Saturday, March 20, 2010

March 20: Sonny Okosun, "Fire In Soweto"

Artist: Sonny Okosun
Song: "Fire In Soweto"
Album: Fire In Soweto
Year: 1977

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While there is certainly something to be said for following the styles and traditions of ones home country, one can make an equal case for the importance of stepping out of these norms and creating musical fusion.  Without such courageous forays into the sounds of other parts of the world, music would remain stagnant, and perhaps there would be no progress in any way.  While it may seem the unlikely answer, one would be hard pressed to find more fusion and experimentation over the decades than one finds in the music which comes from the African continent.  From the classic sounds of Fela Kuti to more modern work from the likes of Donso and Tony Allen, assimilating the sounds of other cultures is rarely done as well is it is all over the African music scene.  Standing high above nearly every other artists from the continent, and responsible for countless musical forms that followed is perhaps the greatest Nigerian musician in history: Sonny Okosun.  Fusing together the traditional sounds of his homeland with funk, reggae, and even a bit of "new wave," there has simply never been an artist who made music quite like Sonny Okosun.  Similarly, due to the nature of the African music labels in the 1970's and 1980's, it is nearly impossible to get an accurate discography and somehow track all of the music that was made.  Yet even with this reality, there is little question that the finest moment of his entire musical career lives in his 1977 hit, "Fire In Soweto."

The music found on Fire In Soweto is truly like nothing else ever recorded, and it is perhaps largely due to the fact that this is only the second effort from Okosun's recently formed band, Ozziddi.  Having disbanded his previous group a few years earlier, Ozziddi clearly better reflects who Okosun was as an artist, as well as helped to realize his complete musical vision.  The music of "Fire In Soweto" is a massive mixture of a wide range of sounds, and at its core, one finds the vibe and rhythmic style of the reggae genre.  This head-bobbing rhythm instantly makes one think of the finest reggae songs, and it also draws heavily from the "toasting" or highlife style that also originates from the music of the islands.  This fantastic backbeat is overlain with a funky synthesizer sound that simply defies description, and the combined sound of these two entities is truly like nothing else you'll ever hear.  Along with these two sounds, there is still a strong African element within the music, and the combination creates a true "wall" of music and somehow, with these varied inspirations, the music remains wonderfully consistent and is a pure joy to experience.  Each musician in Ozziddi is clearly in sync with one another, as they glide and slide through the composition, and each musical hook is just as unforgettable, which results in "Fire In Soweto" being one of the most unlikely "songs that get stuck in your head."  This ability to transcend culture and genres alike is in many ways the true genius behind the music of Sonny Okosun, and the reason why the music is till a joy to experience decades later.

The bright and upbeat voice of Sonny Okosun himself provides a perfect finishing touch to the overall fantastic sound found on "Fire In Soweto."  His voice is calm, yet powerful, and at the same time, the song is clearly a call to action.  Truth be told, the song centers around the uprising in Soweto, South Africa that occurred in June of 1976.  Protesting against both apartheid, but more specifically, regulations on what and how subjects were taught in school, thousands of high school students took the streets in what was a peaceful protest at the beginning.  Finding many of their intended routes blocked by police, it eventually erupted into an all out riot after police fired on the crowd.  It was this uprising that served as a massive turning point in the fight against apartheid, and Sonny Okosun perfectly captures the mood and feeling behind the events within the song.  Yet it is also within his words that Okosun separates himself from nearly every other politically minded African artist of the time.  While a majority of these other artists were promoting a far more aggressive and militant form of fighting the injustices, Okosun takes a far more proactive approach, and he seems to be more centered around the idea of "black unity," and this approach further connects him with the true spirit behind the reggae sound.  The song speaks of all of the fighting that has occurred throughout the African continent, and in many ways highlights the fact that the fighting has solved nothing, and only caused more pain and death.  This unique point of observation is in many ways the calling card of Sonny Okosun, and the passion with which he sings it is one of the most stunning aspects of all of "Fire In Soweto."

In most cases, songs speaking to specific struggles are only relevant to those who are experiencing the injustice, as the spirit and words often do not properly translate.  Yet when they are able to cross cultural boundaries, they almost always become the most cherished and respected songs in history.  From Bob Marley's brilliant songs of freedom to Woody Guthrie's tales of the downtrodden, a truly great song of protest or unity will become a universal cry and be able to be applied to new struggles as the decades progress.  Unquestionably within this elite group of songs, Sonny Okosun's "Fire In Soweto" serves as both a fantastic historical document, but it also represents one of the most amazing musical fusions in history.  Combining his native African sounds with a strong reggae backbeat, and then injecting some of the most mesmerizing, funky synthesizers that the world has ever heard, there is simply nothing else in music history that sounds quite like "Fire In Soweto."  Calling for the people of Africa to unite and take pride in their heritage, as opposed to simply perpetuating more fighting, one can easily make the case that Okosun's more peaceful approach had just as much, if not more impact than the long line of those musicians who were calling for their people to take up arms in revolution.  Regardless, the music that Sonny Okosun made throughout his entire career played a massive role in the development of countless later groups from all over the continent, and one would be hard pressed to find a more impressive example of his amazing musical talents than in the sound of his 1977 classic, "Fire In Soweto."

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