(ARISELIVE.com, 2012) Words Carinya Sharples
Dele Sosimi is the self-confessed ambassador of afrobeat. Ever since he became keyboardist in Fela Kuti’s Egypt 80 band in 1979 at the tender age of 16, he has been promoting the genre.
But like Fela´s former drummer Tony Allen, Sosimi has kept the spirit of afrobeat alive while also taking it into new waters. After playing with Femi Kuti´s Positive Force for eight years, he moved to London in the mid-1990s to strike out alone.
Since then Sosimi has performed at Montreux Jazz Festival, Womad and the Copenhagen Jazz Festival; hooked up with British rapper Ty; and set up his own underground night – London´s answer to The Shrine – the monthly Afrobeat Vibration sessions. Little wonder that he scooped the Outstanding Contribution to Music title at the 2011 Nigerian Entertainment and Lifestyle Awards.
His 15-piece band Dele Sosimi´s Afrobeat Orchestra is due to play at Liverpool´s Africa Oyé festival in July, so we caught up with the man himself on a rare sunny London day (“It´s like we´re back in Lagos!”) to chat Fela, future plans and what he thinks about the new afrobeats wave.
You left Lagos for London nearly 17 years ago now. How has it been?
It’s been fun. It’s been kind of a learning curve for me. I’ve mostly been experimenting with my music, and then trying to evolve the genre by making sure I don’t go stagnant. I’m always happy to try something new. When I initially got to London I was not performing in anything less than a big band but now I do trios, I do quartets, quintets, duets… so I’m ready to experiment as long as there’s a good spirit between me and whoever I’m working with.
Are you collaborating with anyone at the moment?
Right now I´m working with a Brazilian artist, we’re exchanging stuff. Who is it? Well I should keep it under wraps! It’s supposed to be a surprise thing, but I’ll tell you that I’m working on his material to start with then depending on the result we will bring him over to the UK or I will go out to Brazil. We’re not sure what will happen but we’ve got a good spirit. And the jellifying factor is Fela. He loves Fela to bits and when he heard that I was interested in collaborating with him he was over the moon and he was very quick to give me his latest album and say, ‘look listen to that and tell me what you think’.
Any other hookups?
I’m working also with my very good friend, another keyboard player who’s based in London, his name is Kishon Khan. We went to his country, Bangladesh, the year before last and performed in the first Dakar World Music Festival, which was interesting. It was one hell of a performance. We’re definitely going back very soon. But that got me collaborating with him and we’re going to be trying to release a couple of tracks very soon. I happened to also go to India this year so I’m taking afrobeat to two new territories.
You’re like the Afrobeat ambassador
Yeah, more or less. I think I can claim that I’m Afrobeat’s most interesting ambassador at the moment! I’ve taken it to Dakar, Bangladesh; I’ve taken it to Booti in South India and there’s a possibility that I’m going back very soon to those two places and this time I’ll probably stay longer and do some collaborations with local musicians, local traditional Indian musicians. So it’s looking very very interesting in terms of content that people can look forward to.
Do you have much connection with what’s happening in Lagos or Nigeria at the moment?
I try to stay in touch with what’s happening but if you’re not on the ground there there’s no point. You have to be there. And to be honest I’m not there, I’m not there at all! I keep in touch with Femi every once in a while, we chat and all that but it’s not enough. You have to be in Nigeria for you to be relevant. But I’m always looking to see what’s going on, to see what people are doing.
What do you think of the new afrobeats craze?
I don’t know much about it but I know that there’s a particular wave going around now called afrobeats. I don’t know whether it’s a fad, whether it’s a phase but I know there’s a lot about it on Twitter. I also know that a couple of people have made reference to me, Seun Kuti, Fela etc as the originals…For me art is art, I don’t like to criticise art. I think it’s an interesting wave to watch but I still remain true to my upbringing [and] school, and happy to explore, to expand the horizon as long as it’s live and real.
When I performed in India…[there were musicians on stage] surrounded by computers, playing samples, pre-recorded material on a loop… It sounded interesting enough but what I noticed was that there was no energy. When we got on stage the whole vibe changed. When you watch ten men performing afrobeat on stage there’s an energy that you feed off them that makes you move and they are feeding off your return energy.
Why do you remain an independent artist?
Lots of reasons. The industry has changed for starters and I’m a mature artist so I’m more experienced, I’m choosy, I’m picky. And I have not been able to convince myself to sign with a record label, the kind of contract that exists today, which is in my opinion not worth getting involved in. The advent of technology now gives the artist the ability to keep his destiny in his own hands. You can record an album as long as you finance it, you can pay a producer to produce with you if you don’t have those skills and then upon doing that you can release your product yourself. And with the advent of social media networks you can get involved in a lot of things. Working with an established record label is good if they are willing to work with you and earn what they work for – but they always want more.
Are you working on any of your own compositions?
I’ve got quite a number of tracks that I’ve written but – maybe because I’m old school – I don’t believe in releasing something that I have not performed well. When Fela released an album he had been playing that track in The Shrine for over three years. So the band could enter the studio with their eyes closed and record it in one take. That’s what I was exposed to, so I always like doing the same thing. I believe in getting that live feel going, having performed it so many times over and over again you get so used to it and then creatively develop it over the repeated performances so when you get in the studio you know you’re performing the best version of it you can.
What would you say is the most important thing you learnt from Fela?
Loads of different things but one of the most important things is; no matter what happens it’s better to get to your appointment two hours before and be chilled, relaxed and ready than for you to get there late and have to make an excuse. [ARISE: So much for African time!] Oh the African time thing, it’s good it’s all good and all that but to be honest we live in a world today where time is money and time don’t wait for nobody!
What I also learnt from Fela is you need to have somewhere you can be identified with, so in London I have a regular night every two months called Afrobeat Vibration, where if you want to hear what I’ve been up to that is where to go. So that’s where I have been able to keep my sanity, keep my music going, keep my creative juices flowing and also offer an environment for interested musicians, up-and-coming musicians to have an experience of playing afrobeat and funk in front of an afrobeat-loving audience. So I’m really proud of that – four years and we’re still going.
What about future collaborations?
There are a couple of people I’d love to work with. Top on my list is Questlove, it would be nice to do something with him. Last year I did something with the Copenhagen Jazz Festival where we did a Fela tribute, a star-studded line-up of the top jazz musicians based in Denmark, and it was a successful outing so I’m looking forward to doing it again this year – we’re earmarked the 13th or 14th July for that. I’m going to be doing some collaborations with Tony Allen at some point in time too, and I’m looking at collaborating with a couple of hip hop artists because I believe afrobeat is a hip hop artist’s partner – there is a lot they can take out of afrobeat as a vehicle for getting their message across.