I was fortunate in 2007 to meet Steve Rhodes, an elder statesman of Nigerian music and culture. The encounter happened while I was conducting fieldwork for my dissertation on afrobeat, the dance-protest genre created by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997) in Nigeria during the late 1960s. The major goal of my research was to track the widely dispersed network of musicians, deejays, producers and fans engaged in what had become, since Fela’s death, a transnational afrobeat revival. My travels began in the summer of 2007 with a two-month spell in Los Angeles, followed by three months spent scouring the clubs and performance venues of New York City. In October 2007, I traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, in pursuit of firsthand data about the contemporary state of afrobeat in the genre’s city of birth.
I arrived in Lagos just in time for the annual FELABRATION, a month-long series of concerts and events held in honor of Fela at the New Afrika Shrine. Amid the fanfare and bustle of the festivities, I managed to clinch interviews with Fela’s sons Femi and Seun Kuti, foremost players in the contemporary afrobeat movement. Outside of the Kuti clan, I had numerous conversations with musicians, journalists, music industry personnel, and an array of individuals acquainted with Fela during his lifetime. Some of these artists were well known and others less so. The latter category consisted of afrobeat protégés working from small home-studios or playing the occasional gig in a handful of venues randomly scattered across the city of Lagos. Regardless of where I went or whom I spoke to, Steve Rhodes, I was advised, was someone I had to talk to, especially since I was doing research on Nigerian music.
Like anyone conversant with the Nigerian arts community, I knew of Elder Steve Rhodes, veteran broadcaster, musician, composer, conductor and overall connoisseur of culture. However, I had never considered broaching the subject of afrobeat with him. The thought of discussing a brash countercultural genre like afrobeat with a personage of elite standing such as Elder Rhodes simply seemed odd. Perhaps I was being blindsided by my own assumptions about music and class dynamics in Nigeria. Who really was Steve Rhodes anyway? Who was this icon so revered in the Nigerian imagination that votaries of culture felt compelled to pronounce the prefix “Elder” before his name? What meaningful insight could he provide on the historical and social contexts that shaped and continue to nurture Nigerian popular music?
Stephen Bankole Omodele Rhodes was born on April 8, 1926 in Lagos, Nigeria. He was the son of the pre-independence Nigerian judge Stephen Bankole Rhodes, Esq. and Mrs. Mabel Jones de Rhodes. Young Rhodes began piano lessons at the age of six with Lady Abayomi, and sang as a choir boy in Christ Church Cathedral Lagos under the tutelage of renowned Nigerian organist and composer T.K.E Phillips. “Under T.K.E.,” he recollected, “all the boys had to do Trinity College [London] exams” (personal communication November 21, 2007). Later in his childhood, Steve Rhodes attended Enitonna High School in the Southern Nigerian city of Port Harcourt. There, tutored by ex-military band leaders, he learnt how to play flugel horn and Euphonium. After completing secondary school, Rhodes was sent by his parents to the University of Oxford. Although he wanted to study music, he was all too aware of the social bias against such an aspiration. He recalled: “At that time you did not talk such nonsense to your parents” (personal communication November 21, 2007). So it was that at Oxford Steve Rhodes enrolled for politics and economics in preparation for a law degree, in deference to his father.
While a student at Oxford, Steve Rhodes met a visiting music professor from Germany who offered to give him free tutoring in music if he could make his way to Germany. Rhodes took up the offer and in Germany studied theory, history, conducting and orchestration with his benefactor. For upkeep, he played cello in string quartets, took jazz gigs and did some work with the British Forces Broadcasting Service in Hamburg. Later, Rhodes returned to Britain where he worked for Melodisc Records. At some point he also had a stint with the BBC as a freelance artist. All this while, he continued to play in string quartets and jazz clubs, until he was invited back to Nigeria to work for the burgeoning Nigerian Broadcasting Service (later National Broadcasting Commission).
