Posts Tagged ‘fela kuti’

10 Fela Kuti tracks that you need to hear

Posted on October 13th, 2015 in Recent posts by .


Bernard Matussière

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.

‘Pansa Pansa’

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.


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A to Z of World Music

Posted on September 30th, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .


Confused, bewildered and overwhelmed by the mayhem of global sounds? World music is a maze. And what you need is a good map. So here is our A to Z of world music, taking you from Africa Express to Zimbabwe, from Balkan brass to qawwali and from cumbia to WOMAD. Words: Simon Broughton, Jane Cornwell & Nigel Williamson. Illustration: Andy Potts

atozAAfrica Express

Many Western pop stars develop a fascination with African music but their interest seldom goes much further than incorporating an Afrobeat rhythm or a Touareg guitar groove into their own work. Blur’s Damon Albarn was determined to take the process to another level with Africa Express, creating an open-door platform to bring together African and Anglo-American musicians. Over the last decade, Africa Express has curated a series of fascinating collaborations, both onstage and on record, as the likes of Paul McCartney, Paul Weller and Roots Manuva have jammed with Amadou & Mariam, Bassekou Kouyaté and countless others, exposing African music to a mainstream rock audience as never before. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Various Artists, Africa Express Presents Terry Riley’s in C Mali (Transgressive, 2014)


atozBBalkan Brass

There’s been a big boom in Balkan brass in recent years, kicked off by Emir Kusturica and Goran Bregović in the landmark film Underground. It’s become an international party music led by Serbia’s Boban Marković, Macedonia’s Kočani Orkestar and Romania’s Fanfare Ciocărlia. The huge Guča festival has become symbol of Balkan brass in all its intoxicating excess. But the music is nothing new. It was born from a fusion of the military bands of the Ottoman Turks and the Habsburg Empire in the 19th century. SB

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Boban & Marko Marković Orchestra vs Fanfare Ciocărlia, Balkan Brass Battle (Asphalt Tango, 2011)



Originating in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region, the rhythms of cumbia are said to lie in a courtship dance practiced among African slaves, but were swiftly fused with Hispanic influences to create a tropical Afro-Caribbean dance style that went viral across South America. The golden age of traditional cumbia came in the mid-20th century when its influence reached North America and the likes of Nat King Cole recorded cumbia songs. But in recent years the music has been given a contemporary, urban twist to enjoy a thrilling revival on club dance floors as tecnocumbia and nu-cumbia, incorporating elements of hip-hop, dancehall, dub and electronica. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Various Artists, The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network, 2013)


atozDDiabaté dynasty

West African musical heritage has for centuries been preserved by a hereditary griot caste that has handed down traditional knowledge and virtuosi from father to son. Toumani Diabaté, currently the poet laureate among the world’s kora players, claims a griot lineage of family musicians stretching back 71 generations. His father, Sidiki Diabaté, who originally hailed from the Gambia, was a kora player of legendary fame and his younger brother Mamadou Sidiki Diabaté is a prominent virtuoso. Toumani’s son, also named Sidiki, is the latest recruit to the family tradition, recently recording a spectacular album of kora duets with his father. Another branch of the family, the Jobartehs, continues to dominate Gambian kora playing. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, Toumani & Sidiki (World Circuit, 2014)


atozEÉthiopiques series

The golden age of Ethiopian music ran from the 1950s to the 70s, when the likes of Mahmoud Ahmed, Tlahoun Gèssèssè and Mulatu Astatke filled the nightclubs of Addis Ababa with an intoxicating style of Ethio-jazz, which hypnotically blended pentatonic Ethiopian scales with Western instrumentation. This spectacular but fading heritage was brought back into the spotlight by the award-winning Éthiopiques series of CD reissues, launched by the French ethnomusicologist Francis Falceto on Buda Musique in 1998, and which now runs to a treasure trove of 29 volumes. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Various Artists, The Very Best of Éthiopiques (Manteca, 2007)



There’s been a recent revival of Portuguese fado as a new generation of young artists have become interested in its melancholic beauty. The music was born in Lisbon in the early 19th century, became internationally famous in the 1950s, thanks to Amália Rodrigues, but was seen as tainted by the fascist regime a er the revolution that overthrew the dictatorship in 1974. That’s now forgotten and singers like Mariza, Ana Moura, Cristina Branco, Carminho and Gisela João have driven a spectacular rebirth in Portugal and increasingly around the world. Male singers seem less exportable but Carlos do Carmo and Ricardo Ribeiro are superb. And fado’s secret weapon, of course, is the tingling beauty of the Portuguese guitar. SB See also The Songlines Essential 10: Portuguese Fado Albums.

