Zion80 is a 13-piece band inspired by Nigerian Afrobeat creator Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
The same way Matisyahu looked to Jamaican legend Bob Marley for inspiration and the right bass line to underscore his raps based on the Psalms, Zion80 guitarist and composer Jon Madof looked to Nigeria for his own rhythm section.
On top of Fela’s conga-heavy Afrobeat groove, which has more urgency and immediacy than the Jamaican varietal, Madof’s guitar lays down familiar Jewish melodies from Reb Shlomo’s greatest hits. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach revolutionized the Jewish song movement for more than 40 years, arranging timeless prayers with new melodies that encouraged singing along.
The fusion of Jewish lyrics and Nigerian beats, with Marlon Sobol’s electrifying conga, is also attracting dance music enthusiasts.
The full band will be playing at Joe’s Pub, the famous New York City nightclub, on Thursday night, the high-profile performance only a year after last Summer’s residency at John Zorn’s experimental music stage, The Stone, on Avenue C in the East Village, where Zion80 and their debut album were forged.
Zorn’s Tzadik Records produces the group and Madof’s other band, Rashanim, a trio of guitar, bass and drums that has recorded four albums of its own. If Zion80 is Jewish music a la Kuti, Rashanim might be Jewish music a la Jimi Hendrix; The Village Voice music critic said:
“Hebraic motifs abound in [Rashanim’s] interplay… Hendrix and metal are lurking around in there too, and this mix can be electrifying.”
Madof said while Zion80 was energized from playing for the audience at The Stone, a no-frills music space created to host avante garde and high-spirited Jewish music, including The Shekhinah Big Band, coming later in June, the long form jam session was not the right format for an album, or to bring on the road.
“Afrobeat music is meant to be played in long, improvisational sets, which is how we performed it at The Stone, but, for the album, we had to keep in mind that songs are supposed to be four minutes long, not 40,” Madof told The Algemeiner ahead of the Joe’s Pub show.
The SoHo venue’s decision to schedule the performance at the 11:30 PM slot on Thursday night speaks to Zion80’s attraction as a crossover band for fans of high energy dance music who would predominate in the nightclub’s audience at that hour. To that mix, traditional fans of Jewish music, fans of Nigerian music and Fela, and fans of Madof’s other band, Rashanim, and all of this band members’ prior work, will also be at the show.
“We give fans lots of reasons to come to see us perform,” Madof said, adding that “Joe’s Pub is the right size venue to really appreciate what a 13-piece Afrobeat-inspired band can do; we can really rock that space.”
The popular music world always returns to its fascination with traditional roots, and crossover albums are popular, perhaps for the same reason as duets, there’s just more material to pull from between two stars than with only one.
As well as Matisyahu and Bob Marley, there’s now Snoop Dogg and Bob Marley, after the rapper and one-time pimp sojourned in Jamaica, where, according to Rolling Stone, Snoop was inspired to write and produce “Reincarnated,” released in May, his new mission to spread Marley’s word as gospel through song, recorded under his new name, Snoop Lion.
Marley’s leadership of the Rastafarian community after the assassination attempt on his life in 1976, with “Exodus” and the Once Peace Concert, in 1978, is an inspiration to many activists and musicians, but Madof says that admiration should also extend to the lesser-known Fela, who ran for president of Nigeria under “The Movement of The People Party,” in 1979, and as recorded in song by Egypt80, his band from the time, which sets the tone for Madof’s Zion80.
To appreciate the significance of their name, a listener needs to understand the significance of Fela’s journey and political injustice in Nigeria his songs were wailing about in the 1970s and 1980s. Madof defers to a Wikipedia link on the Nigerian musician and his principled and courageous life, which The Algemeiner will summarize here to save time for curious Zion80 fans and readers new to Fela.
Born to a leading feminist and a protestant minister and school principal father named Israel, the young Fela followed his older brothers to London in 1958 to study medicine, but transferred to Trinity College to study music, where he formed a band, Koola Lobitos, married and moved back to Nigeria. At home, he practiced with Koola Lobitos, while also working as radio producer for Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
In 1967, at 29, he sojourned to Ghana, where he codified his style for the first time as Afrobeat. He brought his band to the US where they spent 1969 immersed in the Los Angeles music scene, where, inspired by Black Panthers he met, he renamed the band Nigeria ’70, expressing his countryman’s anger at the regime.
He returned home, to Nigeria, re-baptized the band as Africa ’70, now back to his pan-African view, then, quoting from WikiPedia:
“He then formed the Kalakuta Republic, a commune, a recording studio, and a home for the many people connected to the band that he later declared independent from the Nigerian state. Fela set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, first named the Afro-Spot and then the Afrika Shrine, where he both performed regularly and officiated at personalized Yoruba traditional ceremonies in honor of his tribe’s ancestral faith.”
