God Rest The Godfather
Pan-African super star, anti-military dictatorship activist, and social maverick, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was one of the brightest stars of the Nigerian and international music scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Fela won a reputation for openly smoking marijuana, sleeping with large numbers of women, and dressing only in his underpants, but his influence on contemporary music cannot be over-estimated. A true original, no other artist has his precise combination of skills.
Fela had the groove sense of James Brown and Prince's poise as an arranger; he was as articulate as Dylan, as charismatic as Bob Marley, and - for a time - as popular as any of those artists at their peak. Most of all, the man who called himself 'the chief priest' was one of the music world's most skilled agitators. His songs, which could stretch over an hour, were filled with passionate chants about military corruption and social inequality. Singing and shouting in pidgin English, a joint ever smouldering between his teeth, he conveyed both righteous indignation and a radical message in such famous rants as Teacher, Don't Teach Me No Nonsense, Black President,and Coffin For Head of State.
Fela was born in 1938 in Abeokuta, a Yoruba town in western Nigeria about 50 miles north of the capital, Lagos. His father was a well-known priest and educator; his mother was an activist involved in Nigeria's quest for independence, which was realized in 1960. As a teenager Fela learned to work the saxophone and, at the age of 21, he went to London to study music and formed his first band.
He returned home in 1963 and formed the Koola Lobitos band, playing a fusion of jazz and hi-life with little success. He spent time in Ghana and the United States, where he developed a strong interest in politics and civil rights. His concept for the politically charged fusion of rock with African rhythms into a blend known as Afro-beat came together in the late '60s, after he heard the Sierra Leonean singer Geraldo Pino and encountered the ideas of Malcolm X. On a trip to California in 1969, Fela met members of the radical Black Panthers and Koola Lobitos metamorphosed into Nigeria '70 (later called Africa '70 and finally Egypt '80) over a famous series of sessions in Los Angeles.
Afro-beat became a huge phenomenon in Nigeria, where Fela settled for good in 1973, and he swiftly became a big star. Between 1975 and 1977, Afrika '70 recorded 17 albums - including the classic No Agreement - and these recordings spread their unique blend of funk vamping, jazz improvisation and Nigerian high-life around the world. Fela eventually recorded some 133 albums and served as a godfather to other African artists. "He is a legend," Malian singer Salif Keita said. "All modern African singers and musicians owe a lot to him." "For us, he was a monument, a reference point," said singer Lokua Kanza of Congo. "To hear him was like a blast of fresh air."
Afro-beat was perfect for live performance and Fela was a hypnotic performer. A brief sermon - about, say, Nigeria's need for modernization - would be followed by a forlorn blast from a horn section, or a high-intensity call-and-response between Fela and his battalion of backing singers. When he finished singing, he turned his attention to the keyboard or the tenor saxophone, and crafted patient solos that took his large, interactive band down unlikely avenues. A typical Fela show was a marathon that could be appreciated on several levels: as incessantly funky party music, as a mix of overt and subversive political messages, and as a sophisticated improvisational excursion.
As his popularity grew, Fela utilized his platform for ever-more-public anti-government agitation and became notorious for his promiscuity. A famous lover who married 27 women at a ceremony in 1978, he lived in a polygamous commune in the Lagos suburb of Ikeja, which he called 'Kalakuta Republic' and opened a nightclub, The Shrine, in a working class district of Nigeria's humming commercial capital.
A bastion of freedom in what was becoming a military state, The Shrine was a place where the people could go to hang out, smoke herb, get loose and say and do what they liked. Fela delared that his club was "the abode of the gods of Africa. It has its own powers. You cannot enter if you have a bad mind." Those who were lucky enough to visit The Shrine in its heyday would find a capacity crowd jammed between the corrugated-iron walls, wooden cages in which Fela's dancers gyrated, and stalls where spliffs were on sale. When Fela himself finally appeared, long after his band had taken to the stage, he added to the haze as he lit an enormous joint (the first of many), before launching into a searing set, demonstrating why he was so important to African music.
In 1976, Fela topped the charts with Zombie, which describes government soldiers as no more than machines following orders, and the following year he got an official response when 1,000 zombies burned the Kalakuta compound to the ground. His mother was badly injured in the raid and died six months later. Overnight, Fela became known as much for his politics as for his music.
After military rule ended in 1979, Fela Kuti established his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People). With his entourage of wives and girlfriends, Fela went to the ruling junta's headquarters and placed his mother's coffin on the steps, saying he wanted to demonstrate that the power of the state was impotent compared to the indomitable power of the human spirit.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, during Nigeria's forcibly aborted attempts by civilians to establish a democratic government, Fela never shied away from stating his opposition to military rule. His blunt response to the rise of conservative politicians such as Reagan and Thatcher was Beasts of No Nation.
In 1984, Fela was arrested at the airport as he was preparing to leave for a US tour on what Amnesty International described as 'spurious' charges of illegally exporting foreign currency. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, but released after eighteen months when General Muhammed Buhari was overthrown by General Ibrahim Babangida, who freed Fela but did not escape his criticism.
Rumours about Fela's health began to circulate in 1995, and though he gave infrequent and usually brief performances at The Shrine, he no longer toured. In his final two years Fela made little effort to challenge the next in Nigeria's succession of military dictators, General Sani Abacha. Even when his brother - Beko Ransome-Kuti, an outspoken political dissident - was sentenced in 1996 to 15 years in prison for his involvement in an alleged coup plot, Fela stayed at home and waited for death.
He refused treatment for his deteriorating health, rejecting both Western and traditional Nigerian medical services, but continued using cannabis despite the best efforts of General Bamayi, head of The Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency, who said he hoped to reform Fela's character and wean him away from marijuana. On 9 April, 1997, in a raid on The Shrine, Fela was arrested along with about 100 others, including several of his wives. The zombies had one last go at forcing him to publicly renounce the holy herb, but eventually gave up and released him. "I have been smoking for 40 years," Fela said. "It helps my music. People know I smoke worldwide. It is not drugs, it is grass."
To his amusement, local newspapers reported his death prematurely, but Fela finally died on Saturday August 2, 1997. "The immediate cause of death was heart failure, but there were many complications arising from the Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome," announced Fela's older brother, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, who is a former deputy director-general of the World Health Organization.'The Music Legend Of Our Time, Fela, Joins His Ancestors', reported the front page of the Nigerian Sunday Times in heavy black type.
During his heyday, Fela had changed part of his family name from Ransome to Anikulapo, meaning 'one who keeps death in his pouch' in his Yoruba language. 'After years of raising hell, doing what mere mortals with a healthy respect for death would not dare, death uncorked itself from Fela's pouch and sneaked in on him,' the Punch newspaper commented.
Fela's body lay at the Tafawa Balewa Square, southeast of Lagos, for the public to pay their respects. The transparent casket showed the great man nattily attired in multi-coloured shirt, with a wrap of his favourite smoke propped between his fingers. When he was brought back to Ikeja for burial on Tuesday, 14th of August, the 17 kilometer journey took five and a half hours as around a million people lined the route to say farewell to a stubborn hero, one who was committed to a righteous path and blessed with the rare ability to translate that passion into intense, evangelical music.
F E L A * L I N K S
Toshiya Endo's Fela Discography
Fela's Last Days
by Robin Denelsow
Obituary of Fela Kuti
by Gwen Ansell
Rebel With A Cause article.
by Carter Van Pelt
The Afrobeat Goes On:
An Interview with Femi Kuti
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