Fela believed that music was the weapon of social fight for the future. Throughout a career that began with the London jazz scene and the uptown Nigerian Highlife music in the 1950’s, peaked with the revolutionary Afrobeat in the 1970’s, and inspired countless artists ever since, Fela lived out the war cry ‘Music is the Weapon’ like no other musician. He used his music to talk to the audience and to criticize international figures. To him democracy was “democrazy”, United Nations was “United Nonsense” and International Telegraph and Telecommunications was “International Thief Thief”. It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact and importance of his music and it is no exaggeration to say that Fela is to African Music what Marley is to Reggae: its prophet.
F for Flamboyant…
E for Electrifying…
L for Liberating…
A for Activist….
Such was Fela Kuti, revolutionary musician, political radical, enfant terrible and master provocateur who was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938. He was all that, as well as showman par excellence, an unredeemable sexist, a moody megalomaniac and the inventor of Afrobeat. His death in 1997 from heart failure due to AIDS deeply affected musicians and fans internationally when his voice was silenced.
“No other pop-culture icon has spoken truth-to-power in a more accessible form.” Jon Caramanica (Vibe Magazine)
He was a composer, saxophonist, keyboardist, vocalist, dancer, activist, firebrand, icon…In 30 years, he produced nearly 80 albums, married 27 wives, had over 200 court appearances, was harassed, jailed, savagely beaten, tortured, consumed a prodigious amount of marijuana, spoke fearlessly against injustice, changed his name to “Anikulapo” a Yoruba word meaning “I have death in my pocket” because despite all the beatings and torture he suffered from the military government and his prison stays, he survived to play his music against those he called “Corrupt Politicians”. His time on earth was 58 years but in reality, he lived intensely more than one lifetime. To the Pan-African world, Fela was a towering figure who incarnated the sublime power of music and combined elements of pure artistry, political perseverance, and a mystic, spiritual consciousness in a way that no other individual ever has. He was proclaimed “Chief Priest” by the million people who lined the streets of Lagos to mourn his passing.
“Death doesn’t worry me man. When you think you die, you’re not dead. Its a transition. When my mother died it was because she finished her time on earth. I know that when I die I’ll see her again, so how can I fear death? . . . So what is this motherfucking world about? . . . I believe there is a plan . . . I believe there is no accident in our lives. What I am experiencing today completely vindicates the African religions. . . I will do my part . . . then I’ll just go, man…Just go!”
With his faithful Nigerian Green Grass rolled in a joint as large as a baobab tree accompanying him on his journey, Fela may well be in transition, smoking away, looking on and just laughing!
Last night, I went to see FELA! the new musical which explores Fela Kuti’s controversial life as artist, political activist and revolutionary musician. From the time I entered the theater, Bill T. Jones’ imaginative staging invited me into the Shrine and into Fela’s extravagant, decadent and provocative lifestyle. The show is a multi-sensory experience that includes elements of film, concert, dance and musical theater. Fela’s captivating songs are performed by the Afrobeat Brooklyn group Antibalas.
The entire ensemble is extraordinary (and the dancers are so sexy it’s to die for!) but Sahr Ngaujah who plays the role of Fela is so charismatic and talented, it took my breath away! Talking to the audience, he would say: If you like this, say ye-ye… I would have said ye-ye all night long!
Whether you’re already a fan of Fela Kuti or this is your first venture into the land of Afrobeat, this experience will prove an exhilarating 2 1/2 hour ride!
Afrobeat is an intoxicating mixture of Yoruba harmonies, jazz, Highlife, and funk rhythms, fused with percussion and vocal styles, popularized in the 1970’s by Fela, who shaped the musical structure and also the political context of the genre in Nigeria when he returned from a U.S tour with his group. Fela’s new sound hailed from a club that he established called the Afro-Shrine and he was known for bringing huge bands to the stage, including many singers, dancers, percussionists, brass musicians, and guitarists.
Characteristics of Afrobeat are:
Big bands: A large group of musicians playing various instruments;
Energy: Energetic, exciting and with high tempo, poly-rhythmic percussion;
Repetition: The same musical movements are repeated many times;
Improvisation: Performing without set music;
Combination of genres: A mixture of various musical influences.
Vocals sung in Yoruba and Pidgin English as Kuti regarded this as being the language best understood across all of Africa’s borders.
Vivian Goldman of the Rolling Stones magazine writes: “The persuasive vocals of his female singers and dancers traded call-and-response with Fela’s rough warmth, and always, there was the urgent howl of Fela’s sax riding on the imposing power of the drums”.