Rhodes returned to Nigeria in 1955 to find the working conditions at NBS less than ideal. He had been promised the opportunity to establish an orchestra but quickly discovered, to his dismay, that there was no budget for such a project. He also faced the hard reality that there weren’t enough musicians on hand who read music. Responding to these challenges, Steve Rhodes recruited what few trained musicians were available to form the first radio orchestra in Nigeria: the NBC Dance Orchestra. The constraints of Nigeria’s emergent media culture nevertheless proved quite formidable. Inadequate resources and limited skills meant that Rhodes’s orchestra could not expand beyond a dance music repertoire. Moreover, remuneration was dismal. “When I came to Nigeria,” he recalled, “the salary I was offered was less than what I had paid in income tax in England the year before” (Personal Communication November 21, 2007).
Dissatisfied with the state of music professionalism in Nigeria, Steve Rhodes departed for Britain briefly but again returned to work with the Western Nigerian Television (WNTV) in Ibadan. It was in Nigeria that he would live out the remaining decades of his long and pioneering career. To circumvent the limited availability of trained instrumentalists, he established the Steve Rhodes Voices and developed a style of choral writing that drew on the instrumental idioms of Nigerian folk music. Alongside, he continued to develop a contemporary instrumental repertoire, reconstituting the NBC dance orchestra into the Steve Rhodes Orchestra. Both the Steve Rhodes Voices and Steve Rhodes Orchestra would go on to win national and international recognition. As cultural institutions of critical importance, the two ensembles have nurtured the careers of many key Nigerian musicians, including those of Babatunde Animashaun (Baba Ani), long term band leader of Fela Kuti’s Egypt ’80 band, and Kenneth “Baba Ken” Okulolo, veteran bassist and influential patriarch of the African music scene in West Coast United States. Steve Rhodes other contributions to Nigerian cultural life include the early television drama “More Excellent Way,” which he directed while at WNTV. During the 1990s, Steve Rhodes became founding president of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria (ITPAN), a position which allowed him to strategically influence the birth of private broadcasting in Nigeria. In 2001, he established the Center for Cultural Preservation with the aim of documenting and rejuvenating Nigeria’s musical heritage.
I first met Elder Rhodes in 2007, at the National Theater in Lagos during an event commemorating the 9th Lagos Book and Arts Festival. The occasion allowed me to witness the Steve Rhodes Orchestra in performance, and to request an interview with the ensemble’s founder. On November 21, 2007 Elder Steve Rhodes welcomed me into the simple yet tasteful comfort of his Ogudu, Lagos home, where, for over two hours—and in the howling company of his restless dogs—we discussed a range of subjects, including afrobeat, hip-hop, music education, religion, the impact of western pop on Nigerian music, and the overall state of Nigerian music.
A few weeks after my interview with Steve Rhodes, I returned to New York City to begin the final phase of my fieldwork. Acceding to the exigencies of ethnographic research, I filed my interview with Steve Rhodes away with a growing archive tagged for later analysis. Several months passed, then came the shocking news that Steve Rhodes had died. He passed away on May 29, 2008, six months and eight days after my encounter with him. He was eighty-two years old.
On hearing of Steve Rhodes passing, I dug out the interview I’d had with him, and as I listened, his words took on new precious import. It dawned on me that Rhodes was one of a progressively departing generation of Nigerian octogenarians, astute custodians of cultural history whose adductions stand enriched by the passage of time. When I met Steve Rhodes, he had been at the forefront of shaping cultural life and policy in Nigeria for over five decades. My interview with him opened an intimate window into a bygone era of Nigerian music and arts; but most humbling was the realization that what I’d recorded could very well have been one of the last interviews he gave.