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Mariza, Transparente (EMI, 2005)



Paul Simon landed himself in hot water when he flew to South Africa in 1985 to begin recording Graceland with black township musicians. Accused of breaking the UN’s cultural boycott against the apartheid regime, with the distance of time the controversy now seems perverse and his response unanswerable. ‘What it represented was the essence of anti-apartheid in that it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed,’ he said. ‘It was completely the opposite from what the apartheid regime said, which is that one group of people were inferior. Here, there were no inferiors or superiors, just an acknowledgement of everybody’s work as a musician. It was a powerful statement.’ Whatever the politics, he created a landmark album in the history of world music, which won a Grammy award and took the likes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to a global audience. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Paul Simon, Graceland (Warner Bros, 1986)


atozHGeorge-Kahumoku-Jr-Matt-Thayer-Free1Hawaiian slack-key

One of the world’s greatest acoustic guitar traditions, this solo fingerpicked style is as it says: the practice of loosening some strings from standard tunings to make opening tunings. Sweet and soulful, personal and flexible, with the thumb playing bassline and the fingers improvising around the melody, slack-key has been evolving since the 1830s (when Spanish and Mexican cowboys brought guitars to Hawaii) but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it surged in popularity. Look out for albums by late elders such as Gabby Pahinui and Sonny Chillingworth and by George Kahumoku Jr and young innovator, Makana Cameron. JC

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Makana Cameron, Ki Ho’Alu: A Journey of Hawaiian Slack Key (Punahele, 2003)


atozIIsland Records

Founded by Chris Blackwell, Island Records brought reggae to the world in the 1970s via the likes of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals and Burning Spear. Inspired by the label’s success in transforming a rhythm from a tiny Caribbean island into a global musical powerhouse, in the 80s it became the first major label to take world music seriously, signing King Sunny Adé, Salif Keita, Angélique Kidjo and Baaba Maal, among others. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM King Sunny Adé, Juju Music (Island, 1982)


atozJAntônio Carlos Jobim

The compositions of the classically-trained ‘Tom’ Jobim encapsulate the essence of Brazilian cool. The prime mover behind the creation of bossa nova, his ‘Garota de Ipanema’ (The Girl from Ipanema) is not only the best-known example of the lilting genre but became one of the most recorded songs of all time after bossa nova took off not only in Rio but conquered the world and was championed by American jazz musicians. Jobim’s compositions have been recorded by almost every significant Brazilian artist and the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, both of whom recorded entire albums of his songs. NW See also Bossa nova – the Ultimate Guide

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Antônio Carlos Jobim, The Girl from Ipanema: The Antônio Carlos Jobim Songbook (Verve, 1995)


atozKFela-Kuti-free2Fela Kuti

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, aka ‘he who carries death in his pouch,’ wasn’t just the man who invented Afrobeat, that fiery mix of jazz, soul, funk, highlife and traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian music. He was one of the 20th century’s most influential African figures. A singer, saxophonist and bandleader whose music gave voice to the oppressed, he withstood the wrath of corrupt Nigerian governments. When Fela died in 1997, a million people joined his funeral procession through Lagos. His sons Femi and Seun, along with the likes of Dele Sosimi are keeping the Afrobeat flag flying. JC See also Fela Kuti: A Beginner’s Guide

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Fela Kuti, The Best of the Black President, Vols 1 & 2 (Knitting Factory Records)


atozLAlan Lomax

A recent biography of the folklorist Alan Lomax was subtitled The Man Who Recorded the World. And it was no exaggeration, for Lomax’s role in preserving folk music from around the globe was unparalleled. His starting point was accompanying his father on his first field trip to the Deep South in 1933, the pair discovered Lead Belly and recorded his vast repertoire. Working for the Library of Congress, Lomax recorded the likes of Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie and Big Bill Broonzy and then turned his attention to the rest of the world, in particular Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Russia, Romania and the Caribbean. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Various Artists, Alan Lomax Popular Songbook (Rounder, 2003)

