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Dele Sosimi "When I was growing up we’d play from 11pm until 6am"

One of the pioneers of Afrobeat, Dele Sosimi’s journey has taken him from Fela Kuti’s Shrine in Lagos to teaching at London’s Trinity Laban. We caught up with him as he prepares to bring his Afrobeat Quintet to Sheffield.

Dele E Chrch2011
Lucy Anne.

I’m sat in my van with a clumsy recording setup, and I’m nervous. I’m about to interview Dele Sosimi, keyboard player and musical director with Fela Kuti, ahead of his Sheffield gig next Friday. I can’t wait to talk to Dele about Fela and life in the fulcrum of the Afrobeat movement. He answers the phone and I soon realise I have nothing to be nervous about – Dele is warm, eloquent and full of stories. Here’s what he told me…

You grew up in Nigeria alongside Femi Kuti – what was your early childhood like growing up?

I was born here in London – Hackney to be precise. At the age of four, dad finished his studies, got a job back in Nigeria and took me with him: the first boy, the most boisterous! It was a culture shock on many levels, but we adjusted. Mum came back with my siblings, dad became a banker and soon we had a nice life. Then disaster struck. Dad got assassinated, mum had to bring us up on her own – and doing that, I got to meet Femi, Fela [Kuti]‘s son. And it was like... damn, where you been all my life? We just struck up a very tight friendship immediately.

Eventually I got to meet Fela, then I convinced Femi to attend my school. He’d been withdrawn because of the presence of military personnel. Fela said, “No military is gonna be teaching my son any bad habits or anything”. But there were none in my school.

The minute Femi joined, that meant we had access to his dad’s backline – he had his roadies set up equipment at the house for us. And then we were doing gigs and he would give us backline to play in private functions.

Before you knew it, [Fela] opened his new Shrine, and then I got to see him play. Oh my god! That was it. I couldn’t tear myself away. He had four nights a week in his Shrine and each night was themed. Tuesday was ladies’ night and then Friday was current affairs, Yabis night, where he talked about the current political climate, the latest scandals and let-downs by the government. Saturday was when he opened up the inner caucus of the Shrine and actually performed the worship ceremony. Sunday was the family day, from 3pm to 9pm, so people used to come with children. And because I was Femi’s friend, I had privileges, I had access to the saxophone, I had the piano I could play all day, and to watch him write songs from the beginning – that was the best part, to watch him create things from scratch.

When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

The first day I went up to him and I said, “Look, I’ve learnt this song and I can play it, can I go onstage and play?” He said, “Oh of course... are you sure?” I was about 15. I went on and I played the song complete, and then I took a solo and he said, “Oh hell yes, I want more!” That moment I knew that was where I belonged, not studying no biology, physics or maths. No no no, I need to be behind these keyboards sitting and playing.

So Fela would have different musicians come and play on different songs?

Well, for example, he had like four drummers. Tony Allen had left, so to get through one set he would have to use at least three different drummers. A particular groove would suit one drummer, but then he’d take it to another level and it would suit another drummer. Roy Ayers would come into town, finish his gig about 11pm, put his vibraphone into a taxi, and come to the Shrine and play with Fela. And then people like Hugh Masekela would come along, because the Shrine closed around 5 in the morning. We used to call it the last bus stop because it was always the last place to close.

What was it like to play with Fela Kuti and the Egypt 80?

It was what made me who I am today. It was the discipline of watching more, saying less and just absorbing and learning. Cos I watched him many a time write from scratch – say nothing, just watch the process, allow the process, let it sink in. It was a very educational period. I’m now able to pay it forward with my teachings all the places I go, where I impart the little knowledge that I have. I’m sure he would be proud of me if he was still alive, and say how apt it is that I’m now teaching where he actually studied. For me that’s just surreal, me being a visiting professor at Trinity Laban. What goes around comes around.

There’s a lot of Afrobeat coming into the new jazz movement with bands like Kokoroko and Ezra Collective, with some covers creeping into their sets. Do you think your visits have fed into that?

Kokoroko called me, I remember one of them said that one of their songs was inspired by uncle Dele. They call me uncle Dele! So I think I’ve had some influence, I don’t know how much but I mean, me doing what I’m doing, and having stuck to it and being very, very open to sharing also has inspired a lot of the younger people to go for it with as much gusto as they can.

You’ve done collaborations and remixes with dance artists such as Medlar, DJ Khalab and Prince Fatty, to name just a few. Do you enjoy that process?

Sometimes you’re destined to do certain things and then you have the initiative to ignore it or just ride it. So these opportunities presented and I took them, most likely because there were aspects of the music that I’d always dreamed about doing but never had the chance. And that’s what happened, with Medlar especially. He did a fantastic remix of ‘You No Fit Touch Am’. We just hang out and let the vibes flow. So whatever flows, we just pick the best out and say “OK we are gonna hang onto this, let’s work on this.” It’s not limiting, it’s actually what you’d call a work of artistic creation on a blank canvas, in the moment. There’s an album coming out. We’ve got some really cool stuff.

The Afrobeat you helped shape is characterised by long recordings, often well over ten minutes. This must have led to some very long gigs. What’s the longest live set you’ve played?

I used to do something in London called Afrobeat Vibrations, where we’d start playing at midnight and we don’t stop till 4am. So that used to be the longest I would do in London. But when I was growing up we’d play from 11 until 6am. My longest sets were usually with Fela. We’d play 50 weeks a year, four times a week. So you can imagine, you were doing minimum five to six hour sets four times a week. As a musician, if you were only coming to play your parts, after one year of practising it’s in your persona, it’s in your DNA. You sneeze it, it’s oozing out of you!

Outside Afrobeat, what other music from Africa has influenced you?

I listen to a lot of music – I was always into Hugh Masekela, Mahotella Queens of South Africa, highlife from Nigeria and Ghana, Soukus, Zairian, Congolese, you know. A bit of Mulatu – Ethiopian jazz. And lots of music from Mali, Senegal, Zambia, Gambia. I’m quite open. At the moment I’ve gone back to my roots, and I’m listening a lot more to the traditional Yoruba a cappella groups, where it’s just voices and percussion instruments. I find a lot of inspiration from the rhythmic orchestrations. And I draw a lot of parallels with what Fela used to do – I see a lot of similarity and maybe he got inspiration from that too.

Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Quintet play Crookes Social Club on Friday 22 April. Tickets are out now.

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