by Simon Slator
There’s something about African music I find quite satisfying, whether it’s drumming from Burundi, Senegalese Mbalax or South African Mbube … I love it. A couple of years ago, whilst merely browsing the listings at rateyourmusic.com, I couldn’t help noticing the name Fela Kuti showing up amongst the rock legends of the seventies. I’d never even heard of him and, intrigued as to why so many people rated his music so highly, I investigated.
If you’re completely unaware as to who Fela was, he was a Nigerian musician and political activist, the inventor of a style of music called “Afrobeat”. This style fused central African High-Life music with American Funk (particularly Sly Stone) and the improvisational qualities of Miles Davis. An Afrobeat composition typically starts with an extended instrumental, built up from ostinato grooves with layers of horns and improvised solos that develop the musical themes. Around halfway through, Fela begins the vocals, all sung in Nigerian Pidgin English, accompanied by his army of backing singers working in a call-and-response fashion. His lyrical themes often dealt with issues affecting the everyday lives of Nigerians, from the poorly planned layout of Lagos (“Confusion”) to government-approved religious hope (“Shuffering and Shmiling”). He released several dozen albums, most featuring just one or two tracks and playing for an average of 25 minutes each.
It would be impossible for me to give a total overview of Kuti’s music — it’s very prolific and there’s still so much I haven’t heard — but I’m going to talk about a handful of albums in particular: those that deal with the events surrounding the destruction of his commune, the Kalakuta Republic, in February 1978. While the story is presented in brief on his Wikipedia entry, I’m going to looking at the story through Fela’s music and words.
To set the scene, I first have to tell you about one of his albums in particular: Zombie. Today, it remains one of his most highly regarded albums, and rightly so. In amongst its infectious rhythms and earworm melodies, Fela sang of the mindlessness and unquestioning obedience of the Nigerian military — effectively comparing them to the titular Zombie:
“Zombie no go go unless you tell am to go
Zombie no go turn unless you tell am to turn
Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think”
“Tell am to go kill – joro jara joro
No blink, no job, no sense – joro jara joro.” (“Zombie”)
As you can imagine, in the military-ruled Nigeria of the time, this particular record didn’t sit well with the powers that be. Fela was not only a political dissident but a very popular one — and the people were lapping this record up. Fela needed to be taught a lesson. He needed to be shown just who was in charge.
“Where these one thousand soldiers them dey go?
Na Fela house Kalakuta
Them don reach the place, them dey wait
Them dey wait for … Order!” (“Unknown Soldier”)
When a thousand-strong army descends on your front door, chances are they’re not popping round for a cup of coffee, and on February 18th, 1978, that’s just what Fela received. The Nigerian military viciously attacked the commune, destroying his studio, instruments and even his master tapes — presumably why some recent reissues of his early music sound like professionally made vinyl conversions. Fela himself was badly beaten and would’ve been killed were it not for the intervention of a senior officer.
This kind of brutal oppression, through Fela’s words, was something of a “normal day at the office” for the military:
“I see see see all the bad bad bad things
Them they do do do
Them steal all the money
Them kill many students
Them burn many houses
Them burn my house too
Them kill my mama.” (“Coffin for Head of State”)
While Fela himself escaped with his life, his elderly mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was not so fortunate. She herself was something of a “troublemaker”, an active and outspoken campaigner for women’s rights. She was thrown from a window on the third floor of Fela’s commune, lapsing into a coma and succumbing to her injuries two months later. She was seventy-seven.
When the incident was recalled a few years later on Unknown Soldier, Fela’s singing voice was almost choked up with sadness and grief:
“Them throw my mama
Them throw my mama out from window.” (“Unknown Soldier”)
Unknown Soldier goes into even more explicit detail about the events: raping, looting, stealing, arson and not a little violence. You’d think that would have been fair warning — he certainly wouldn’t be so lucky next time — but the attempt at silencing Fela was ultimately futile. His response was quite unique. He took a coffin (presumed to be that of his mother) to Dodan Barracks in Lagos, the residence of General Obasanjo, the head of the military regime at the time. It was something of a symbolic procession in hopes that the military would accept the coffin along with responsibility for its actions, but the end result was rather predictable:
“We go Obalende
We go Dodan barracks
We reach them gate o
We put the coffin down
Obasanjo dey there
With him big fat stomach.
Them no want take am
Who go want take coffin?” (“Coffin for Head of State”)
An official enquiry later ruled that Fela’s commune was destroyed by an “unknown soldier”, referenced in the song of the same name. In a clever analogy, he referred to this practice as “government magic” in the way the whole incident miraculously disappeared into insignificance.
Fela finally concludes with:
“Them turn green into red
Them turn blue into white
Them turn green into blue
I’m finished, mother.” (“Unknown Soldier”)
And thus concludes the story. No riding off into the sunset, no happily ever after, just a continuing struggle which now passes to the next generation. No formal apology has ever been made, and the government still does not accept responsibility for the murder of Fela’s mother. Calls to immortalize her on the proposed 5,000 Naira ($30/£18) note were halted when the proposal was withdrawn.
Although Fela never lived to see the boom of the Internet age (he died aged fifty-eight of Kaposi’s sarcoma tumour in August 1997), his music — as well as its message — is very much alive and moving freely. The three albums I’ve mentioned, Zombie, Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier, I rate among his finest work. They’re not just Fela up on his soapbox preaching to the masses, they’re Fela speaking from personal experience and with great conviction. Sure, they’re catchy, funky and downright infectious (not to mention inspirational — just ask David Byrne), they make you sit up and listen.