Nearly two decades since Fela’s demise, his afrobeat genre is waxing even stronger. Fela’s typical sound and performance style has since spread from the magnificent duo of Femi and Seun Kuti to new talented acts like Monica Swaida whose song Palava is a sort of tribute to the afrobeat legend—Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
There is no gainsaying that Fela’s saxophone riffs and extraordinary improvisations, groovy and rhythmic bass lines, electrifying stage performances and his works’ political meanings are the hallmark of his genre which he used as a strong weapon against oppressive governments and as a voice for his people. Most enduring is the significance of his lyrics which, in a sense, is the essence of his performance. I would argue that in vocal music performances, no matter how excellent the instrumental backup might be, the core of the entire work could be found in the singer’s message. To avoid the risk of appearing oblivious of the arts for art’s sake theory, while all lyrics are not expected to be didactic, the singer should at least try and make some sense. Juxtaposing Fela’s afrobeat lyrics with lyrics of some current artistes who play in the same genre or sub-genres, one is left to wonder what went wrong. How do we solve a problem like a song whose irresistible beats/rhythms is the only sense it makes? While fans could dance to the beats regardless of the lyrical content, in the end, the question still lingers: “So what’s the artiste saying?”
In Monica’s Palava, there is no frivolous talk. The act attempts to walk in the footprints of Fela with regards to the essence of her music. The song’s lyrics, groovy bass lines, harmonic progressions and brilliant saxophone riffs succeeds in not only placing Monica on the list of fine afrobeat musicians but also brings back memories of Fela.
Monica’s alto—low and rich in texture is appropriate for the genre. However, there is a clear demonstration of how high her voice range could be. The Nigerian Pidgin which has been the official language of the genre since the days of Fela is used here. Here are a few excerpts from Monica’s verses:
Monkey dey work, baboon dey chop
We no go live like this forever
Na since 1960 Nigeria get independence
We still dey dependent
Wetin be dat?
These lyrics draw Nigeria’s attention to the massive looting of the state treasury and undue acquisition of public wealth that occurs within the political class. Unfortunately, the situation has not changed even since Fela’s years. Nigeria’s independence as a nation is questioned here. According to Monica, Nigeria is still dependent.
In Palava, Monica raises issues on corruption, religion, politicians’ acts, injustice, kidnapping, ritual killing and all other vices that plague Nigeria. The singer also affirms that these troubles are not limited to Nigeria alone as she sings: “Palava dey all over the world. For Africa. For America…”
This affirms what the genre stands for—speaking about critical issues that need attention. However, from another perspective, these recurring themes could place a monotonous outlook on the genre as a whole. In the video, the live band set shows one of the major attributes of the afrobeat genre—live performance. Authentic afrobeat musicians own the stage and play live rather than depending on a disc jockey. In addition, streets, roads, market places, railroad, used as settings in the video clearly show on whose side the music is—the everyday man.
On the whole, Monica’s Palava is worth the time and its win at the NAFCA People’s Choice Award for Favourite Video in 2015 considering its artistic content, the sense it makes, the questions it raises, and its overall message.
Monica Swaida is both talented and courageous. Listen to her.