In 1987 I was a young college student living in Austin, Texas. One afternoon I picked up the local alternative weekly, the Austin Chronicle, and took it home to read. Inside , there was a long article about an African musician, composer, instrumentalist, and activist named Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-1997). The writer was obviously a big fan of African music and was quite knowledgeable about this man known simply as ‘Fela.’ As I recall, comparatively little of the article was about his music. Most of it concerned Fela’s iconic status in Africa, his ongoing battles with the military junta in Nigeria, his imprisonment, and his promotion of Pan-Africanism.
The occasion of the article was Fela’s upcoming show in Austin. The author pleaded with readers to come out and support Fela and not to miss this rare opportunity to see him play in the United States. I knew absolutely nothing about African music but was so intrigued by the article and the author’s admiration for Fela that I scraped together the money to go to the show.
It would be hard to overstate how unprepared I was for what I was about to witness. For three hours, I stood mostly uncomprehending, and wondered just what I had stumbled into. Somewhere between 15 and 20 musicians and dancers crowded the stage, with a large horn section including multiple saxophones. Fela himself alternated between singing, playing the organ and playing the tenor saxophone. He sang in pidgin English and occasionally in Yoruba. He played syncopated rhythms on the organ which sounded wild and strange to my ears.
When I arrived home after the show, my roommates asked how the show was. I replied, “I’m not sure. I think it was good. It was certainly interesting. I didn’t understand most of it. It had great rhythm but I didn’t know how to dance to it.”
I put Fela into the back of my mind and didn’t come across his music very often for the next 10 years. I almost forgot about him. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I started to collect and listen to his recordings, mostly his seminal work from the 1970s. One of my friends who was a musician and a big fan burned eight or nine of Fela’s best cds for me. Once I started to play them regularly on my stereo and really listen to the music, Fela became something of an obsession. His musical style, which is called ‘Afrobeat’ is a synthesis of Funk, Jazz, Highlife, and West African chants and rhythms. The combination of the ‘endless groove’ , hypnotic beats, soaring trumpet and saxophone solos and socially and politically conscious lyrics produced an intoxicating effect. No matter how bad of a mood I am in, after I play a half hour of Fela, I feel better.
I’m still discovering new tracks from his large discography, available online. Most of the ‘greatest hits’ collections include classics such as Zombie, No Agreement, Sorrow,Tears and Blood, Colonial Mentality, Expensive Shit, Shuffering and Shmiling, Gentleman, and Lady. However, there are many other other less well-known and obscure tracks that are worth exploring at leisure.
Over one million people attended Fela’s funeral in Lagos in 1997. His death was mourned by Africans particularly, but also by musical fans and admirers all over the world. His legacy lives on through his recordings and his children, many of whom are fine musicians in their own right, such as his son Femi Kuti. In recent years, a musical based on his life has been a smash hit on and off Broadway. New Afrobeat bands are springing up all the time, paying homage to the master. ‘Albino’, based in San Francisco, is one of my favorites.
It’s rare to hear Fela on the radio or in clubs outside Africa, but surprises do happen. A couple of years ago, I was walking up a steep cobblestoned street in the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. I had read about a hipster club that was worth checking out. As I approached the door, I heard the unmistakable strains of Zombie coming through the door. I leapt for joy and bolted through the door and shouted at the bartender, “Turn it up! Yes!”
A few months ago, here in Ho Chi Minh City Viet Nam, I went into a club and the dj, a real afrobeat aficionado, was playing Fela non-stop for hours. What a treat.
Most of Fela’s songs are lengthy by modern standards, and last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes or more. Needless to say, that format did not lend itself to airplay on rock and R and B stations. As a consequence, his listening audience in America and Europe never reached the numbers of other musicians who composed music in a more digestible format. Commercial radio never warmed to Fela. If you were lucky, perhaps you were exposed to him on an alternative or independent station in a large city, or maybe on college radio.
Today, I play Fela for my students and I tell them, “Sit down and listen to this man!” After three or four minutes, they beg me to turn it off.
“That’s horrible. Please turn it off. Can you play some K-Pop, please?” I chuckle and recall my first experience with Fela Kuti. This is music you need to come at gradually, warming up first with some exposure to Highlife music and jazz. Otherwise, it’s like walking outside from a dark room at noon and looking directly at the sun. Too much, too soon.