One thing is indisputable: Fela Kuti is one of the giants of twentieth century music. He might not be as well-known in the West as other epic musicians of his era, but anyone acquainted with Fela’s music knows it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up to Africa.
NOTE: IF YOU ONLY HAVE TIME FOR ONE CLIP, SEE #3
Along with the drummer Tony Allen (who deserves an article all to himself), Fela invented Afrobeat. It started in the 1900s when a style of music called “Highlife” emerged in Ghana. Horn-led and upbeat, it spread across English-speaking West Africa and remains popular to this day. Fela was well-versed in the genre and in the late fifties, while studying at Trinity College in London, he formed a highlife band, fusing it with jazz.
Your first clip, then, is a hark back to his Highlife era, just to get you in the mood and introduce you to his roots.
Wa dele Wa Royin (1965)
He then moved back to his native Nigeria, and named his band Africa ’70. Here they started a commune – the Kalakuta Republic – which he soon declared independent. The band was a hit in Nigeria where he chose to sing in Pidgen English to be understood across English Africa.
The Nigerian government became increasingly worried with his outspoken nature and the police soon “planted” weed on him, leading to his arrest According to legend, he then ate the joint then traded feces with another prisoner to get out of jail. From this story came the song “Expensive Shit”.
Expensive Shit (1975)
So what is Afrobeat? In short, it’s a fusion of rock, funk, jazz, Highlife, and traditional Yoruba “call-and-answer” chanting. The thing that sets it apart, though, is the syncopation. There’s a reason Brian Eno called Fela’s drummer Tony Allen “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived.” And there’s no better example of the prowess of Kuti and Allen than in the next song — “Zombie” — an ode to the military police. (“Zombie not go tinkle less you tell him to tinkle”)
In response to Zombie’s huge success in Nigeria, One thousand Nigerian police raided his self-declared independent republic. It was set on fire, he was severely beaten, and his mother was thrown from a window – resulting in her death. In response, he took his mom’s corpse to the president’s house, and
wrote a couple songs about it. Here’s one:
In 1978 Fela married 27 women. He later divorced 15, saying twelve was enough. He then tried to run in the Nigerian elections of 1979 but was refused candidacy.
In 1984 he was jailed for 20 months for alleged currency smuggling. Amnesty and other groups campaigned for his release, and he eventually was. On his release he divorced his twelve remaining wives.
After this his output slowed, and he died in 1997 of an AIDS-related illness. More than one million people attended his Lagos funeral.
What better way to end this introduction to Fela’s work than a live performance? Here’s him performing…
Teacher Don’t Teach me No Nonsense
See you soon with another Five Easy Clips!
You can read Adam’s other posts on PP [here]