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Music

How Fela Kuti introduced Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig to world music

One recurring feature across every Vampire Weekend album is their incorporation of world music. According to frontman Ezra Koenig, the revered Nigerian musician Fela Kuti opened his eyes to this enchanting sonic universe.

Their self-titled debut album featured ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’, which shows Koenig’s appreciation for the African culture. The kwassa kwassa is a dance native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo that became popular in the 1980s. Koenig wrote the song after visiting London in 2005 before taking a trip to India which he said got him “thinking a lot about colonialism and the aesthetic connections between preppy culture and the native cultures of places like Africa and India”.

In 2019, the singer admitted to The Guardian that he wouldn’t have called it ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ in the current political climate — even though it was from a place of love. “If that song came out today, we’d have just called it Cape Cod and slightly changed the arrangement, and nobody would have said anything,” he said.

To Koenig’s credit, he’s always given props to African musicians who have influenced him. For Vampire Weekend’s 2019 album, Father Of The Bride, he tracked down the son of the Sierra Leonian musician SE Rogie to clear a sample of ‘Please Go Easy With Me’ on ‘Rich Man’.

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His journey into African music began with Fela Kuti, Koenig explained to Uncut in 2019. The frontman said Expensive Shit by the multi-instrumentalist was not only his gateway into the mind-expanding genre from a musical perspective but also acted as a crucial history lesson about socio-political issues in Nigeria.

“Even though his music isn’t a huge influence on Vampire Weekend, I’d say Expensive Shit was probably the first African record I listened to a lot,” he explained. “In my early teens, I was into punk rock, and looking at the album cover, it fit in with that aesthetic. I learned the backstory about Fela getting busted for drugs. It was my introduction not only to the music but also to the political situation.”

While Koenig isn’t perceived as a particularly political songwriter, and his experience is incomparable with Kuti’s, he has written about identity issues with Vampire Weekend. 

In ‘Jerusalem, New York, Berlin’, he explores his Judaism against the backdrop of the Balfour declaration of 1917 and the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although it sounds nothing like one of Kuti’s creations, it shows Koenig isn’t afraid of using art to tackle the big questions.