Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Genius of Fela’s Horn Lines

Now that I have about a dozen of Fela Kuti’s tunes under my belt courtesy of weekly lessons with his former baritone sax player Showboy, currently music director of Egypt 80, I have begun to understand Fela’s music much better. Although I have long been a big fan and have listened to Fela’s records for decades, placing him in my 1970's musical triumvirate alongside Miles Davis and James Brown, I am just now really appreciating the sheer genius of the lines he wrote for his horn section. Genius is an overused term and I do not choose it frivolously. 

Fela’s music is not written down anywhere - but Showboy knows all the tunes, the arrangements, the solos, the horn parts, the harmonies, the rhythms, the voicings, the vocals, and the cues by heart, since he spent so many years playing and touring with Egypt 80. He is teaching me by ear, scatting the parts while I do my best to pick them out on my horn and note them down. It is obvious to me that Fela was a tenor sax player since virtually every horn part I have learned so far falls comfortably under my fingers on tenor. Felas’s music is primarily in minor keys and the keys are, again, almost all comfortable ones for the tenor sax, not bizarre keys that test if you got As in music theory class. Although Fela started out on trumpet, played alto sax before taking up tenor, and finished his career mostly on keyboards (I understand the reason is that the cumulative effects of multiple beatings by the authorities made it difficult for him to play much sax in the later years of his life), his music is that of a tenor saxophonist. Composed on the instrument, not on paper away from the horn. 

Over the last few weeks something broke loose and I discovered the inner logic to Fela’s music, an epiphany of sorts. Lately I’ve been able to pick up tunes in minutes as opposed to hours. Last session I was on top of Power Show after only about 10 minutes. 

It dawned on me that most of the famous tunes by the undeniable greats Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane are in tenor-friendly keys as well (duh!). The great players don’t torture themselves over theory and unnecessary gymnastics. Very few of their compositions fall outside of key signatures that are basic for the way the tenor operates mechanically. I have written before about Occam’s Razor, the logic that says that given multiple possible solutions, the simplest one is always the best. Fela’s horn lines fit this rule. With all the talk of the so-called Afrobeat Revival, I've yet to find one composer who has equalled Fela’s writing for horn sections.

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