The Jazz Side of Afrobeat

Ayetoro is a Yoruba word that means a world of peace. Ayetoro is also the name of a band formed in Nigeria just over twenty ago in 1996 by Funsho Ogundipe. Funsho has quite an interesting and unusual biography for a musician. He has never played the piano before he was seventeen and he only discovered his deep love for music while he was at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Nigeria.

After he graduated he worked in a law firm for five years and then for the Prudent Merchant Bank (now Prudent Bank). Oddly enough one of his early encounters with a world famous musician ended in disaster. “I remember when I was in Law School, I used to hang out and go and watch Fela play at the Shrine on most Friday evening after school,

Funsho recalls. “There was this day I just walked up to him and told him that I wanted to play the piano. I was wearing a jacket, so I think I must have convinced him. At this time, I didn’t know what they were playing. I didn’t have a clue about what they were doing. So, he took me on stage and put on the piano and I succeeded in making a fool of myself because everybody laughed. I remember one of Fela’s dancers called Folake laughed at me and said ‘You this man, lawyer, Fela friend, you want turn to musician abi? Fuck off men!’ That was in 1988“.

Luckily Funsho didn’t give up then and continued to practice the piano, formed the band Ayetoro and has since then released four albums: Naija Blues (1996), Something Dey (1998), Six Thousand And A Minute (2004) and the Afrobeat Chronicles Vol. I, which was already released in 2003. Like most independently released albums the Afrobeat Chronicles Vol. I has escaped my notice back then. But as we all know there’s really no expiration date for good music. And Ayetoro’s own blend of afrobeat and jazz, with a strong emphasis on jazz on this album, is simply good music.

The album was recorded in London with no overdubs with Funsho Ogundipe (Fender Rhodes electric piano), Byron Wallen (trumpet), Robert Fordjour (drums), Linus Bewley (clarinet, soprano sax), Olalekan Babalola (percussion), Ayokunle Odia (tenor sax), Angela Al Hucima (percussion), Orefo Orakwue (fender jazz bass) and Curtis Shaw (guitar).

The album starts with the cheerful From Benin To Belize, a catchy tune with subtextual Latin references. Becklow Gardens (Afrofunkycool) with its tight woodwinds section is just that, afrofunkycool. One of my favorite tracks is Revenge Of The Flying Monkeys (yes, I’m always a sucker for oddly titled songs), an inspiring and danceable afrobeat song, I just wish it would last much longer than its 5:20 minutes. In a way, it makes me think of  John Coltrane, but then again, in its own way, of course.

Blues 4 The Earth Mother is another highlight that shows what a great band Ayetoro is and what beautiful songs Funsho writes. The album’s closer Yoruba Boyz Club can best be described as afrobeat meets broken beats done with real instruments. And it features some fine Fender Rhodes playing by Funsho and the guitar parts remind me of Keb-mo, the Louisiana legend in the making.

There’s just one letdown with this album and that is, it’s too short with five songs in less than half an hour. Especially the repetitive Yoruba Boyz Club could be a (dancefloor) monster in an extended version that could accent its trance-like qualities.

All in all The Afrobeat Chronicles Vol. I (The Jazz Side Of Afrobeat) is a great album that shows that afrobeat isn’t dead but very much alive and it flourishes if married with jazz and played by talented musicians. Highly recommendable.