The late, great Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti was one of the most dynamic, original and uncompromising musicians to emerge from the great post-colonial African pop explosion in the 1960s and '70s. A natural-born iconoclast, Fela was a legend in his own lifetime; as infamous for his lifestyle and politics as he was acclaimed for his music.
Fela Ransome Kuti was born into an elite Yoruba family in Akeokuta, Nigeria in 1938. Fela's grandfather had the distinction of being the first African to ever record music in Europe, recording religious songs for EMI in the 1920s, and his mother was a well-known nationalist leader who famously campaigned for Nigerian independence. From childhood, Fela was groomed for big things. In 1958, Fela's family sent him to London to study medicine, but within weeks of arriving in England, he instead enrolled in Trinity College of Music, where he spent four years studying piano, composition and theory. After-hours he led his highlife/jazz combo Koola Lobitos through the rounds of London Jazz clubs, to some small acclaim.
In 1962 Fela returned to the newly independent Nigeria (the country separated from Britain in 1960), and took a job in Lagos as a trainee for the Nigerian Broadcasting service. He also reformed Koola Lobitos to play the swinging clubs of the booming city, and soon left the job to pursue music full time. In 1969 he took his band to Los Angeles to record, and became enamored of James Brown and the Black Panther movement, two things that would radicalize Fela's sound and vision.
He returned to Lagos in 1970, and promptly renamed his band Afrika 70 and opened his own club, which he dubbed "The Shrine." There he, along with drummer and arranger Tony Allen, pioneered a new style they dubbed Afrobeat. The sound borrowed the muscular horn arrangements and slinky guitars of James Brown's funk and grafted it onto thundering Yoruba rhythms to come up with one of the most potent African pop styles ever recorded. In the next three decades he would record over 77 albums with Afrika 70 and their successors, Egypt 80, including such legendary sides as "Expensive Shit," "Coffin For Head Of State," "Colonial Mentality" and "Army Arrangement."
Singing neither in Yoruba nor the King's English, Fela delivered his musical jeremiads in pidgin English, so as to reach as wide an audience as possible. And he was loved for it by the masses, who made him a star. But his broadsides against the corruption and of General Olusegun Obasanjo's military government made him some enemies in very high places, and he suffered repeated harassment, including a full scale attack on his Lagos compound (which he called "The Kalakuta Republic") in 1977. Over 1,000 soldiers set fire to the premises and beat anyone they could lay their hands on, including Fela's 82-year-old mother, who was thrown from a window and later died from her injuries. Fela himself suffered fractures in his skull, arm and leg. In his lifetime Fela would undergo 356 court appearances and three separate imprisonments, including a 1985-87 sentence on trumped-up currency charges that made him a poster boy for Amnesty International.
But if Fela's music made him a target, his outrageous lifestyle also made him a magnet for trouble. A notorious and flagrant pot smoker, womanizer and iconoclast, Fela was infamous for such antics as wearing nothing but his underpants and formally rejecting his "European" middle name and replacing it with "Anikulapo," which roughly translates as "He who keeps death in his pocket." But perhaps his most famous stunt was his 1982 simultaneous marriage to 27 women (whom he later divorced in 1986).
Yet for all his badboy behavior, Fela's legend continues to grow long after his death from AIDS-related complications in 1997. There have been numerous books, tribute albums and even a traveling museum show devoted to his life. But his greatest legacy is still his music; which continues to evolve and mutate. His son Femi carries on the family franchise with his band Positive Force, while Fela's former arranger Tony Allen continues to push the sound forward, even as a whole new crop of Afrobeat revivalists such as Antibalas carry the Afrobeat torch into the 21st century. Tom Pryor, Courtesy Global Rhythm Magazine: www.globalrhythm.net