Fela sang in Pidgin English, the lingua franca that unites the African continent, in anthems against the Nigerian government, which would return his attention with merciless raids on his compound.
“In 1977, Afrika ’70 released the album Zombie, a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune.”
“Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, dying from fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela claimed that he would have been killed had it not been for the intervention of a commanding officer as he was being beaten.”
“Fela’s response to the attack was to deliver his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence, and to write two songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier,” referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier.”
Fela then upped his claims against society with open polygamy.
In 1978, “Fela and his band then took residence in Crossroads Hotel as the Shrine had been destroyed along with his commune. Fela married twenty-seven women, many of whom were his dancers, composers, and singers to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic. Later, he was to adopt a rotation system of keeping only twelve simultaneous wives.”
“The year  also marked by two notorious concerts, the first in Accra in which riots broke out during the song “Zombie”, which led to Fela being banned from entering Ghana. The second was at the Berlin Jazz Festival after which most of Fela’s musicians deserted him, due to rumors that Fela was planning to use the entire proceeds to fund his presidential campaign,” which apparently is what happened.
Fela did form his own political party:
“Movement of the People, and, in 1979, put himself forward for President in Nigeria’s first elections for more than a decade, but his candidature was refused,” with political injustice firmly the central theme of his new band, Egypt ’80.
Madof is most interested in Fela’s work beginning in this period, 1980,what he became known for, singing about the frustration and possibilities of the times, and what that meant for people of that generation, really, those living through the previous “Arab Spring” in 1979, with Iran and the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, and what that meant for people in 1980.
For those in the big Arab cities, like Cairo, life was tense and violent; people demanded change, but leaders were corrupt and aloof, so the anger simmered, with much flowing into support for religious parties whose mosques provided basic health and unemployment benefits where the government offered none. Egypt felt on fire and Fela recognized that all Africa was watching a tinderbox.
Egypt ’80 “infuriated the political establishment by dropping the names of ITT Corporation vice-president Moshood Abiola and then General Olusegun Obasanjo at the end of a hot-selling 25-minute political screed titled “I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief).”
As a vocal musician, Fela performed constantly in Lagos, Nigeria, where for two decades, he was also “buying advertising space in daily and weekly newspapers such as The Daily Times and The Punch in order to run outspoken political columns… Under the title ‘Chief Priest Say’, these columns were essentially extensions of Kuti’s famous Yabi Sessions—consciousness-raising word-sound rituals, with himself as chief priest, conducted at his Lagos nightclub.”
In 1984, the Nigerian government arrested Fela for “currency smuggling” and he served 20 months in prison, with Amnesty International lobbying widely for his release as a prisoner of conscious, which is when Fela’s story became of global concern.
Upon his release as a human rights hero, in 1986, Fela went truly international with a performance at Giants Stadium in Amnesty’s “A Conspiracy of Hope” concert, playing with Bono, Carlos Santana, and The Neville Brothers.
Fela, along with three original members of Africa ’70, was accused of murder and arrested in 1993, and died of AIDS in 1997, after which “more than a million people attended Fela’s funeral at the site of the old Shrine compound.”
Universal Music re-mastered and re-issued original recordings of Fela, and his death brought the music to a new generation. In 2008, a production of his life, entitled Fela!, inspired by Carlos Moore’s 1982 book Fela, Fela! This Bitch of a Life, came to Broadway. The project began with a collaborative workshop between Tony award-winner Bill T. Jones and the Afrobeat band Antibalas, which is now the leading performer amongst Fela’s musical disciples.
“I heard Fela for the first time only 10 years ago,” Madof said. “Then I learned everything I could about him, surprised, like when I was 18, and first heard Bob Marley; wait, how could it be that I’ve been studying and writing music all this time and never heard of this guy?”
“And I have to say I felt the same way when I first heard Reb Shlomo,” Madof said. “There’s a spirituality, a strength, a directness.”
After Joe’s Pub on Thursday night, Madof will be taking Zion80 on the road, to Krakow, Poland, culling the troupe a more manageable 10 members for Krakow’s Jewish Music Festival, in July.
Madof says that, even abroad, the response to the band’s music has been positive from Jews and others hearing Reb Shlomo for the first time.
“Our music brings people together,” Madof said. “I love Israel and I support Israel, but this is not an album about politics; this is an album about music, this is about art.”
“Anyone can listen to our music, this is how we bring people together.”
Watch a video of Zion80 performing, below.