Henry Cole & The Afro-Beat Collective: A Take on Fela Kuti’s Legacy

Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti, invented a style known as Afro-beat, that combined elements of traditional West African rhythms (from the Yoruba tradition) and Afro music from the sixties and seventies with funk, jazz and even rock.  Elements of “dialogue” can be found in this music (“call and response” between instruments), as well as African chant.  The lyrics were socio-political and this music became a celebration of African culture, race and strength as a society.  As Gabriela Barbosa writes in Inity Weekly’s piece Chicago Honors the Life and Music of Fela Kuti with a 'Felabration', “Fela was often critical of capitalism, colonialism, racism, and other Western ways that only threatened the advancement of his people.” Thus, his music became the voice of his people. When Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole came to know Fela Kuti’s music, as he would tell you himself, a musical and creative “light bulb” went off in him.  He found a way to marry the styles he grew up with in his native Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, with those he had studied and mastered over the years: the traditional Puerto Rican rhythms of Bomba and Plena, Cuban Rumba, jazz and rock, among others.  According to Henry Cole, Fela’s music had it all: the folkloric tradition of his country, the funk, the rock, the energy and vibe, etc.  So, he adapted this recipe to his own folklore music, his own vibe and inspirations, made a few changes in the format (like being the driving force of the music while behind the drums, instead of a singer like Fela was), and came up with an innovative and refreshing project: Roots Before Branches. 

The AfroBeat Collective

The AfroBeat Collective

Henry Cole is a gifted drummer and a very busy one at that.  He has played countless styles and genres (Rock, Jazz, Latin Roots), alongside many great artists and ensembles such as internationally renowned jazz saxophonists –and Cole’s fellow countrymen- David Sánchez and Miguel Zenón.  Roots Before Branches, the debut album of Henry Cole & The Afro-Beat Collective, was recorded at studios in both Puerto Rico and New York City.  It came to life thanks to a long list of talented musicians and friends invited to participate in this collaboration.  The list is as long as it is impressive, including Zenón and Sánchez, John Ellis (tenor sax), Piro Rodríguez (trumpet), Cheito Quiñonez, and guitarist Adam Rogers.  This album was self-produced and released in March 2012.

Throughout this project, Henry Cole made an effort to keep the “dialogue” aspect of the African tradition (which can be found in the Puerto Rican rhythms of Bomba and Plena, he knows so well), and it paid off.  You can hear that musical language throughout his album.  In addition, Cole was proudly able to bring different music styles together seamlessly, just as Fela Kuti had when he brought Afro-Beat to life.  As he told Fernando González in a recent interview for the JazzTimes: “There are some musicians today who consider themselves jazz musicians and would never go play a dance gig… Or, if you take a musician who plays dance music, he would never go to hear a jazz show because he'd find it very boring.  Something I find important in this project is that it brings those worlds together.”

Since the release of this album, many have sung praises towards this project and Henry Cole’s music.  For example, The World Music Report said: “Cole wields a palette of astounding color and hue…”; on the other hand, Nick MacWilliam from Sound and Colours wrote: “Henry Cole & The Afrobeat Collective are the latest in a new wave representing a continuation of the art begun by Fela Kuti and representative of the genre’s modern day appeal.”  Now, it’s time for you to go ahead and listen for yourself… and enjoy!