Fela Kuti created mountain sized grooves that engulf you like a beautiful avalanche. For the uninitiated, a polyrhythmic sonic tsunami awaits
Music so incredibly full-on, it renders Otis Redding restrained and James Brown lacking commitment. Multi-layered depth charge afrobeats unwinding like an anaconda; medicine for your hips and spirit.
Fela discarded his ‘slave’ name in favour of ‘Anikulapo’, which translates as “the one who carries death in his pouch”. A fearless musician whose own funeral was an act of rebellion. Despite the government’s strict ban on public gatherings, Lagos, Nigeria’s capital city, was brought to a standstill in 1987 when more than a million-people turned out to pay their respects to the 58-year-old voice of the people.
Not one for the small gesture, Fela believed that music was invincible; his weapon of choice for dealing with this “bitch of a life”. Through song he repeatedly challenged Nigeria’s barbaric military dictatorship. “My people are scared of the air around them,” sang the man who declared his home to be an autonomous zone. ‘Kalakuta Republic' comes from the name written on his cell door in ’74, which in Swahilli means ‘rascal’. “If rascality is going to get us what we want, we will use it; because we are dealing with corrupt people, we have to be ‘rascally’ with them,” stated the man who was arrested over 100 times.
The compound was burned to the ground in 1977 after the release of the song Zombie, an afrobeat grenade aimed at a goose-stepping automaton dictatorship. Nigeria was, and still is, one of the world’s biggest oil producers. During the raid, family and friends were savagely beaten and his Mother died from injuries sustained when thrown from a second-floor window. Fela carried his Mother’s coffin to the military barracks before he was banged up, “I want to show them, if they think I’m going to change or compromise. They’re making me stronger.”
Zombie is one hell of a song. Seven minutes of nitro-funk before the singing starts, plenty of time for the band to lock into a mind-bending groove which caught the ear of Miles Davis, a visionary who knew a thing or two about being an originator. The man who led the revolution in modal jazz and jazz fusion, named Prince and Fela Kuti as the future of music in his brilliant autobiography. (If you don’t have a copy you can borrow mine, it’s a must read).
Fela retained his unflinching revolutionary approach to life until his dying day, imbuing his music with uncompromising political urgency, offering a permanent ‘fuck you’ to a system determined to crush him. Femi, his son, had this to say about his Dad’s synthesis of music and revolutionary politics: “the political part was very essential in the music all the time, he couldn’t understand the love songs in Africa, with so much poverty and suffering.”
To maintain such a prolific ability to write, record and perform despite such life-threatening oppression is incredible. Paul McCartney saw Fela play live in Lagos and was moved to say it was the best live performance he had ever seen. Ginger Baker lived in Nigeria from ’70 to '76 and deserves great credit for being talented and brave enough to guest on both studio and live recordings with Fela. Check out Why Black Man Dey Suffer or Live, show-casing why Ginger Baker could hold his own with the band who invented afro-beat.
In an interview, Ginger was asked to compare Fela with James Brown: How much of Fela’s sound, do you think, came from James Brown, and how much of it was his own thing?
Ginger Baker replied: "100% of it was his own thing. Completely his own thing. Absolutely nothing to do with James Brown. Fela blew James Brown off the stage when he came to Nigeria"
It’s hard to imagine anyone blowing James Brown off stage although it’s easy to imagine someone blowing him on it. As I go deeper into Fela Kuti’s music, I am reminded of how little I know about Africa which is not shaped by the dominant colonial narrative. At the start of a televised concert Fela tells the audience, “99.9% of what you about Africa is wrong”. When his biography was published in 1985, it was the first time a biography had ever been written about an African musician. There is 1.2 billion people living there; the continent from whence we first stuck out our thumbs and started hitching, and people have been writing about musicians for a very long time. There were at least three books written about Live Aid the year it happened. (Pictures of starving babies sell a lot more records than afrobeat protests such as Coffin For Head Of State.)
Leni Sinclair, a political activist and Jazz photographer, married to John Sinclair, manager of the mighty MC5, who photographed and interviewed Fela, remembers her first meeting:
“When I met Fela Kuti, the self-styled “Black President”, he was in a London hotel, wearing only a pair of red underpants, smoking a massive joint, surrounded by three of his wives (he notoriously married 26 in one day) and his personal magician; a Ghanaian who called himself Professor Hindu…Professor Hindu would come on stage with Fela and do magic tricks like seemingly cutting his tongue out or producing watches from nowhere. His most notorious stunt was to ask one Friday night at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town in North London for a volunteer from the audience to be buried alive for the weekend. A grave had been dug behind the club. The audience piled out to see the volunteer, a Nigerian guy covered in soil and buried in his suit. On Sunday evening he was dug up again, at which point the guy propositioned a journalist with the immortal words: “Being buried alive makes you horny.”
Fela and Africa 70, like The Wailers, were street-tough real deals. Music was their life and life was capable of dealing prison sentences, beatings and murder attempts
Everything, from the music to the album covers, their Club (Shrine), was held together by the art and courage of one man. Igo Chiko was Africa 70’s original saxophone player and is still considered to be the one. After a bust up with the singer he left the band. Fela filled the gap by playing sax himself. Not quite the virtuoso that Igo was, nonetheless he nailed it. The mind boggles; revolutionary, singer, record label owner, prisoner, songwriter, band leader and self-styled President elect. A man who released eight albums in one year and whose music, 30 years after his death, is still way ahead of the times; still dangerous.
Music camouflaged as history lessons disguised as an aphrodisiac, delivered as an aerobics session. Fela, through his songs, continues to resist the system. Get some of his albums and join him.