I have since concluded my dissertation on contemporary transnational afrobeat. Interviews conducted with individuals such as Steve Rhodes were integral to that study; however, just as critical was the wealth of print and audio-visual sources that I accessed in brick and mortar repositories. It was disheartening to discover that most of the data on Nigerian history and culture, while copiously abundant in American and European archives, are difficult to track or simply unavailable in Nigeria. In Nigeria, the culture of collecting, preserving, interpreting and dispersing historical data languishes in a state of miserable neglect. What remains are the oral recollections of individuals like Elder Steve Rhodes. His passing demonstrates that even this store of memory is fast diminishing. As is all too often the case, the passing of a generation signals the loss of tradition.
Steve Rhodes stood for the preservation of Nigerian culture. He accomplished this, not via the conventional tools of contemporary scribes, but—much like the traditional griots of Africa—through his art, a vibrant art, which both hearkened to tradition and registered the contemporary Nigerian ethos. The Yoruba have a saying: odo t’o ba gbagbe orisun e a gbe: a river that forgets its source will dry up. Much as we can neither stop the advance of time, nor changes attendant, we must strive to preserve enough of history and tradition for future generations who someday may seek self-identity in a past heritage. Late Elder Steve Rhodes set the stage by creating the Center for Cultural Preservation. It is up to those of us who remain to revisit his memory and build on the legacy he left behind.
Oyebade: Back then in the 1960s and 70s when afrobeat began to evolve, what was the state of the Nigerian popular music scene? I know that highlife was by then waning in popularity, but were there other musicians playing music similar to what Fela was playing?
Steve Rhodes: Well, to the best of my knowledge, no there weren’t. Although I have heard claims by Orlando Julius that he did stuff before Fela, I’m not aware of this. Interestingly enough, when Fela started evolving with the genre that became afrobeat, it was the twelve-bar blues form that he was using. A song like “Ololufe,” was a twelve-bar minor blues. What he did was to change the beat...But, the real strength in what he did was that he used more than one line. Between the rhythm, tenor and bass guitars, he usually had about three or four rhythmic lines running at the same time contrapuntally. Then he would go into a melody or into a set of riffs. I think this is probably what most of the people who seriously picked up afrobeat tried to do: emulate these layers of rhythms. But to answer your question directly, I don’t know of anybody who was doing anything similar at that time.
O: A lot has been said about the musical influences that shaped afrobeat: highlife, traditional African music, soul, jazz. In your opinion, which genres made the most impact? And what role specifically did highlife play in afrobeat’s evolution?
SR: Ok, let’s go back. Highlife would be the base, that’s where it came from, that was Fela’s root. Before he went to Britain he played with people like Victor Olaiya, you know, and that was highlife, strictly. While he was in school in London, he was playing jazz. Now, I would say that the genre that was probably most influential in the evolution of afrobeat was soul. You know, when Fela first made contact with the music of James Brown he was drawn to this repetitive call-and-response type of thing which sat well with the Egba music tradition in which Fela grew up. I think there was a certain amount of influence there. Of course when he went over to the States for the first time in 1969, he was completely influenced by that. I think it will be safe to say that soul was probably the strongest external influence.
O: How would you then define afrobeat? It is related to so many genres of music; one wonders, what makes afrobeat stand out?
SR: I wouldn’t want to define afrobeat because, I mean, these pigeon holes that we’re setting, I don’t really like them. Afrobeat is a music all in its own. In fact, Fela, later in his musical career, objected to calling it afrobeat. I find it hard to go into a definition, but I’ve explained what made afrobeat peculiar: its layers of contrapuntal rhythms and the superstructure of riffs built on those layers. Most of the music was political, you know…[vocally] it was sometimes like recitative, but I don’t want to get into a definition.
O: I’m curious about your decision not to get into definitions, especially as I’ve noticed a dichotomy in my research: in the US, most of the bands talk about wanting to capture afrobeat in its authentic form, the way Fela created it, and they end up playing, in fact, Africa 70s-style afrobeat. However, afrobeat in the hands of Fela constantly evolved in style. Coming to Nigeria, I find musicians talking a lot about wanting to go to the next level, not wanting to duplicate Fela. Nigerians don’t seem to smile a whole lot at the idea of trying to copy Fela. What’s your position on this?
