Saturday, January 12, 2008
Fela Kuti was quite possibly Nigeria's greatest ever musical export, Brian Eno claims to own more records by him than any other artist and James Brown aped his style when he toured Africa in the 1970s, which is as great a compliment as could be given. Fela was best known around the world as being the founder of Afrobeat, a heady mix of jazz influenced horn-led percussion elongated and twisted to form an almost ritualistic groove that has seduced musicians and dancers the world over.
I first discovered Fela's music at the tail end of the 1990s when I was doing my daily ritual of walking down Long Street from university to the station to catch my train home and as I walked past the African Music store this insane groove caught my ears like nothing else had in a long while. I charged in to find out what it was and left with three Fela albums and took them home and immersed myself in them. They were the redemption from the bog standard prog fodder and monotonous tech house that I was listening to at the time, they were the light at the end of the tunnel. I could write thousands of words on him but an extra long diatribe probably has no place on a blog, so I hope that you'll excuse the shortness of the piece but please do yourself a favour and search out his records if you haven't already.
Fela and his band Africa 70, originally called Koola Lobitos, were greatly influenced by the civil rights movement when they toured the United States in 1969 and it was on this trip that Fela first planted his activist roots through his involvement with members of the Black Panther party. He was against oppression and he was deeply opposed to the dictatorial Nigerian government of the time. After he had formed his commune Kalakuta Republic and declared it independent he was routinely raided, arrested and beaten by the police who were acting on the part of the government who saw him as a renegade and nuisance who they'd rather have dead than 'defiling the minds of the youth'. Kalakuta Republic also gave him a place to live with all his wives as he was probably as famous for his stance on human rights as he was for being a polygamist. As Fela's biographer Michael Veal stated, 'Fela's message of African empowerment became increasingly intertwined with dominant racist stereotypes of the African as vulgar, intoxicated, primitive, hypersexualised and indigenous mystic,' it can be said that his message wasn't perfect by any means but all of the complexities and contradictions of his personality formed the Fela mystic and like all great political and social opinions you may not agree with all of what has been said but what you do agree with has a profound effect on you and gives you something to carry with you in life or is that a bit too romantic of an ideal?
Fela and his wives, yes they're all his. You'd be smiling too probably.
In 1972 Paul McCartney quite ignorantly decided to record the album that was to become Band On The Run in Lagos but didn't bargain for being held up and least of all for the lepers on the streets but he did make the effort to go and see Fela and his band and described it as such, "They were the best band I've ever seen live...When Fela and his band eventually began to play, after a long, crazy build-up, I just couldn't stop weeping with joy. It was a very moving experience." Thrilled by his experience, McCartney thought of recording with some of the musicians working with the extraordinary 33-year-old firebrand. When Fela caught wind of the plan he denounced McCartney from the stage of his club and then arrived unannounced at the studio to berate him for 'stealing black man's music'. Good for the man, the fact that McCartney is alive and Lennon is dead is proof that God hates us. I'm kidding, sort of.
In 1974 the police arrived with a search warrant and a cannabis joint, which they had intended to plant on Fela. He became wise to this and swallowed the joint. In response, the police took him into custody and waited to examine his feces. Fela enlisted the help of his prison mates and gave the police someone else's feces, and Fela was freed. He then recounted this tale in his release 'Expensive Shit'.
1977's hit album 'Zombie' was a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers and as it was a smash hit with the people it greatly infuriated the government who ordered 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, causing 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 if it were not 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 main army barrack in Lagos and write two songs, 'Coffin for Head of State' and 'Unknown Soldier', referencing the official inquiry which claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier. It always amazes me how incredibly shite rouge governments are at covering up their acts of barbarianism and this is a glowing example.
Fela also famously ran for the presidency of Nigeria in 1979 but not without trouble. His band, Africa 70, deserted him in Berlin when they heard that he was planning on using all his money to fund his presidential bid but Fela was not one to be deterred and he promptly formed a new band, Egypt 80 and released the scathing character assassination of General Olusegun Obasanjo called 'International Thief Thief' which promptly lead to his candidacy being refused.
In the 1983 Motown were going to set up an African label and reportedly offered Fela a milion dollar deal (how much truth there is behind the figure I'll leave to you to debate its validity) and Fela's response was to contact the spirits via his personal sangoma, Professor Hindu. The spirits refused to let him sign until a grace period of two years had been observed and Fela further insisted on only leasing his back catalogue. Even then, Motown went along with it and in April 1985, the very month that Fela was about to sign, the Motown guy got sacked and the deal was off. Maybe the spirits knew something.
Fela was jailed in 1984 on highly dubious charges of currency smuggling and his case was taken up by human rights lawyers and organizations worldwide who tirelessly campaigned for his release, which they secured after 20 months of incarceration.
He regularly released albums and toured with Egypt 80 throughout the 1980s and early 1990s but it was at this time that his output suddenly stopped and it was rumored that he was suffering from a disease for which there was no known cure. It was rumored that the Nigerian government had gone to a sangoma and asked him to place a curse on the head of Fela Kuti but the truth was that after years of spreading his seed he was yet another tragic AIDS victim. He was pronounced dead on August 2, 1997 and on that day we truly lost an original who stood firmly by his beliefs in democracy and Africanism and who blessed us with some of the greatest records ever made. One thing that many people forget is that Fela was quite possibly one of the fiercest saxophonists to ever play. The sound that he got out of the instrument was almost chant-like, a growl, a purr and pure perfection. Well over a million people attended his funeral and there are numerous tribute nights to this day played in his honour. Thank you Fela and you were right, Music Is The Weapon of The Future.
The video is of Fela's 'Tears, Sorrow and Blood', which was famously sampled on balearic diggers delight Kwanzaa Posse 'Wicked Funk'. Check the way he brings the musical elements together in the intro, mesmerizing stuff.
My favourite Fela record is 'Everything Scatter', which I played as my last record in the Shack at the Electric Chair in June 2006 and it had the whole place bouncing off the roof and Kelvin Brown, a DJ who I have the utmost respect for, came up to me and said that it was in his top 5 records ever. Now that is an endorsement. It was probably up there as one of my greatest DJ experiences beyond a few gigs with Paul Hughes that I have ever had the privilege of experiencing.
Below is 2000 Black (Got To Be Free) which you can download. '2000 Black (Got To Be Free)' is a soaring call to arms to the black and disenfranchised youth to stand up against racism and oppression and it has the added bonus of fitting quite nicely into a disco, jazz or boogie set. Music for the head and the feet.
Fela Kuti & Roy Ayers - 2000 Blacks Got To Be Free