Joni Haastrup started out singing spot-on covers of James Brown and Wilson Pickett in Lagos bars in the mid-1960s. But with his own band, Monomono, he became part of a movement to fuse soul, funk and rock with African music.
Afrobeat is that fusion, pioneered by Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti. Kuti has been dead 14 years, but Afrobeat lives on. In fact, it's bigger than ever, and recent reissue CDs are now pulling back the curtain on the Nigerian funk and soul scene from which Afrobeat emerged.
In 1970 Haastrup was fresh off a stay in England, singing with the then-iconic rock drummer Ginger Baker. Baker had heard Haastrup in a Lagos nightclub and brought him to London to rub shoulders with musicians from Cream, Blind Faith and The Who. One thing Haastrup learned from those guys was the technique of composing songs based on freewheeling jam sessions.
Haastrup brought a wealth of musical ideas back to Lagos with him. He also brought tough new insights about how the world really worked. English bureaucracy had at times made this well-born Nigerian feel like a beggar, and that feeling became the inspiration for Monomono's first big hit, "Give the Beggar a Chance."
The song opens with a dreamy, psychedelic vamp, juxtaposed with the familiar cry of a beggar, pleading for help on the streets of the biggest city in Nigeria. Give the Beggar a Chance is a masterful fusion of African rhythms, soul angst and cutting-edge UK rock — all in the air in the Lagos of '70. But nobody did it like this.
Fela Kuti's Afrobeat juggernaut would soon be rolling. But the emerging genres' trademarks — long-form jams, an easy fluency with international music trends, righteous concern for the poor and oppressed — are all present on Give the Beggar a Chance. Monomono is Yoruba for "lightning," as in a flash of awareness. And the band's debut album captures that lightning-strike-like moment when imitation morphs into originality. Give the Beggar a Chance is an early landmark in a musical revolution that still resonates today.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.