela rankings, but even that seems too melodramatic for the nothing I’ve created of my life. Instead, I just put on some Juice WRLD and finish the sad journey back to my room.
It’s a couple of days before I’m compelled back to Fela—the pull of the funk is just too strong, but I’ve spent days stress-consuming Nigerian history, and I’m determined to meet him on his own terms. I press play, and it’s instantly clear how drastically I’d gotten him wrong; Fela’s music isn’t about getting lost in the groove, it’s about breaking through it. Fela lived at a time when the military government was waging a propaganda war on its own people, and most of his songs unambiguously advise Africans to stay alert and think for themselves. It’s the familiar, predictable structure of his music that makes these messages so powerful—like rebellious citizens re-claiming agency from a crushing, meaningless (and, I guess, funky) everyday. Afrobeat aims to set its listeners free, but I’d spent months denying it. I put my favorite songs in a playlist and let my ears wander around. I was going to open my eyes, just in time for spring.
These days, the Fela jam I listen to most is called “Shuffering and Shmiling.” The 22-minute-long (!) track cooks up a plinking, mischievous keyboard line as the man rallies against what colonial religions have done to Africa—telling its people to “Suffer, suffer for world / Enjoy for heaven.” Back when I was plunging Afrobeat for deeper meaning, the track seemed straightforward to a fault. But now it’s one of my favorites for that very reason—Fela literally saying, “Hey, don’t live the way someone else says you should. Enjoy sh*t now and do what you want to do.”
I’m neither African nor a member of the Christian faith, but I’ve tried to follow his advice the best I can. When I put my headphones on tonight, I’m going to spend less time adapting to how my music feels and more time finding music that matches my own mood. That may seem like a downgrade, but I disagree. I’m still making discoveries, but they’re not just about John Coltrane or Fela Kuti or Rufus Zuphall anymore. Instead, they’re about me. I’m figuring out how I want to feel, everyday, for the rest of my life—my own special groove.