New Orleans is unlike any other American city. A rousing love letter to The Big Easy, the amazing HBO series Treme is all about music, food and the Mardi Gras, nothing else seems more important here. Life is hard, racism is omnipresent and yet you find each other when partying. In a deeply divided America, this is anything but a matter of course.
And one is proud of the enormous musical heritage. Traditional and modern jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, zydeco, bluegrass and gangsta rap are performed in the clubs and on the streets. Everything seems possible here, the main thing is that you can entertain your audience.
So the choice of the opening act at the Water Music Festival in the House of World Cultures, which this time is dedicated to the musical traditions that have developed around the Mississippi, is perhaps not as unusual as it might seem at first glance. The 14-strong band Kumasi comes from New Orleans, the city on the Mississippi Delta, but plays music that is more associated with West Africa.
Namely Afrobeat, a style that will forever be associated with key figures such as Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and Tony Allen. But what is Afrobeat ultimately? A mix of West African highlife music, as well as jazz and funk. So there is a whole lot of New Orleans in Afrobeat, where jazz and funk have their origins, as is well known.
Heather Nolan, who sings with Kumasi and operates the chekere, a West African rattle, and Logan Schutts, drummer and founder of the band, take their Afrobeat and New Orleans associations even further. You meet the two in a hotel near the HKW. You’ve just flown in from New Orleans, but you seem wide awake.
They emphasize that at their concert in Berlin they will only play one song by Fela Kuti and one by Tony Allen, the rest are their own compositions. However, their admiration for the two musicians is enormous, that can be clearly heard. And you can see it too. On the homepage of her band, which was founded in 2014, there are recordings of a concert by Kumasi with Tony Allen in New Orleans.
Schutts and Nolan met Allen at one of his concerts in the United States. Logan Schutts later flew to Paris, where the Afrobeat drummer lived for a long time before he died in April 2020. The man from New Orleans took drum lessons from his idol. They became friends and Schutts invited Allen to his hometown. At the concert, Tony Allen then took his place on drums. That wasn’t bad, according to Schutts, he just played the congas and “constantly brought whiskey to everyone and enjoyed the concert.”
Just worshiping Fela Kuti is a little harder. Because as much as this may shimmer as an icon of Afrobeat and anti-colonialism, it is also controversial. He not only founded his own club in Nigeria’s capital Lagos, where he regularly gave concerts that were celebrated like ceremonies. Not only did he tangle with the military government and stand up against oppression, but he also had dozens of wives, whom he didn’t always treat well. He also denied the existence of HIV, from the consequences of which he eventually died himself.
Heather Logan says: “He sang about everyday problems and difficulties and our music is also about institutionalized racism, for example. Our and Fela’s music unites that we dance and celebrate to it and at the same time call for political changes.”
Adds Logan Schutts, “In New Orleans, stronger than any American city, partying and dancing is a way of dealing with everyday challenges. For most people, life isn’t that easy in New Orleans.” He sees similarities between his hometown today and Nigeria in the 1970s.
Kumasi are at most an insider tip in the USA, even in their hometown. Nolan and Schutts say they never actually perform outside of New Orleans. They were all the more surprised when the request for a festival came from far away Berlin. According to Schutts, the more they then dealt with its program, the more they had the feeling: it actually fits quite well.
Cajun music, zydeco, all these genres that formed in the swampy areas of the southern US around the Mississippi River will be heard at the festival. But Nolan and Schutts easily manage to link the mighty river with Afrobeat, the American river with the music of West Africa.
Nolan says, “On holidays like Mardi Gras, New Orleans has rituals that include the Mississippi River. People spend their time by the river, erecting small altars or throwing flowers into them. He is integrated into life, we have a relationship with him.”
Schutts also forges links to the religion of the Yoruba ethnic minority in Nigeria, to which Fela Kuti felt a part. The Yoruba believe in pantheistic deities they call Orishas. One of them is Oshun, the goddess of fertility. According to Schutts, it is symbolized by water, by lakes and rivers. “So you could say the Mississippi is an embodiment of Oshun.”
At the end he asks: Do Berliners like to dance? Despite all the discourse, this is important to him: Please dance at his band’s concert.