With Felabration just around the corner, we have selected ten of Fela Kuti’s best songs
October 15 marks what would be Fela Kuti’s 77th birthday. As well as the annual Felabration in Nigeria, London will be throwing its own birthday party at the British Library on October 16. In celebration of the life of the social maverick, human rights activist, and the creator of Afrobeat, we have put together our selection of Fela Kuti’s top ten tracks.
‘Why Black Man Dey Suffer’
Taken from the album of the same name, ‘Why Black Man Dey Suffer’ was released in 1971. Originally deemed to be too controversial to be released on EMI, Fela’s label at the time, the African Sounds label in Nigeria released it instead. The song is something of a powerful history lesson on the oppression of the African man, detailing the extent of which black men have suffered, from being used as slaves to having a new culture imposed on them by an alien people. Kuti’s notable drummer Tony Allen is not present on the record – drumming duties are carried out by former Cream member Ginger Baker.
Africans who still had a colonial mentality after the British had left are the subject of Fela Kuti’s ‘Gentleman’. Annoyed by the ‘Anglofied’ Nigerian leaders and upper classes, his lyrics question their authenticity as Africans and continuously asserts that he is ‘African original’ and refuses to be recognised as a gentleman.
‘Confusion’ sees Fela comment on the state of urban Nigeria, particularly its most populous city Lagos. Accompanied by a funky groove carried by the sturdy rhythm of drummer Tony Allen, Kuti captures the frenzied atmosphere of the city detailing the traffic jams, absence of police and masses of regional dialects he witnesses.
One of Fela’s most notable songs, ‘Zombie’ is a scathing attack on the Nigerian military. Over choppy, quick-march instrumentation provided by the Afrika 70 band, Fela calls out orders in the style of an army general, which are then followed by the taunting ‘zombie’ refrain from backing female vocalists. The military, incensed by the composition, responded by burning Fela’s Kalakuta Republic compound to the ground and beating him to near-death.
Despite the attack on the Kalakuta Republic compound, Fela continued to produce outstanding material. ‘Stalemate’ was released only a few months after ‘Zombie’ but is instead carried by a gentle, laid-back groove that complements Fela’s relaxed delivery rather than the frantic energy of the latter track. He provides the listener with situations where two people use logic rather than violence to resolve their conflicts.
‘Shuffering and Shmiling’
Fela did not solely point out political injustice in his music, but what he saw as religious injustice also. ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’ sees him critique the hypocrisies of organised religion, particularly Islam and Christianity, and those who blindly follow it, who suffer ‘with a smile on their face all the while believing they have a reward coming in their afterlife.’
‘International Thief Thief’ sees Fela fiercely attack two of his biggest nemeses, former Nigeria president Olusegun Obasanjo and the former boss of the Nigerian Decca Records Moshood Abiola, who both worked for the Internal Telephone & Telegraph Corporation. He calls them out as ‘rats’, ‘thieves’ and having ‘low mentality.’
‘Coffin for Head of State’
During the raid of Fela’s Kalakuta Republic in 1977, his mother was thrown out of a second-story window and sustained multiple severe injuries that contributed to her passing the next year. Fela, saddened by her death, blamed the Nigerian government for her death and, accompanied with family and friends, carried her coffin to the gates of the army barracks. ‘Coffin for Head of State’ recorded several years after the ordeal is an emotional tribute to his mother, and his reflections on the state of his country.
‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’
‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’ is Fela’s exploration of the ‘teacher’ as a concept, explaining that throughout our lives taught by our parents, lecturers and the government. Made with his then new Egypt 80 band, the song showcases a clearer production than the preceding material he had made in the last decade with his older band.
A track from Underground System, the last of Fela’s original recordings before his passing in 1997, ‘Pansa Pansa’ was first performed in 1977. At an appearance at the Berlin Jazz Festival a year later he revealed that it had been inspired by African friends who would tell him that he should stop speaking the truth and protesting in his music. His response was that the government was only going to hear ‘pansa pansa’ (meaning ‘more more’) if Nigeria’s rulers were to continue their corruption. A fitting end to one of Africa’s greatest musicians.