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Ikenga Shrines and Iron Horses

A Reader's Guide to Chinua Achebe's THINGS FALL APART

Cathy Kroll, Author

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Sounds of Nigeria: Highlife, Fela's Afrobeat, and Political Criticism

What might Achebe have been listening to as he wrote Things Fall Apart? Drawing from early twentieth-century musical sources in Ghana, Igbo musicians of the 1950s evolved a new kind of dance and party music: Highlife. Characterized by its buoyant, joyous, infectious beat and its use of horns, base, guitar, and marimba (thumb piano), Highlife has influenced musicians world-wide. 

In terms of Nigerian music more generally, you may be most familiar with the most famous twentieth century Nigerian musician, Fela Kuti, a founder of Afrobeat. Kuti, a fearlessly outspoken critic of Nigeria's military regimes of the sixties and seventies, spent nearly as much time in prison as he did performing. Tejumola Olaniyan in Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics (2004)  has characterized Kuti's musical and political contributions in this way: 

Gluttony, boastfulness, Lagos, traffic jams, fights, boisterousness, shit, water, newspaper vendors, sex, the colonial mentality, electricity, skin bleaching, and more. Afrobeat became not just a new kind of music but a new way of looking at the world in which repressed, marginal, or tabooed themes, figures and desires were freely acknowledged, debated, and even frequently affirmed, in a musically pleasurable manner, with inventive catchy phrases or words--"jeun ko ku," "shakara," "swegbe,""na poi," "je'nwi temi," and so forth--that soon entered into widespread usage. Fela knew he was blazing a trail, and apparently he had thought about what surprises might lie around the corner. In a very prescient track, "Je'Nwi Temi" ("Don't Gag Me"), released in 1973, he expressed his determination to pursue that social interventionist course without fear: 

If I see the truth I will say, and you can't shut me up
Let me say mine, you can't close my mouth
I will open my mouth like basket, and you can't shut me up

Truth is bitter, you can't shut me up
You can imprison me, but you can't close my mouth

--Teju Olaniyan, Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics, 38
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