Here’s a clip of Nigerian folk-hero, activist, outlaw, political dissident, self-professed ‘black president’, and Afro-beat inventor Fela Kuti. Kuti’s music is practically a rosetta stone when tracing the relationships between African music and reggae, soca, funk, soul, jazz, and other Western musical forms including proto-hip hop sounds.
Kuti has been compared to James Brown, Bob Marley, and George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic. Yet, in Nigeria and increasingly everywhere else, he is recognized as a singular artist who crafted something original and beyond comparison. He’s also widely recognized as a national hero, standing up to government corruption in Nigeria in the 1970s and 80s, and often paying dearly in doing so.
Yet apart from that, Kuti was a dynamic, seemingly tireless performer and recording artist, with marathon-length sets that tested the physical limits of his band, as well as his own. Perhaps his sociopolitical fervor fed his performances. Or perhaps, it was the other way around.
He was born Fela Ransome (later ‘Anikalapo’) Kuti in Nigeria, 1938, to a musical and politically anti-military family. Intially studying to be a physician, he travelled to London where he formed his first band in 1961. Taking traditional West African high life music and marrying it to the trad jazz and burgeoning R&B music he was hearing in the London clubs, he became the first preponent of what he called Afro-beat, which he then took back to Nigeria two years later.
While touring and recording with a new band Koola Lobitos, Kuti would spend nearly a year in the United States, where he became acquainted with the writings of Malcolm X and the philosophies of black nationalism. This would feed his desire for reform in his own country. Before returning to Africa, he would record The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions album, which showcased his absorption of soul and funk into his traditionally Afro-centric sound. He would develop this sound into the 70s, forming a new band Africa 70, and establishing himself as something of an impressario, club owner, record producer, and patriarch of a compound in Lagos.
In the ensuing years, he preceded to create what is now something of a cultural legacy, passing along his trade as a musican, and his beliefs as a political activist, to his children, most notably Femi Kuti who continues to bear the Afro-beat torch. A notorious womaniser, Fela sired a sizable number of children from almost as many women. His lifestyle got the better of him, and he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1997.
Although certainly not without his flaws, Kuti lived his convictions, while also being a musical innovator during some very troubling times in his home country, inspiring the population with his music as often as he could. While setting up a studio in Nigeria in the early 70s, former Cream drummer Ginger Baker rekindled a friendship with Kuti, whom he’d met when Kuti was in London in the early 60s. Baker often sat in on live gigs, which would go on for hours. In an interview with Ginger Baker about Fela Kuti, Baker had this to say:
He didn’t have any competitors. [laughs] There was nobody doing what Fela
was doing. It was just…heh…you had to go to Fela’s club to see that.
You didn’t see anybody that wasn’t moving. The whole place was jumping…
For more about Fela Kuti, investigate the Fela Kuti MySpace page.