“The atmosphere is festive as the audience enters, a mixture of students, activists, rebels, criminals, music lovers, and even politicians, policemen and soldiers arriving incognito. They make their way through the sea of traders hawking their goods by candlelight- snacks, drinks, cigerettes and marijuana- as the sound of the Egypt 80 spills from inside the open-air club. After purchasing a ticket and being frisked for weapons at the doorway,audience members enter the interior of the Shrine, a semi-enclosed counter cultural carnival of funky, political music, pot-smoking, mysticism and provocative dancing. Four fishnet-draped go-go cages, each containing a loosely clad female dancer grinding languorously, rise out of the smoky haze. A neon light in the shape of the African continent casts its red glow over the stage. Fela, the chief Priest of shrine finally arrives with his retinue around 2am to tumultuous applause. Dressed tonight in a tight purple jumpsuit stitched with traditional Yoruba symbols and shapes he makes his way through the crowd to the stage. He steps up the to the mike and pauses, surveying the crowd with mischievous eyes while taking intermittent puffs from a flashlight-sized joint in his hand. Finally he speaks: Everybody say ye-ye! ”
Fela: The life and Times of an African Musical Icon by Michael E. Veal, 2000
Once during a concert, Fela stood on the stage talking (preaching?) until the audience screamed: “Just play a song, man!” . Fela responded “The only reason I play music is so I can get up here and talk to you.”
Fela’s family was firmly middle class as well as politically active. His father was a pastor (and talented pianist), his feminist mother active in the anti-colonial, anti-military, Nigerian home rule movement. So at an early age, Fela experienced politics and music in a seamless combination. He went off to London in 1958 for a medical education but registered instead at Trinity College’s school of music. He began his career as an apolitical artist, playing party music for Lagos’ nightlife set, and attempting to create a distinctive art music that would bring him the fame and recognition he craved. During a trip to the United States in 1970 to break into the American music market, he met Sandra Smith, a member of the Black Panther Party who introduced him to key texts, particularly The Autobiography of Malcolm X. that would drastically change his music, his life, and ultimately, his relationship with Nigerian society. He reinvented himself as an observer of Nigerian civil society whose self-appointed task was to re-educate the masses as to the ways in which their government and multinational corporations act to blind the people as to their own self-interest by using his music as a “weapon”. There is no corrupt head of state or politician, who escaped the judgement of Fela’s music. Because his music addressed issues important to the Nigerian underclass , Fela was the voice of Nigeria’s have-nots and a cultural rebel. This was something Nigeria’s military junta tried to nip in the bud, and from almost the moment he came back to Nigeria up until his death, Fela was hounded, jailed, harassed, and nearly killed by a government determined to silence him. In one of the most egregious acts of violence committed against him, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers attacked his Kalakuta compound in 1977 . Fela suffered a fractured skull as well as other broken bones; his 82-year old mother was thrown from an upstairs window, inflicting injuries that would later prove fatal. The soldiers set fire to the compound and prevented fire fighters from reaching the area. Fela’s recording studio, all his master tapes and musical instruments were destroyed. He was beaten so mercilessly that everyone thought that was the end of his life, yet he came back to hit his enemies with his songs and the spirit of the Shrine did not die. In so brutally and repeatedly subjecting Fela to persecution, the authorities helped to raise his name to the level of myth. They used so much force and savagery that their victims came to be celebrated as martyrs. And the military found that, though they had power to crush bones and burn houses, they could not even dent the indomitable spirit of Fela and his followers. And it was a memorable expression of that defiance and indomitable courage that on September 10, 1979, the day before Obasanjo handed power over to the civilians, Fela and his people defied all the guards to lay the coffin of his mother right on the doorstep of Dodan Barracks, as a statement of the ultimate futility of state power over the liberty of the human mind.
John Dougan (All Music Guide)
Some Fela lyrics:
Zombies (this song mocked soldiers as robotic idiots mindlessly following orders)
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 …
Them gradually, gradually, gradually, gradually
Them go be:
Friend friend to journalist
Friend to friend to Commissioner
Friend friend to Permanent Secretary
Friend to friend to Minister
Friend to friend to Head of State
Then they start start to steal money
Start start them corruption
Start start them inflation
Start start them oppression
Start start them confusion
Start start them oppression
Start start to steal money
I.T.T International thief thief…
“Oooooooooooooooooh”, recalls Fela. “I was beaten by police! So much… How can a human being stand so much beating with club and not die?”