SR: I find that strange, because the Nigerian musician has no problem with copying Michael Jackson or Celine Dion verbatim…So to hear you talk about going to the next level, I mean, I think that is sort of glorifying their ignorance, you know? Really, the creative level that Fela attained is not around at all today among Nigerian musicians. You don’t find that kind of creativity. So, for them to be going to the next level and what not, I think that’s a lot of rubbish. Fela wrote his music. He worked on a principle and took it from one stage to the next, to the next, to the next level, and eventually, did a circle and went back to Egbaland in his dying days. There is a development in what he did which was not repetitive. Some guy put out a forty-CD package of Fela’s music. You listen to that stuff and you don’t hear repetitions, and that’s creativity, which is more than I can say for the Nigerian musician of today. Because, what is the Nigerian musician today playing? Hiphop, Reggae. Is that the next level?
O: Well, if may classify Nigerian musicians into different camps, the musicians I’m talking about are people like Seyi Solagbade, Femi Kuti, and several underground acts who are trying to do creative things in the background. I don’t know if you make that same distinction between Nigerian musicians. I do know, however, that you’re right, hiphop and foreign acts seem to have taken over our airwaves. Do you have a position on this? Should we just let individual creative impulses guide our musical evolution in this country, or is it time for us to talk to one another and take stock of our musical legacy?
SR: Well, I’m a traditionalist in that area. I believe that Nigeria has a whole lot of music which has not been tapped at all. Fela, branched out and established his own path, but there is a lot of music in Nigeria that remains at the level of “underdeveloped village music,” and that is where our strength lies because that is the music that is at the core of the culture. Now, there are one or two musicians who have tapped into that; not many that I know. Strangely enough, the vehicle that many of our musicians exploit today—because of the need to be commercial or what not—is gospel music. Although, a musician like Lagbaja does not hesitate to experiment...have you spoken to him?
O: Two years ago I did interview him. Well, you know, the thing that I found interesting is that everyone is so busy trying to carve out their own musical niche, and in the process, seemingly reinventing the wheel. In the case of Lagbaja, I interviewed him just before his Africano CD came out, and he told me directly that he was limiting his use of Pidgin English. He had decided instead to sing mostly in English or Yoruba because pidgin is not as accessible globally. These are contradictions Fela himself had to deal with much earlier in his career. He moved from English to Yoruba, then English and Yoruba, and finally decided that Pidgin English was the official language of afrobeat. And I ask myself, well, why does anyone have to live that experience all over? It’s alright to experiment, but can’t we continue from where Fela stopped instead of starting all over from scratch. At some point, you will find that you probably wasted half of your career trying to figure out what Fela already figured out. So this is where I am coming from when I ask about reinvention...
SR: I agree with you. There is a need for the practicing musicians today to look at where his niche is, and position that not as a copy of what was there before, but to be something that is moving on. But what I find hard to accept from the Nigerian musician today is that he is very glib. I have made the distinction between musicians and instrumentalists, and most of the people who practice music in Nigeria today are instrumentalists, they are not musicians, they are not trained musicians, their instincts might be good, but they certainly don’t have the skills, they don’t have the craft. This is really what you need to be able to make that leap, because then you know what structures you’re working with, and you know that there are things that are just wrong…Ok, I shouldn’t say that because I love doing things that are wrong. But, what I mean is you first of all have to understand the grammar and the syntax of the language in which you’re working, before you can experiment with it, and that is what is missing. Instinctively some of these musicians will achieve interesting things, but they can’t sustain it because growth requires a foundation, which is not there.
O: And that brings me back to my initial question about definition. Do you hesitate to define afrobeat because you don’t think that it should be tied down to, musically speaking, a set formula? Should there be a formula or should afrobeat be seen as a broader collective of African-derived musics?