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A to Z of World Music (Part 2)

Posted on September 30th, 2015 in News, Recent posts by .

atozMMiriam Makeba

Known as ‘Mama Africa’, the singing conscience of her people, Makeba was still a wide-eyed ingénue in her 20s when she went into exile in the late 50s. She became the first black South African artist to become an international star with hits such as ‘Pata Pata’. She was not able to return home to South Africa until 1990. By then she had become perhaps second only to Mandela as an ambassador for those suffering under the yoke of apartheid and an emblem for the perseverance and fortitude of a continent. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Miriam Makeba, Mama Africa (Milan, 2015)



The ney is a reed flute that is central to the mystical Sufi music in Turkey and Iran. When you hear the yearning, breathy, plaintive sounds of the ney you are transported into a spiritual dimension – which is why it’s so frequently used in film soundtracks. It’s at the heart of the music of the Mevlevi (whirling dervishes). Rumi’s most famous poem begins with the ney lamenting being cut from the reed bed as a symbol of man being disconnected from God. As Rumi has become the world’s most popular mystic poet, so the ney has become the mystical instrument of choice worldwide. Foremost among Turkish players, Kudsi Erguner comes from several generations of neyzen in Istanbul and is a true master of the instrument. SB See also Sufi music: A Beginner’s Guide

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Kudsi Erguner, Ney: The Sacred Flute of the Whirling Dervishes (Al Sur, 1996)


atozOOrquesta Buena Vista Social Club

The Buena Vista Social Club was never meant to be a band. But what a band it turned out to be. The Grammy-winning 1997 disc and its follow-up albums made superstars of the likes of crooner Ibrahim Ferrer, pianist Rubén González and the ‘Fiancée of filin,’ Omara Portuondo. They toured the world and then they toured it again, with new members coming in to replace each elderly Cuban maestro who chachachá-ed off to the sky. After 20 glorious years the BVSC recently bid farewell with an extensive world tour deftly prefixed by ‘Orquesta.’ Less adiós, perhaps, than ¡hasta la vista! JC

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Buena Vista Social Club, Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit, 1997)


atozPAstor Piazzolla

Argentinian tango has enjoyed several golden ages inspired by many bold innovators, including such early pioneers as Carlos Gardel and Aníbal Troilo. But it was the work of composer, bandoneón player and arranger Astor Piazzolla from the 1950s onwards that radically opened up tango, incorporating elements from jazz and classical music into a style that came to be known as nuevo tango. A cerebral haemorrhage in 1990 left him in a coma from which he never regained consciousness. He died two years later at the relatively young age of 71 but he’s still tango’s towering titan. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Astor Piazzolla, Tango: Zero Hour (Nonesuch, 1986)



It perhaps seems unlikely that qawwali, a spiritual music from the Islamic shrines of Pakistan and India could become a worldwide musical sensation, but that is what happened thanks to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997). Qawwali as a musical form goes back to the 13th century and features lead and supporting vocals, with clapping and percussion. It envelops you like an ocean. Nusrat had long been recognised as a sensational performer in Pakistan, and then started performing in the West. His performances at WOMAD led to several recordings for Real World and collaborations with Michael Brook. SB See also Sufi music: A Beginner’s Guide

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mustt Mustt (Real World, 1990)



The name derives from the Spanish word rumbo, which means ‘par ,’ and although, like salsa, the term has become something of a catch-all, its use invariably guarantees a good time. In Cuba, rumba was initially used to describe a specific dance form but became a term for almost any percussive, upbeat party music. ‘El Manisero’ (The Peanut Vendor), which became the first Cuban million-seller in the 1930s, is widely acknowledged as the launch pad of a pre-rock’n’roll worldwide ‘rumba craze’ spearheaded by the likes of Pérez Prado and Beny Moré. It remains at the heart of Cuban dance music but has also migrated to Africa where rumba congolaise evolved into soukous, while flamenco rumba and rumba catalane are popular forms in Spain. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Beny Moré with Pérez Prado and His Orchestra, El Barbaro del Ritmo (Pure Sounds, 1995)



