Continuing the legacy of Afrobeat: Funmilayo Afrobeat Orchestra, an all black women band named after Fela Kuti’s mother, debuts in São Paulo
By Marques Travae
I’ve been a fan of the music of Afrobeat legend since about 1998, which means I wasn’t exposed to his Fela Kuti’s hypnotic stew of Nigerian Highlife, Jazz and Funk until the year after he died. But once I invested in a couple of his CDs featuring extended jams, many of which that lasted 10, 15, 20 minutes or more, I was hooked. I don’t think I have all of his CD’s that were re-issued, but I got a bunch of ‘em. And as I was exposed to the Nigerian superstar long after his peak, it shouldn’t be surprising that it took another few years for his influence to reach the ears of Brazilians. But once it reached Brazilian shores, it exploded.
From special dances featuring all-Fela music (Felabrations), to an exposition of his album covers at the Afro-Brasil Museum in São Paulo, the connection with Kuti came at a time when millions of Afro-Brazilians are connecting with their African roots and black identities. Filmmaker Joel Zito Araújo further cemented this intrigue in Fela with the 2019 release of his documentary My Friend Fela, based on Carlos Moore’s book on the Afrobeat legend entitled Fela: This Bitch of a Life (released as Fela – Essa Vida Puta in Brazil).
Releasing a film about an African musician was no small feat for Araújo, who has always had issues getting his films that focus of race and blackness widely distributed in Brazil. In an interview with the website Portal Soteropreta, Araújo spoke a little about how the idea for the film came about and the difficulties he faced in getting the film made and released.
“I became aware of the richness of Fela Kuti’s life when I read the biography written by Carlos Moore, Fela – Essa Vida Puta. And in conversation with Carlos, who lived in Salvador at the time, he told me that after seeing my films, he thought I “was the man” to make a film closer to what Fela Kuti was, a Pan-African political militant, and not just a pop icon father of Afrobeat. Carlos, who is one of the greatest connoisseurs of Fela Kuti’s life, expressed great dissatisfaction with the other initiatives of cinema in portraying him.”
Black Brazilian cinema has been on rise in the past decade, but this doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily an easy journey for Afro-Brazilians to create their films. If it’s hard for a white filmmaker to get a film released (see the case of the film about Brazilian political figure Carlos Marighella), imagine the same task for Afro-Brazilian directors. Speaking on the issue, Araújo said the following:
“I encountered difficulties from beginning to end. It was difficult to find sponsorship in Brazil for a big name in the world music scene, but he has always been little known in our country. For a Brazilian director to make a film with an international theme and subject, especially African, it’s not easy at all. I spent five years searching for approval in the BNDES (National Bank of Development) Edict and getting the 50% needed to start the film. Then it was difficult to shoot in Nigeria. The government didn’t allow me to go in with my team. After much negotiation, in which I even needed the support of Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, the government allowed me to enter the country to film, but directing a Nigerian team, based there. And finally, the negotiation of image rights took me over a year. The money was kind of short, and I was ambitious in trying to secure the 35 minutes of archival footage and 23 minutes of Fela songs. But I finally succeeded, after a lot of talk and support. There were 108 negotiations of rights. As for the interviewees, being a friend of Carlos Moore, was a great facilitator.”
Considering Brazilian affairs with Nigeria, it would seem that a film about Fela released in Brazil would be a perfect match….But then again, maybe not. For one, the Yoruba people had a huge influence on Afro-Brazilian culture in the northeastern state of Bahia. Two, Brazil, like Nigeria, experienced a brutal military dictatorship right around the same time. Then there was the participation of Afro-Brazilian musicians such as Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben in the 2nd World Festival of Black Arts and Culture (Festac) in Lagos in 1977. And there was the Brazilian government’s attempt to silence Afro-Brazilian activist Abdias do Nascimento from exposing racism in Brazil during that same festival.
