This feature originally appeared in Songlines #103 (October 2014) p27. Download a pdf here.
Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to Fela Kuti’s keyboard player about being the UK’s Afrobeat ambassador and carrying on Fela’s legacy (Photo by Urban Lights)
Abright-eyed 16-year-old Dele Sosimi sat in Fela Kuti’s Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, surrounded by the band and desperate for his chance to prove his mettle on keyboard to the king of Afrobeat. “I couldn’t wait. I worked up the courage and said ‘please can I sit in on this track? I have learned it.’ Fela looked at me quizzically, and that was the defining moment. If he had told me no or said anything negative, that probably would have been the end. I may not have recovered.” Luckily for Dele, Fela gave him his moment, “and I played my heart out. There was no stopping after that.”
And indeed Dele hasn’t paused a moment since that fateful day; 35 years later and he’s still proudly flying the Afrobeat flag.
As a kid Dele loved jazz, and he and his childhood friend, Fela’s eldest son Femi, would often visit the local jazz clubs and sit in on all the standards. So as soon as Dele had his moment at the Shrine, he couldn’t wait to get started as a professional musician.
“Within weeks I was like ‘please, I want to drop out of school and join your band.’ And of course Fela wasn’t having any of that. He said, ‘go finish your high school, and then come back and talk to me.’ The day I finished school, within 45 minutes of my last test, I was in his house saying ‘Fela, I’ve just finished, I’m ready for the band.’”
Despite being the youngest member of Fela’s Egypt 80, it wasn’t long before Dele was making waves. “I rose up quickly because I had that leadership quality. Before you knew it, I was arranging, re-orchestrating, and training new recruits.”
As part of Egypt 80, he developed his arranging skills and even temporarily took over when Fela was incarcerated in 1984. He left the band in 1986 and created the Positive Force band with Femi, before eventually moving to London in 1995.
While he had toured internationally with both Fela and Femi, he was still not entirely prepared for the London scene. “I had to start from scratch. When I got to London I had to find my own circuit. So I spent a few years just building my track record and just kept trying to fly the Afrobeat flag.”
As an Afrobeat ambassador, he is the champion who has successfully carried the movement in the UK. Dele’s Afrobeat Vibration project is famed for its intense, four-plus hour shows, he has performed countless Fela tribute shows in the capital, and he holds educational workshops around the UK. He also served as the music consultant for the hit musical Fela! at the National Theatre in London. “That was a great experience, because there was a pretend Fela in front of me every night for 63 performances. So I got to relive those experiences even if it was only pretend.”
Fela! helped shift the media spotlight back towards Afrobeat, which led some to believe that the genre was seeing a new breath of life, but Dele doesn’t agree. “People think Afrobeat is going through a resurgence. It’s just that it doesn’t get the same amount of coverage as other genres. There’s no resurgence. It’s just there. It’s always been there.” And, in part, we should thank Dele Sosimi for that.