Afrobeats is a modern contemporary to Afrobeat, They both originated in Africa and do share some similarities, but they are different, and not to be confused.
Afrobeat came first, the genre originated in the 1960s and took influences from American Jazz and Funk. It is rich in complexity, driven by intricate rhythms, and often serves as a platform for sociopolitical commentary. Afrobeats came along with the MTV generation in the 00's, and could be seen as a more pop, dance-floor friendly, digital, or westernized version of Afrobeat.
Around the same time, I saw a similar thing happening with Rhythm and Blues and R&B, which, at the time, led to a very confusing music conversation with my Dad about what RnB actually was. Was it Eric Clapton, or was it R. Kelly, or Rihanna? Very different artists creating very different music. This highlights how this shouldn't be taken too seriously as genres can change over time, or take on different meanings, influences, and sounds.
This is a producer's point of view on the difference between Afrobeat and Afrobeats. I will mostly focus on the compositional differences between the styles, and what makes African music African, and how afrobeat and afrobeats differ in performance, arrangement, and composition.
A Brief History of African Music
The roots of African music are deeply grounded in the continent's cultural heritage and historical practices. African music is characterized by intricate polyrhythms, communal engagement, and a strong oral tradition. It plays a central role in various aspects of life, including ceremonies, rituals, storytelling, and communal celebrations. The use of traditional instruments, call-and-response structures, and rhythmic complexity are core elements that have been passed down through generations, reflecting the rich diversity of African cultures.
African music has had a profound influence on the global musical landscape, leaving an indelible mark on various genres and styles. The rhythmic complexity, call-and-response structures, and vibrant percussive elements of African music have greatly impacted genres like jazz, blues, and rock. These elements brought new dimensions to Western music, contributing to the development of syncopation, improvisation, and dynamic interplay between instruments. Additionally, the use of traditional African instruments and vocal techniques has enriched world music, introducing unique timbres and tonalities that resonate across cultures.
Furthermore, the African diaspora spread these musical influences worldwide, shaping the development of Latin American, Caribbean, and Afro-Latin genres such as salsa, reggae, and samba. African musical patterns, dance forms, and spiritual elements have fused with local traditions, resulting in innovative hybrid styles that maintain the spirit of their African roots. The ongoing exchange between African music and global musical expressions continues to inspire musicians and audiences, fostering cross-cultural connections and celebrating the enduring legacy of African musical contributions
I haven't lived in Africa and I am unaware of how their notation system works, but I do know it's different to the Western world's. Therefore, my interpretation of the music will be broken down using standard Western terminology, and the Western notation systems. While this may not be the same as how African musicians notate their music, and the Western system may hold some limitations, it does still allow me to describe the rhythmical patterns used in much of African music, especially in Afrobeat and Afrobeats.
As I have mentioned in many of my other music production tutorials, music is all about tension and release. This is extremely apparent when it comes to African rhythms, cross-rhythms, and polyrhythms. C.K Ladzkpo describes a 3 over 4 polyrhythm as representing the dynamics of African life. Polyrhythms are two separate rhythms that will drift in and out of line with each other. C.K Ladzkpo explains that the contrasting rhythms represent the struggles of African life, but when the rhythms come back in line, this represents the rewards after making it through life challenges.
African Rhythm Theory
Without getting too technical, African music generally uses a 12/8 compound rhythm, this is where a duple and triple meter is used simultaneously. The rhythms are generally played with syncopated accents, allowing the music to be heard in both a 3/4 or 4/4 time signature, depending on how the musicians feel the groove. This lends itself well to Western music structures which typically use a duple meter, but the syncopation in African music is way beyond what we are used to hearing in the Western world. Sometimes the rhythms can be so syncopated that is difficult to even know where the downbeat is.
Musical differences between Afrobeat and Afrobeats
Both genres originated from African traditions and rhythms, both styles include syncopated rhythms, cross-rhythms, and polyrhythms that generally fit into a 4/4 time signature.