SR: Well you know, as I said, towards the end Fela objected to his music being called afrobeat. He said it is African music, which really brings it down to what you’re asking because while there were a number of influences around, it is was those skills which Fela had acquired that guided him in deciding what to discard and what to incorporate into his African music sound. I’m not an isolationist, but I insist that really, before we can move anywhere we should acquire the skills to do it properly.
O: Is this the biggest challenge to the Nigerian musician now? This current hiphop craze in Nigeria, is it just an easier option, a way out for “unskilled” musicians?
SR: Yeah, yeah, that’s basically what it is. But also, I blame the media because the kids are bombarded with garbage from outside, you know. And let’s face it, it’s easy. You don’t have to do much. What work do you have to do? Get a drum machine, put down a theme and chat away to it. Where is the music there? There is no work required. The skill is minimal. The boys who are doing good stuff, even in the hiphop thing are the boys who have brought value to it, you know. They’ve gone back into their own cultural areas and brought out rhythms that they have worked into what came in. But, by and large, it’s easy…
O: Are there economic factors involved, political factors? For me it seems that there isn’t a very vibrant live music scene in Nigeria currently, and a genre like afrobeat needs that to grow. So, drawing from your experience as a musician, are there other factors that hinder the Nigerian musician in general?
SR: Well, that’s true. The golden age of live music went away in the 1970s. Although I don’t move around as much as I used too, but I think that there is an awakening; there’s a little bit more room being given to live music. You know, in the 60s and 70s you had places that were nothing but live music, then it went down to nothing, you know, disco. Now you have places that at least do two or three nights a week, but, those places thrive on what is the lowest common denominator.
O: Obviously, the poor state of music education in the country is also a contributing factor. In interviews that I have conducted, people have said that the economy has hindered live music culture. They have also mentioned poverty, which has lead to a surge in religious fervency. The inverse of what has been going on in America and Europe where many of the old church buildings have become clubs and bars is happening here, with many of our hotels, clubs, and bars becoming church spaces. What’s been your experience in this regard?
SR: Well, as a matter of fact, I am glad to see this religious fervor, if for no other reason, the fact that it does provide work for musicians…. Now, the skilled musician who deserves to get work is getting work there [in the churches], you know. The fellow who is just a “copycat” isn’t necessarily engaged in the same way. You will find that most of the musicians who are in the church bands can read music. Now, for me, that is number one, and that is moving them forward. Your, “me too” musician is, meanwhile, in the hiphop “copycat” band, and he’s not improving himself. Sure, he can do things that he hears from records and so on, but he cannot interpret what he’s doing, and he cannot take it beyond the copy because he doesn’t have the skill. So as far as I’m concerned, the churches are doing a great job here. I hope they don’t stay too long, though, because the churches are a function of poverty. When I say I hope they don’t stay too long, I am expressing the hope that the economy of Nigeria will improve to the point that that church is no longer a crutch. Because the truth is, religion is a crutch. As I say, I’m glad for that crutch because it is helping musicians, but, I don’t want to see it stay.
O: It is interesting, this parallel that seems to exist between what’s going on now and what happened a few decades ago. You mentioned copycat bands and I haven’t heard anyone use that term recently. It’s a term from the 60s and 70s isn’t it? …that whole James Brown phenomenon, everyone trying to be “Black and Proud,” the copycat funk bands, the Geraldo Pinos and so on. Is there really a parallel with that musical movement? After all, Nigerians at the time—West Africans actually—were trying to copy African American culture verbatim, and the current generation is doing precisely the same thing. Am I just drawing an imagined comparison here, or is it indeed a similar situation?
SR: It’s a similar situation. As I said, the difference is that there is a small group that adds value to that copy. I am an optimist, I believe that if we have only two people who are doing progressive music, they will influence two other people who will, in turn, influence two other people, and we will get the ripple effect. But it is true that there is a strong copycat factor here. The media is responsible for this…you look at your television, you watch your Channel O, MTV, and all they’ve got is [Western pop stars and African imitators]…there’s no drive to want to break away from what you’re fed. Mind you, as I maintain, that drive will only come if the skill is there to propel it...