Thursday, July 06, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 016: Fela Anikulapo Kuti: Zombie

Fela Kuti, born to an upper-class Christian preacher father and a Maoist mother in Abeokuta Nigeria in 1938, might possibly be the most dangerous musician ever to come out of Africa. A composer, singer, saxophonist, keyboardist, and legendary bandleader, he was also a notorious foe of the corruption, brutality, Euro-centrism, and stupidity of a series of Nigerian military dictatorships. After taking a degree in jazz from the London Conservatory of Music, he came back to Lagos, bought land in the middle of the Sirulere Ghetto, and put together a band.

In 1968-69 he and the band spent six months visa-less, starving in Los Angeles, during which Fela was exposed to the late-60s experiments of Miles Davis and James Brown (both of whom in this period were “re-Africanizing” their music, expanding their bands, and sinking deeper and deeper into a world of polyrhythmic grooves) and to the rhetoric and politics of the Black Panthers. He adopted all three, married them to an African concept of polygamy, tribal community, and the musician’s power to criticize, and released the first in a series of LP-length recordings which would make him notorious throughout Africa.

By the mid-70s, his Sirulere compound had expanded to include a nightclub (“The Shrine”), recording studio, pressing plant, newspaper printing press, radio station, and an extended family of multiple wives, children, and runaway street children, enclosed by an electrified fence. Fela named it the Kalakuta Republic, and declared it an independent state not subject to the laws of the military. It was just down the street from Alagbon Close military barracks. Throughout this period Fela released records which married hellacious grooves, jazz-inspired brass and reeds improvisation, James Brown’s use of cuing and call-and-response, and Panther-esque political diatribes, delivered in the “pidgin” which was the lingua franca of West Africa. Discs like Roforofo Fight (1972), Alagbon Close (1974), and Confusion (1975) used the traditional musician’s position of prominence, but unlike a traditional musician, Fela pointed fingers, named names, and damned those he deemed guilty in scabrously funny language.

These albums were wildly popular across West Africa, even though Fela himself was thought of as a “crazy person”—a notoriety upon which he of course traded. Album covers, painted in the style of Nigerian market novels, offered brutal caricatures of the political figures named within (1989’s Beasts of No Nation depicted Thatcher, Botha, and Reagan with demonic horns and fangs dripping blood, and 1975’s Expensive Shit depicted Fela and his many bare-breasted wives grinning and giving the Black-Power salute behind barbed wire), but the military was caught on the horns of the classic dilemma which political musicians from Zappa to Victor Jara to Ventadorn have exploited: ignore the critique and your regime seems inneffectual; repress it and you legitimize it as a real threat (hear that, Chimpie?). 1976’s Zombie pictured Nigerian soldiers, and the title song and its accompanying stage business made the mockery explicit: “Zombie na go go unless you tell ‘im to go—Zombie na go stop unless you tell ‘im to stop—Zombie na go t’ink unless you tell ‘im to t’ink—Zombie na go kill unless you tell ‘im to kill—GO AND KILL!”, while Fela would drape his saxophone over his shoulder as if sloping arms, and goose-step around the stage.

In 1977, during a pan-African festival which Nigeria was hosting as a means of burnishing the regime’s image, Fela ran a counter-festival at The Shrine, widely attended by the politicians and musicians visiting from the West, during which he continued his brutal attacks on the government. Just after FESTAC’s closing, soldiers came to Kalakuta to arrest one of the extended family. Fela refused them entrance and electrified the fence, at which the soldiers broke in, beat Fela within an inch of his life and broke his hands, destroyed the recording studio, instruments, printing press, and master tapes, raped his wives, and threw Fela’s aged mother from a second story window. He fled to Ghana, and from his hospital bed, released an LP commemorating the incident: Sorrow, Tears and Blood. Upon his mother’s death from her injuries, Fela led a parade of the poor from Kalakuta through Sirulere to the gates of Alagbon Close, where he deposited his mother’s remains, an event depicted in the next LP, Coffin for Head of State.

I saw Fela play in 1988 in Vancouver: I had been traveling, by plane, bus, and cab for 18 hours, but Dharmonia had got tickets and we went, and I’m glad we did. The band was immense (percussionists, two bassists, dancers, singers, horns, multiple guitars, etc) and Fela spent much of the concert storming back-and-forth across the stage, ranting at the audience about the shame that “you Americans” were about to incur by electing George HW Bush. The Vancouverites’ feeble “but we’re Canadian, eh!” were lost on him. I had the good fortune to write about him in the dissertation and to publish that essay; the least I could do for one of my great heros.

Fela understood like few others ever had just how much power a musician in African culture can have, and how much more power he can accrue by dancing along the edge of the semiotic precipice.

Certainly one of the bravest musicians there ever was. The rest of us could learn some courage from him.

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