Whether portrayed as a fearless champion of the oppressed or as an unrepentant misogynistic control freak, Africa’s most maverick musician, Fela Kuti was, at 5’7″, perhaps a few inches too tall to be ascribed a Napoleonic complex, but possessed an ego of comparable stature to ‘Le Petit Caporal’. A true cultural revolutionary, the people’s ‘Black President’ spoke out against corruption in his native Nigeria, berated the system of apartheid in South Africa, enthusiastically espoused the use of marijuana (his classic ‘Expensive Shit’ album documents one of his frequent drug busts) and consulted his trusted spiritual guide (or ‘magician’) Professor Hindu, before making important decisions about his career. His turbulent life story, and in particular, the explosive chapter surrounding the release of his 1977 album ‘Zombie’, is unlike any other in the history of popular music. It is one which may sound fallacious, fantastical even, and which renders other celebrated tales of rock’n’roll rebellion and self-destruction virtually anaemic.
Kuti enrolled at Trinity College of Music in London in 1958, having initially come to England to study medicine. He was then musically active in Ghana from the mid-1960s onwards, but smitten with Black Panther politics, returned from a visit to LA in 1970, renamed his band Africa ’70 and built his own self-contained commune in a compound in Lagos, Nigeria, his native homeland. In Fela’s eyes it was an independent sovereign entity, which he christened the Kalakuta Republic (after the Black Hole Kolkata dungeon). The commune contained it’s own free health care clinic and vitally, his own home made recording studio. It was from there he launched a series of sonic attacks upon the iniquitous Nigerian regime, of which the most scathing was undoubtedly ‘Zombie’. In it, he mercilessly ridiculed the way the army’s soldiers blindly followed the orders of their superiors, upholding a crooked military junta, one over-dependent on massive oil revenues, which somehow never managed to filter their way through to ordinary Nigerians. [‘Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go/Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop/Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn/Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think’] Typically written in trademark pidgin English (he was fluent himself), Kuti was determined to ensure ordinary people could more easily grasp the political message of his records. On this occasion, he would face the severest of consequences. He had been on the hit list for some time, had been imprisoned, beaten and tortured before, but for the authorities, fearful of his growing popularity and influence, this was a step too far. Following the album’s release, over one thousand soldiers were sent to destroy Kalakuta, virtually razing it to the ground, and in the process, Kuti’s mother was thrown from a first floor window. She was to die later from injuries sustained during the military operation. With characteristic defiance, Kuti delivered her coffin to the door of the army barracks following her funeral. It was an action at once bizarre, yet somehow, given his capacity for brazenly outlandish gestures, not untypical of him. Indeed, Peter Culshaw has noted Fela’s ‘unerring ability to piss on his own parade’. For example, in the 1970s, he turned down the opportunity to record with Paul McCartney, fearing the ex-Beatle intended to ‘steal’ his music. In the early 1980s Motown courted him, offering a million dollar advance to a lucrative record contract, but after consulting with Professor Hindu, he turned them down. His reputation suffered too with his high profile polygamous wedding of 1978, when he wed twenty seven brides in a private ceremony. It alienated more Westernised sensibilities and won him few friends in his homeland far less internationally, but he always defended his decision with dogged conviction, and he had nothing but disdain for Western mores in any case.
By then he had invented an entirely new musical genre, Afrobeat, a dynamic fusion of jazz, funk and indigenous African music. His output was prolific. In 1977 alone he released eight LPs. If these generally amounted to two extended grooves, lasting around 25 minutes in total, then nevertheless that is still over three hours of recorded music, or two double albums worth in a year, and that’s an impressive return even by Sun Ra’s standards. Kuti released around 60 albums in total. On ‘Zombie’, the combination of acerbic political protest with an irresistibly contagious funk groove is scintillating. The James Brown influence is unmistakable; Fela gave JB and his band a royal welcome when they visited Nigeria in 1970, but later claimed that it was Brown who stole his music. In truth, the influence worked both ways. Here a series of directives from Fela (‘Attention! Quick March! Slow march! Left turn!…’) is each punctuated with the backing singers repeatedly atonal response: ‘Zombie!‘ The twin sax from Fela and Lekan Anomashaun unleashes a brass line which installs it’s ebullient patterns into one’s consciousness even as the nervy guitar itches it’s restless relentless rhythm. The flip ‘Mister Follow Follow’, while thematically the mirror of the title track [‘Some dey follow follow, dem close dem eye/Some dey follow follow, dem close dem mouth/Some dey follow follow, dem close dem ear…’] musically at least finds Fela & company in more reflective mood. The breezy sax playing and restrained tempo are still funky but the heightened state of agitation is missing. Nevertheless, it remains a splendid earful.
Despite the tragic aftermath of ‘Zombie’, Fela was at the height of his popularity. His next aim was to run for Nigerian President but his candidature was rejected, despite the collapse of the first military junta in 1979. His presidential ambitions resulted in the formation of a political party, named Movement of The People, a conscious nod to the influence of Bob Marley. Their political outlooks were somewhat synonymous, a vague Pan-African Socialism, and in many ways Fela is to African music as Bob Marley is to Jamaican music. Their lives paralleled one another in many ways, their influence incalculable, their deaths tragically premature. When time called for Fela, he remained true to the additional name he had taken, Anikulapo (‘one who carries death in his pocket’), refusing medical intervention as if he were holding the crucial card in a game of poker. The game was up, but his musical legacy is safe and secure, And ‘Zombie’ is the surest place to begin exploring. (JJ)