The Man, The Music, The Message
February 2nd 1988 was like any other day, and my uncle Tony’s hasty pace consciously told me to keep up with him as we walked towards Ikeja bus stop in the tropical Nigerian heat. For a minute I didn’t realise I had stopped in my tracks to listen to the sound booming from a music retail shop. I looked around the frenzied crowd scurrying past me in the typical Lagos craze and felt their pulse in the beat. 2:14pm and my first encounter with his music betrayed what was to come. Nine and a half years later I joined nearly a million people who thronged to the Tafawa Balewa Square for his funeral.
Fela Kuti as a music artist embodied different things to different people. For the vast majority of Nigerians, he stood tall as a social crusader who championed the fight against oppression, government excess and corruption. To the authorities, he was just a dissenter, a cannabis-smoking saxophonist who was to be vilified, hounded and imprisoned. To the rest of the world, he was more like the eccentric performer whose unyielding lyrics gave jazz a rebel face. Indeed, Fela’s life as a maverick resonated in the genius of his art - Afrobeat music so subliminal, so dissident and yet so persuasive.
Music publications across the globe have traded expansive reviews on his music and biographies have been authored; the message in his music remains stuff for engaging contemporary critics to interpret, while independent projects have been set up to archive the man’s extraordinary life and art. But so much more has been left unexplored in appreciating the essence of his music.
Born in October 15th 1938 in Abeokuta, South West Nigeria, Fela became a cult figure in Nigeria for challenging everything that was devoid of humanity, from successive military dictatorship of that dark era to championing the affirmation of traditional African culture. And he paid the price time and time again, severe beatings from soldiers (who also torched his house), several court appearances, frequent harassment and incarceration by the authorities became his lot. But the message in his music was not lost to all.
Influenced by trumpeters Miles Davies, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown and saxophonists Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Harold Land, he chose music as a weapon to instigate change in his society. Upon arriving back home from Trinity College of Music in England where he had finished his studies in 1963, Fela began to experiment with Highlife music, which was the craze in West Africa in the fifties and sixties, but highlife enthusiasts were at odds on what to do with his fusion of jazz into it.
About the same period in the late sixties, he along with his band Koola Lobitos took a music tour to the United States of America where he encountered the black revolutionary movement that had, at the time, brought activism into the arts as well. This reality was not lost on him as he began to reflect on the cultural impact his music could have on his own long suffering African people.
With a blend of music genres, Fela clearly drew upon highlife, jazz and rhythm and blues, but Africanized the foreign jazz and soul elements while deconstructing dance band highlife and grafted them all onto a traditional West African rhythmic template.*1
The result was Afrobeat: a style of composition that buttressed its busy, lengthy arrangements of interlocking polyrhythms and blazing horns with fervently nationalistic lyrics that railed against the rampant corruption in Nigeria's halls of power.*2
Choosing to sing in Pidgin, a broken down version of the English language, which is spoken by the vast West African underclass population, endeared him to more fans who had been cut off by earlier recordings in his native Yoruba tongue.
Michael E Veal in his biography of Fela highlights the impact it had on his compositions: “Pidgin enabled him to dart in and around the rhythm in a strongly jazz-inflected fashion, bending the stresses and accents of Standard English to the African syntax and tonalinflections. It also allowed him to integrate nonsense syllables which had a purely rhythmic value into his singing.”
Classics like the hypnotic Water No Get Enemy (1975), the seditious Zombie waxed in 1976, and the valiantly composed 1977 hit Sorrow, Tears and Blood are all ensconced in a discography that boasts of 77 recorded albums and several unreleased compositions.
Paul McCartney was so enthralled with Fela’s composition in one instance that he wanted to record with him on a visit to the Kalakuta, as his residence where he also performed was known. But Fela was quite suspicious of his motives and the proposition was put on ice.
However, it is so easy to take Fela for granted, and dismiss him as a hedonistic band leader who was short sighted in terms of courting a wider music audience like Bob Marley did, especially when the sound of Caribbean patois and the emerging African rhythm of roots reggae had prepared the Western public’s appreciation for African music.
The reply to the above mindset could be that at the time Africa needed a projectile from the music world and Fela shot straight to the head. His frown on Western imperialism resonated in every note from his saxophone and the theme of his music centered on castigating the authoritarianism that was prevalent in Africa following independence from colonial powers.
Fela was empowered by an awareness that sprung from traditional Africa where things were essentially ordered, he ridiculed Christianity and Islam (both very popular religions in Africa), and his idea of feminism was as unflattering as some of his best compositions. But he also wondered why his home country Nigeria was earning a fortune in foreign exchange from the exploration and sale of crude oil and yet was so underdeveloped, lacked basic infrastructure and its people desperately poor.
For him, the corrupt leaders and their western collaborators were to blame and his voice can still be heard harsh as ever in Authority Stealing, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, Beasts of No Nation, Army Arrangement, Why Blackman Dey Suffer, Shuffering and Shmiling.*3
His message was poignant and uncompromising; it reflected the relentlessness of the reality of his time. His impact was both whole and inspiring for Nigerian folks who endured -and still sadly endures- corrupt leadership, mismanagement and embezzlement of public funds. It is such a shame that the issues he sang about are still prevalent in Nigeria today.
Fela’s insight was spiritually rooted in traditional African mysticism and his legion of fans gave him the moniker Abami Eda which when translated roughly means “The weird one” in English. But he was comprehensible enough to himself and to the world regarding his muse for the composition and performance of song after song.
Smoking cannabis or Indian hemp as it is commonly referred to in Nigeria became a rally point of departure for his conservative fans who frowned on the negative influence it could have on impressionable minds, for them the legal implication and the social consideration of drug abuse should not be divorced from the significance of his art.
And on the premise of this understanding, the authorities justified its unbridled persecution of Fela for so many years. But getting high was not just for fun or to stimulate him while on stage as a music artist; Fela built a whole lifestyle on it and attributed some form of ritualistic symbolism to it.
Michael E. Veal again describes the experience in his account on Fela: “Marijuana was clearly crucial to Fela’s musical and social vision in a number of ways. Sonically, it was reflected in the loping, insistent patterns, whose hypnotic effect was similar to the Jamaican reggae of the same period (in the creation of which marijuana also played an integral role)”.
Fela passed away from AIDS related complications in August 2nd 1997, becoming one of the most celebrated personalities to succumb to that dreadful disease in his part of the world. The shock of his death was to reveal the sum of our collective burden: the angst of daily life.
This man made no pretence of perfection, he lived his life with apologises to no one. Fela was passionate, unpretentious, self-indulgent and above all unorthodox. He refused to be confined to the norm…he defined himself. A true renaissance man who did not only influence his family and friends but also every individual in the world today whose voice is fervent enough to be raised on behalf of some one else.
- Veal E. Michael, Fela: The Life and Times of an African Music Icon, p. 98.
- Loftus Johnny, Fela’s Children (Metro Times Detroit).
- Fela Discography.
- PHOTO: © LENI SINCLAIR