Coming from a time in which Fela was basically unknown to having a big-name Afro-Brazilian filmmaker releasing a film about his life is a huge stride, and now we have yet another mark of Fela’s influence in Brazil: the band the Funmilayo Afrobeat Orchestra. When we take into context how Fela’s music was a vehicle against racism, inequality and colonialism in 1970s Nigeria, and put in context with the emergence of Afro-Brazilian racial politics and demands for greater access to spaces long denied them in Brazilian society, we again see a perfect marriage. And as this charge for Afro-Brazilian rights is in many ways led by women, it is fitting that the Funmilayo Afrobeat Orchestra, an all-black women band, would find inspiration in Fela’s main inspiration, his mother, Funmilayo Kuti, for whom the band takes its name.
Funmilayo, a teacher and activist, was already deep in the social justice sphere before Fela would follow in her footsteps. “She founded the Nigerian Women’s Union, led the women’s struggle for freedom, the right to vote and her strong figure marked the musician’s career for a lifetime,” says Rosa Couto, a singer/songwriter in the band, as well as the author of the book Fela Kuti: contracultura e (con)tradição na música popular africana (Fela Kuti: counterculture and (contradiction/tradition in African popular music).
To pay homage to Funmilayo’s memory and realizing the lack of an Afrobeat group consisting of only black women, two musicians, saxophonist Stela Nesrine and trumpeter Larissa Oliveira, got together and introduced the Funmilayo Afrobeat Orchestra to the world last year in São Paulo. An all-black female band is an accomplishment in into given the lack of prominence black and/or female instrumentalists have in Brazil’s music industry.
Composed of 11 black women, this band emerged and marked its presence in a predominantly male territory. If you think about it, it’s difficult to find all-women bands in the world of music. If the difficulties of songwriters, arrangers and instrumentalists were always to enter and remain in the job market, those of singers, background vocalists and dancers are often perceived on stage not only by their image but by the exposure of their bodies.
“The existence of a black collective like ours means the need for black Brazilian feminist representation in a country whose musical space is dominated by mostly white men,” explain the artists, who request responding to questions not individually, but as a collective.
In addition to Stela and Larissa, the other nine members of the orchestra are Sthe Araújo and AfroJu Rodrigues (percussionists), Ana Goes (saxophonist and vocalist), Suka Figueiredo (saxophonist), Bruna Duarte (bassist), Priscila Hilário (drummer), Jasper (guitarist and vocalist), Tamiris Silveira (keyboardist) and Rosa Couto (vocalist). Understanding the rarity of such a group, the band says they have knowledge of if there are or have been other Afrobeat bands formed only by black women, in Brazil or in the rest of the world.
Marielle Franco as musical inspiration
With songs that include fresh re-interpretations of Afrobeat, the group’s repertoire seeks to encourage women who don’t see themselves represented in society and to shatter taboos and stereotypes associated with the sexuality or lifestyle of black Brazilian women. Their target audience is black women of various ages. “These women need to occupy spaces, build a support and love network between them and we are here to strengthen ourselves”, say the members of the band.
Last November, during the Month of Black Consciousness, they released “Negração”, a song dedicated to the memory of Marielle Franco, the Rio de Janeiro councilwoman who was murdered in a professional hit in 2018.
“The music, in a way, was elaborated from screams intoned in demonstrations throughout Brazil, like ‘Marielle, presente (present)!’. And it is precisely this climate that we wanted it to transmit: a message for people to move about, through dance, through political action.”
For the Orchestra, Marielle as well as Funmilayo Kuti were, besides courageous women, connected by their political struggles that were criminally interrupted. In 1978, as fans of Fela know, Funmilayo was thrown from the window of a building by Nigeria’s military personnel and eventually died from the injuries she sustained. “The two faced conservatism and authoritarianism that still remain active. We cannot remain silent about this. So it is in African and Afro-Brazilian culture, in feminine solidarity and in the struggle for more social equality that we seek our source of strength and inspiration.”
With information from Universa