61. Rebel with a cause: Fela Kuti

Posted on 30/07/2017

61. Rebel with a cause: Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti is a remarkable icon of African music. His parents were respectable upper middle class Nigerians, but his mother was an activist involved in anti-colonial politics. His birth surname was ‘Ransome-Kuti’ reflecting a slave onwer’s involvement in his ancestry. But Fela, sent to England to become a doctor like his brothers, went to the Trinity College of Music and became a multi-instrumentalist.

He invented an infectious rhythm called ‘Afro-beat’ which can be heard on the tracks included here. His preferred method of song-writing was ‘call and response’. The response is sometimes from his girl chorus and sometimes from massed saxophones. At the time of his main fame, in the 70’s and 80′ there were a series of unpleasant dictatorships in Nigeria. He attacked them in his songs and was duly attacked back. Indeed his ‘commune’ was burnt down and his mother killed in one government attack on his organisation. Fela fought back and although he died prematurely, probably of Aids, his fame in Nigeria, Africa and the world was great.

His songs tend to be extremely long: half an hour is common. For present purposes I have tried to find some short versions. The ‘Beast of no Nation’ is an attack on South Africa, whose president had described opponents of apartheid as ‘beasts of no nation‘:

At the beginning of the above song Fela gets the audience to sing ‘Aya Kata’ and  then chides them for speaking with white man’s ‘small mouth’. He says we Africans use all our mouth, and illustrates this with his enunciation of ‘Aya Kata’. He was a great performer!

The following extract comes from a website devoted to his lyrics and explains the above song.

Beast of No Nation is the first song Fela wrote in 1986, after he was liberated from prison—serving two years from a five year prison sentence for trumped-up foreign currency violation charges. Everywhere he went after his release, people were asking him what he was going to sing about: ‘Fela wetin you go sing about? Them go worry me!”. People wanted to hear him sing about his prison experience, like he had done with the songs like: Alagbon Close, Kalakuta Show, and Expensive Shit. Finally, he decided to sing about the world we live in—with particular reference to Nigeria. He said when he was in prison he called it ‘Inside World’, out of prison he called it ‘Outside World’. But for him it is actually ‘Craze World’. Otherwise, what name can one give a world with: police brutality, army oppression, courts without justice, magistrates who are supposed to uphold the law, obviously seen bending the law to please some special interest. As further proof of the craze world, he sings about the judge who sent him to jail for five years on a trumped up charge, only for the same judge to visit Fela in a prison hospital two years after. The judge apologized, claiming he was under pressure from the government to convict. This could only happen in a Craze World, Fela reasons. It can only be in a craze world that people sit and watch governments shoot down protesting students with impunity, like in Soweto(South Africa), Zaria and Ife(Nigeria). Bearing in mind that Nigeria like all craze world countries, condemn the apartheid regime in South Africa, yet committing crimes against humanity in their respective countries.

It is not very easy to quote Fela’s lyrics as he writes in pidgin English, so as to be comprehended by all Africans, who speak many native languages but normally also the lingua franca of pidgin English.

Fela was keen to point out that the famous ancient Egyptian civilisation was in fact African, and hence several of his bands were called Egypt followed by a date. The one below features a repeated chorus of ‘Crazy’ (or Craze World’ as discussed in the extract above. The craziness referred to the brutality of human beings to each other. Fela Kuti was unfortunate to live at a time of maximum dictatorship and brutality in Nigeria epitomised by the appalling Abacho, one of many dictators at the time.

The following track features Kuti’s playing and also some excellent scat singing, from about one minute into the track onwards.

The final extract features an attack on schoolteachers, related to inferred indoctrination. He had become a Black Power enthusiast following a trip to the USA. Hence the title ‘teacher dont teach me nonsense’. This was written in the context of dictatorship which included interference in teaching. It also includes the charming escapism of the following verse, which is for once not in pidgin:

Let’s get down, to the underground spiritual game
We all sing together, play music together in happiness
All you have to do is sing what I play on my horn
Now Let’s go…

Kuti was a rebel in many directions. He married some 25 women at once, mainly his backing singers. Not surprisingly this was reflected in the publicity he got when touring the USA and England: I remember his polygamy being a big issue in his visits to London.

He eventually cut down his wives to a few on account of the jealousy that being married to so many girls caused. In the videos you can see some very dynamic and sexy dancing from these girls. You can also see Kuti organising the chorus and also the horns in playing the complex arrangements that he had developed for his songs. His singing is very animated, acting out the lyrics.

He died relatively young (58) in 1997, twenty years ago now. His fame was by then so great that he had a state funeral in Nigeria attended by a million people. He tried to stand for President but his application was rejected: he would probably have won but democracy was not possible then. His efforts have made it a bit more likely in Nigeria in the future. His rebellion certainly had a cause. But the wider world remembers him because of his brilliant, dynamic, music.


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