What is Afrobeats
The rhythms found in Afrobeats are generally less swung, and slightly less syncopated than those in Afrobeat. Afrobeats also utilizes electronic instruments and computer-based production, which gives it a more digital, but polished sound. Most producers of Afrobeats are computer music producers, and not instrumentalists, which can mean music creation is approached in a completely different way.
Afrobeats leans into meticulous precision. With rigid quantization settings, samples, software synthesizers, and vocal pitch correction tools, achieve a flawless and polished vibe. The beats generally follow more of a hip-hop pattern or have a Disco and Dancehall influence, which works well on the Dancefloor. Much like pop music, afrobeats are created to be radio-friendly, so generally follow typical formulas. An Afrobeats song will generally be between 3 to 4 minutes long and contain chord progressions such as iv-v-vi, vi-v-iv, vi-iii-ii, and ii-iii-vi.
What makes an Afrobeat
The Afrobeat genre feels more humanized, and performed by musicians playing music together and grooving with one another. This pushes a more musicians approach to songwriting. The music feels more improvised and can take a more freeform approach, with songs up to 10 minutes or longer, utilizing polyrhythms, cross-rhythms, and other more traditional African rhythmic techniques. Generally, the grooves will be more repetitive with a hypnotic feel, than the grooves used in Afrobeats
The instrumentation typically consists of a brass section, guitars, a bass player, a drummer, and a percussion section which can include a clave maracas, a talking drum, and a Djembe. Fela Kuti has also been known to use 2 bass players playing simultaneously, which interlock with the drums to create infectious grooves.
Of course. these differences aren't always the case. You will get music from all genres that use different time signatures, polyrhythms, and swing, but this is a general observation taken from popular songs in both music genres.
Examples of Afrobeat music
Fela Kuti - "Zombie"
A pinnacle of Afrobeat's influence, "Zombie" by Fela Kuti remains an iconic emblem of both the genre's musical prowess and its role as a catalyst for change. Released in 1976, this 12-minute song has a seriously infectious, syncopated, funky rhythm. The potent lyrics confront corruption and oppression in Nigeria, underscoring Afrobeat's timeless power to resonate and inspire generations. What a track!
Ebo Taylor - "Love and Death"
"Love and Death," Ebo Taylor's 2010 album, marks a resurgence in his career with its fusion of highlife, Afrobeat, and funk. This album blends lively horns, rhythmic guitars, and vocals, creating a vibrant tapestry of West African rhythms and global influence. Through captivating chord progressions and harmonies, Taylor's compositions touch on themes of love, life, and society. The album's Afrobeat vitality and intricate percussion rhythms reflect Taylor's mastery, while his thoughtful lyrics and cultural fusion showcase his unique musical vision, solidifying his place as an iconic figure in both West African and global music scenes.
Examples of Afrobeats genre
Afro B - "Drogba (Joanna)"
Released in 2018, "Drogba (Joanna)" by UK producer Afro B quickly gained widespread recognition and created a global Afrobeats hit. The song is characterized by its vocal-driven melody, infectious rhythm, and danceable groove. The rhythm is minimalist, led by a 3-2 and 2-3 son clave rhythm, electronically sequenced, and has dancehall influences.
Wizkid - "Soco"
Released in 2018 by Nigerian artist "Soco", the track gained massive popularity. Its infectious melody, vibrant instrumentation, and catchy lyrics contributed to its widespread appeal. Much like the Afro B track, the rhythm is minimalist and led by a 3-2 and 2-3 son clave rhythm.
As you can hear, the difference between the genres is night and day, Afrobeats has fused with Hip Hop, Dancehall, and Reggaetón, whereas Afrobeat feels more syncopated, and freeform, just like funk and jazz. It also feels like it was made with much less commercial intent.
What do you prefer?
Obviously, we specialize in music production tools, so we would love to recommend some products to help with your Afrobeat or Afrobeats production. We have a great Afrobeat samples and loops pack, recorded at Flowriders studio. Using equipment such as Studer A800 MK3 Tape machine, SSL 4000E console, acoustic piano, and Neumann U47 and Neumann Fet 47 microphones.
This article was written by Daniel Alford, Music Industry professional for over 10 years
Musician, producer, music geek. BA-Hons degree in music production
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