On the way home in a cab from the National Film Awards a couple of years ago, myself and actor and firm friend Johnny Harris, were celebrating him winning the award in the ‘Breakthrough Performance’ category and his film ‘Jawbone’ picking up the ‘Best Action Film’ win in general.
Our driver was genuinely happy for us and we got talking to him about the film etc. and then Johnny kindly mentioned I had made a jazz documentary. The driver became very interested and asked who was the subject. When I said Tubby Hayes, he exclaimed he was a big fan of Tubby’s and name checked some of Hayes’ albums by way of backing that up.
He then went on to say that he was a musician himself by the name of Dele Sosimi and had played with Fela Kuti from 1979 to 1986 and now played piano in the African Jazz Explosion All Stars. Sadly he couldn’t make regular money doing that, hence the cab work.
For the rest of the journey, we chatted about my own interest in Fela and he gave me a list of tunes to check out on YouTube, which became a proper insight to Kuti’s work.
Fela Kuti was a name that I had tried to engage with for a few years, but in truth it had been hard because of the body of work he had amassed. I didn’t really know where to start with this multi- instrumentalist and a fervent human rights activist, seemingly constantly at war with those in authority in his native Nigeria.
I had picked up on the odd tune here and there like ‘High Life Time’ and ‘Scatter Scatter’ but always felt the need to investigate more.
So, as there is no time like the present…
He was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938, and known as Fela from early on among those in his middle class family set up. His mother, Chief Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was a feminist activist who lived by the motto ‘The Secret of Life is To Have No Fear.’ His father was the Reverend Israel, a minister in the Anglican Church and president of the Union of Teachers in that country.
Fela attended the grammar school in his hometown, and then went on to study medicine in London at the age of 20 in 1958. However, soon after arriving, he switched career paths and went instead towards music and landed at the Trinity College of Music to study piano and composition as well as brushing up on his trumpet skills.
The sound of the music he performed at this time would be described as ‘Highlife’ which was basically traditional African rhythms mainly from Ghana combined with Jazz infused brass sounds. His first band, Koola Lobitos, was made up of musicians from the Caribbean and West Africa and they proved very popular particularly in the early black communities of the UK, and were signed to EMI/Parlophone.
Fela himself was also a regular face at London jazz clubs and subsequently Koola Lobitos regularly played The Flamingo Club in Wardour Street. Around this time Kuti first hooked up with legendary drummer Ginger Baker, who would later live and record in Nigeria among the Kuti community
‘He was a trumpeter then’ Baker later recalled of those times in the very early 1960s’ and he was good too.’
Kuti married Remilekun (Remi) Taylor in 1960 and had 3 children Femi, Yeni and Sola. By 1963 they were back in the newly independent Nigeria and Fela was training with the Nigerian Broadcasting Cooperation as a general producer.
His band continued however and were very popular in an around the Lagos area supporting the likes of Millie Small and Chubby Checker to name but two.
‘Afrobeat’ had become central to his sound in 1967, after visits to Ghana. This was a mixture of Jazz, Funk and ‘Highlife’, mixed with traditional Yoruba sounds soon became the way forward for him music wise.
During 1969, he spent 10 months in Los Angeles and became aware of the Black Panther Party, which helped sharpen his political views from them on.
‘Being African didn’t mean anything to me until later in my life’ he said in the mid-80s. ‘When I was young we weren’t even allowed to speak our own languages in school. They called it ‘vernacular’, as if only English was the real tongue.’
His music also hardened with his lyrics now radical and politicised and concentrating on social issues. The band now called ‘Afrika ’70’ with legendary drummer Tony Allen in the forefront of the line up.
‘Yes, if you are in England, the music can be an instrument of enjoyment. You can sing about love, you can sing about whom you are going to bed with next. But in my own environment, my society is underdeveloped because of an alien system on our people. So there is no music enjoyment. There is nothing like love. There is something like struggle for people’s existence.’
He set up his own commune called the Kalkuta Republic, which included living quarters, and a recording studio. He also had his own club to perform in, first named the ‘Afro Spot’, which later became ‘The Shrine.’ Among many who would later play there, Stevie Wonder ignored the authorities to do so.
At ‘The Shrine’ bands often played until dawn rose.
Kuti changed his name to Anikulapo, meaning ‘He who carries death in his pouch.’
He also declared his old name ‘Ransome’ to be that of the slave trade.
As a social commentator, he criticised his fellow Africans – especially the upper class – for betraying traditional African culture.
He thought that art, and thus his own music, should have political meaning. By singing in ‘Pidgin English’ he picked up fans from all over Africa and his fame and name began to spread globally too. Back home though, fans of his music and the message it contained were rare in the now acknowledged corrupt Government. As a consequence, raids on his premises became a regular occurrence.
1n 1977, up to a thousand soldiers attacked his commune, raping many there and Kuti himself took a severe beating. His mother was thrown from a window and died as a result of her injuries 3 months later. During the raid, the place was torched and his studio and master tapes destroyed.
The man was undaunted though. In 1978 he married 27 women (many of them backing singers) in a traditional Yoruba ceremony. The Kalkuta Republic was formed in part as a Polygamist colony. It is said the occasion was also undertaken to dispel rumours that he had kidnapped the women.
Fela also formed his own political party, the Movement of the People (MOP) and tried to run in the Nigerian Presidential elections, but was refused to do so by those in authorities.
His band were now named ‘Egypt 80’ reflecting his idea ‘that Egyptian civilization, knowledge, philosophy, mathematics, and religious systems are African.’
Still the persecution continued and he was imprisoned in 1984, which resulted in Amnesty International designating him as a ‘prisoner of conscience.’ He was released after 20 months, and promptly divorced 12 of this wives. He then went back on the road to tour the US and Europe complete with a 50 strong entourage.
In the early 90s, news emerged that he was suffering from an illness but had refused treatment, said to bin denial of what he was suffering from. In August 1997, he was pronounced dead as a result of complications due to Aids/HIV. He was 58.
His brother Olikoye, known as Beko, a noted doctor and public health campaigner, delivered the news and it in turn jolted Aids awareness in Africa. However, there is still doubt from some as to the official cause of Fela’s death.
Over a million people lined the route of his funeral and he was buried in the grounds of the Kalkuta.
Fela Kuti was father to seven children and his sons Femi and Seun now perform in the ‘Afrobeat’ mould with Seun fronting his father’s old band ‘Egypt 80.’ The ‘New Afrika Shrine’ has opened since Fela’s death, under the supervision of Femi.
Before I close here are a few of the tunes Dele tipped me off onto. They include ‘Ololufe Mi’ ‘V.C.7.’ ‘Orise’ ‘My Lady Frustration’ ‘Gentleman’ ‘Water Got No Enemy’ ‘No Agreement’ and ‘Africa, Centre of the World ‘ with Roy Ayers.
I’ll leave the last word on this intriguing character to the newspaper The Herald Sun who said of him…
‘Imagine Che Guevara and Bob Marley rolled into one person and you get a sense of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti.’
The Mumper of SE5