By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Colours Afrobeat Foundation.
Boye Akerele of Colours Afrobeat Foundation from Dublin, Ireland loves social media. As the boisterous and charismatic leader of his equally eccentric band, he is a true believer in the school of thought that the world is becoming more of a tight-knit community and afrobeat just so happens to be his vessel for expressing that. Or his soapbox, if you will.
With every two-bit start-up asking us to be “part of the conversation,” Akerele practices what he preaches in his culturally diverse (to say the least) project, playing a style of music whose cultural diffusion has perhaps never been more disparate. But if you needed any more convincing that this Irishman knows his afrobeat, just ask about his bachelors thesis on the globalization of afrobeat which earned him a degree from Buckinghamshire New University just five years ago. Though, Akerele is less a curious resume than he is a living and breathing musician—one who has been celebrated with the very founders of afrobeat—and who just so happens to have a very impressive resume. BTR was able to speak with him in a jazzed state of mind, having looked forward to the interview for “the whole week.”
Gosh, Boye. Quit making us blush.
For starters, Akerele is not a man who takes technology for granted. He commented on the mere fact that we were having a conversation in different countries: us in New York and him in Ireland as evidence to “the world we live in right now.”
It would be easy to write his amazement off as typical of an older gentleman, in constant wonderment of certain technologies. He claimed he would be “50 in three years,” but he also really tries to understand the world we live in and how to use it to his advantage.
“The first contact with social media was in, I think, 2005-2006 and that was MySpace. Then two years after, MySpace got obsolete and Facebook came in. I would never know Meredith [DJ Meredith of The Afrobeat Show] if not for Facebook. Never. I would never have a chance to speak with you but for Facebook, you understand what I mean? You just have to keep updating yourself and keep going with the time as the cycle keeps going. Some people can’t keep up with the time. In the music generation I’m as up-to-date as possible,” says Akerele on how he keeps current.
Colours Afrobeat Foundation began in 2005 as a “college project” at Kylemore College in Dublin. Think School of Rock with African roots and much older but no less enthusiastic men. This was the type of out-of-class project that made it past the threshold of the semester and into the public domain. For their “presentation” of sorts, they played a show at the Drogheda Arts Center with a cap of 260, selling the joint out.
Akerele remembers thinking, “there is something good in this.” Originally a drummer though, much like Fela Kuti himself, he decided to pick up the sax and teach himself. About his new instrumental undertaking he says “so far, so good.” The project he was involved in which later just became the band was the first of its kind at Kylemore, whereas “everybody is doing rock n’ roll, blues, and contemporary music.” The band has been going since then because being the only afrobeat band in the area, it gives you a sense of purpose to bring a niche style to an unknowing place.
As one might suspect, Akerele is not an Irish native. He comes from the Ekiti State of western Nigeria though came to the aforementioned Irish college to snag that afrobeat degree.
“In Nigeria, for example, we have these street DJ’s that sell records and the only way to advertise what they sell is to play what they have in stock. You hear Fela Kuti, Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Ade… any of this contemporary African music on the streets.” he says of his introduction to the genre. “I grew [up] listening to stuff like that from my childhood to my adult life.”
“My generation [heard afrobeat first] in the ‘80s, ‘81, ’82,” Akerele continues. “where I’m my own man, I can date a girl and I’m mature enough to run my life. Even with adequate guidance from my parents I’m man enough to run my life. I would say in the ‘80s I started to be conscious of afrobeat.”
One crucial aspect of Fela’s band, the Africa 70, that he takes away from his lifelong love of their music was the importance of each individual member, even though upwards of 30 could occupy the stage at the same time. Colours boasts members from Poland, Nigeria, Cuba, Brazil, Ireland, and Ghana. As band leader, Boye encourages everybody in his circle to “be themselves but at the same time, we are all interpreting afrobeat as a genre.”
There are boundaries, after all.
In Colours Afrobeat, everyone is coming to practice with their own interpretation informed by their own culture and background. Akerele cites an example of this from the song “Keep on Walking” from the Prayer for World Peace EP where he had only written two guitar lines, but Julien Colarossi (one of the band’s guitarists) came to him with an idea for a third (!) guitar line. Akerele gave him the OK and now, he can’t imagine the song without it.
As mentioned previously, Colours Afrobeat Foundation has members from virtually all corners of the globe. The way afrobeat lends itself to being such an international expression is the crux of what Akerele studied in his thesis and now, what he’s writing a book about. Having graduated with honors from Kylemore, the research certainly made an impression on him.
“I did my degree, Bachelors of Arts in Music Entertainment and Arts Management from the Buckinghamshire New University in the UK in England [in 2009, after his degree from Kylemore]. The topic of my thesis was the Phenomenon of Afrobeat and the marketability of it in the West. I did exhaustive research about why is it that afrobeat is gaining around in venues all across the planet? I think I found the logic,” he hypothesizes. “Any serious musician who wants a challenge doesn’t want to play anything simple. Afrobeat is a complex genre. You have twelve to fifteen instruments communicating together at the same time on a five-minute piece and you have to make it work. You need to be above average in your game to play aerobat.”
The lyrical content in their songs is mostly messages of peace and progress, which Akerele believes are the West’s principle takeaways from the genre.
“Afrobeat is about peace, love, and progress. It’s also a music of resistance; to resist any kind of oppression from wherever. You can talk about racism, you can talk about prejudice, you can talk about social ills. You can talk about anything. Afrobeat is to Nigerians is what reggae is to Jamaicans,” says Akerele.
It seems that no matter where you go in this wild world, you’ll find afrobeat in some form or another—or at least something tapping into the rhythmic and lyrical values that music holds most dear. Wherever you might find this brand new wave of an old familiar one, not far behind is Akerele, likely versing himself in the next platform to spread its good message.
To get connected to Boye Akerele and the Colours Afrobeat Foundation, click here.
Check out Colours Afrobeat Foundation’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.