Just when you think that civilization has been sedated to a point where it doesn’t produce feisty rebels anymore, a character like Fela ‘Anikulapo’ Kuti comes along and blows our minds. At least he blew my mind and continues to be a source of inspiration.
His journey in the music world started with a band he formed in London called Koola Lobitos (around 1958). I haven’t heard his music during the time it but Wikipedia says that it was a style that born out of mix of funk, jazz and West African high-life. Later, his music came to known as Afro-beat with the edgy tah tah….tah tah pattern on the clave pushing the musicians and the listeners.
There is a movie (Music is the weapon) about him that reveals his persona. In the movie, on one account, Fela is quite hilarious giving the interview in his undergarments smoking a magic cigar but there is no escaping the intensity of his love for ordinary Africans and his dislike against establishment, the elite and trans-national companies that continue to plunder Africa.
He employed pidgin English to write his songs to surpass the barrier of multiple languages spoken by Africans. The pidgin English shouldn’t be confused for naivety. The lyrics of his songs dealt with variety of issues from military brutality (Zombie) to the joke we now know as democracy (or as he called it democrazy).
He traveled with a full-on orchestra which had multiple percussionists and a horn section too. His tracks are quite long with many of his tracks reaching 30 minutes in length. Some say this was the reason he didn’t sell many records. Along with the musicians he had a number of dancers. Some of these dancers were his wives. He himself was a multi-instrumentalists and his main instruments were the saxophone and the keyboard. I have also seen him do a drum solo.
Fela continues to remain with us. If you are a bay area resident you’ll know there are at least 2 Afro-beat bands that have regular gigs. On November 29th of last year, Fela! a theater production went into play at Eugene O’ Neill theater (Broadway). His sons Femi and Sean continue his legacy and perform around the world. They are great musicians that can give you a glimpse of what Fela was.
Before I sign off, I would like to narrate this interesting story. Furiated by his anti-government stance, government officials plant some marijuana on him. When he finds that he has been set-up, Fela grabs the stuff and ingests it. The government officials arrest him and plan to nail him based on analysis of his excreta. Fela swaps it with that of an inmate and escapes prosecution. Here is the song he wrote on the episode.