When David Bowie passed away, I was motivated to listen to more of his music, as I had really only heard his big hits previously. As I have occasionally done with other artists in the past, I decided to start with his early albums and move through them chronologically (I wrote about this approach previously here). Listening to his albums this way definitely taught me some things about the development of songwriting, exploring different sounds and textures in pop music, and how pop music can be inventive and unique. I really missed the boat in not listening to his music earlier.
With an upcoming special event that Ben Bloom and the rest of the Polyrhythmics will be putting together in New Orleans for JazzFest, I moved on to do the same focused listening with the discographies of Fela Kuti and the Grateful Dead. I knew a fair amount of Fela’s music, but almost none of the Dead’s music, and once again both experiences were significantly enlightening. What struck me in listening to the Grateful Dead was how interesting the actual composed material was; it seems to me that they are largely known for the improvisational nature of their performances, but I enjoyed the written material just as much.
Fela’s music is, in its own way, a perfect example of the approach that I frequently talk about achieving: a unique synthesis of all of his influences into an individual sound. Throughout his discography you hear how he incorporated West African Highlife, Jazz, and Soul in the style James Brown in a way that allows them all to work together. The political nature of his music and how fearless he was in declaring his views is also an important part of who he was, and how the music sounded.
Polyrhythmics have never claimed to be an Afrobeat band, or tried to accurately and faithfully execute Afrobeat music as Fela and others played it, but the influence is definitely there, and it would be irresponsible to ignore or downplay that. I’ve thought a lot recently about my responsibility as a musician to not only acknowledge influences but to bring them to the front of conversation when talking to listeners or students about my playing, especially if they are not familiar with those earlier bands and musicians. I haven’t done a great job with that, and hope to do better.