‘S’ is for sitar and for its most virtuosic exponent – for surely no musician has ever been more synonymous with his instrument than Ravi Shankar. His sitar playing reaffirmed the history and the beauty of Indian classical music and its highest form of expression in the raga. But he was also a great innovator who brought Indian music to Western audiences via collaborations with the likes of violinist Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison. Today his daughter and foremost pupil Anoushka Shankar continues his work. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Ravi Shankar, India’s Master Musician (EMI/Angel, 1999)



The snaking electric guitar lines and funky, camel-gait rhythms of Tinariwen sounded enticingly and exotically new when first unleashed on the world via their debut album in 2001 – the same year the group helped to launch the now famous Festival in the Desert in the remote sand dunes of northern Mali, where the Touareg make their nomadic home. Since then a caravan of further Touareg guitar groups such as Teraka, Toumast and Tamikrest has emerged from the desert to make the sound familiar without ever losing its thrill. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Tinariwen, Aman Iman (Independiente, 2007)


atozUUilleann pipes

‘Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling, from glen to glen, and down the mountain side’ is perhaps the most famous opening line in Irish song – and nothing characterises Celtic music better than the haunting sound of the uilleann pipes. With their bittersweet tone, the Irish pipes have a quite different harmonic structure and richer emotional range than the Scottish bagpipes and have produced a long line of virtuoso players, the most revered of whom is Séamus Ennis (1919-1982), who was first recorded by Alan Lomax in 1951. Na Píobairí Uilleann, co-founded by Ennis in 1968, is an organisation dedicated to the promotion of the uilleann pipes and its music. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Séamus Ennis, Forty Years of Irish Piping (Green Linnet, 1974)



After Sibelius and heavy metal, Värttinä (the Finnish word for ‘spindle’) must be Finland’s biggest musical success. They combine elements of their fellow musicians in their unique approach – Sibelius’ love for the old runo songs of Karelia with the full-on vocal power of metalheads. It’s the fiery female vocals and a sense of women power that makes the Värttinä sound. The group celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2013 and the current vocalists are founding member Mari Kaasinen, together with Susan Aho and Karoliina Kantelinen. SB

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Värttinä, Miero (Real World, 2006)



Founded by Peter Gabriel and some of his mates in 1980, this good-natured celebration of multicultural arts, music and dance takes place each July in the pastoral grounds of Charlton Park, a stately home owned by the Earl of Suffolk, in Wiltshire. Similar events happen in other countries around the world, including Australia’s stellar WOMADelaide. A three-day platform for artists from everywhere, WOMAD is a microcosm of a world we all should be living in, what with its Global Village and one-love vibe. Look out for the tall, trademark silk flags, flapping gently over an alt-music utopia. JC

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Various Artists, 30: Real World at WOMAD (Real World, 2012)



Go anywhere in Greece, and they know the name Xylouris. But go to Crete, the home of this musical dynasty, and they call them by other names too: Psarantonis, the great singer and lyra player; his lute-playing brother, Psaroyiannis; and their late sibling Psaranikos, aka the singer and lyra player Nikos Xylouris, a figurehead for the movement that brought down the military junta in 1973. There’s also George Xylouris, singer, lauto player and Psarantonis’ son; George’s oud-playing brother, Lambis; and sister and singer Nicki. Then there’s George’s three Greek-Australian kids, and George’s current project Xylouris White, a duo with Dirty Three drummer Jim White. Music in the DNA? Obviously. JC

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Psarantonis & the Ensemble Xylouris, Mountain Rebels (Network, 2008)


atozYYoussou-N'Dour-Youri-Lenquette-FreeYoussou N’Dour

The best-known African singer in the world, thanks largely to his collaborations with Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Neneh Cherry for the international 1994 megahit ‘7 Seconds’, Youssou’s celebrity eventually led to him becoming a Senegalese MP. But political office remains secondary to his supple, soulful tenor voice and the thrilling dance style known as mbalax, which he pioneered and has elevated him to the role of globally-feted ambassador not only for Senegalese music but for African culture in general. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Youssou N’Dour, The Guide (Wommat) (Sony, 1994)



Zimbabwe’s transition from white colonial rule to independent republic may have soured in recent years, but its music has provided an indestructible backbeat through good times and bad. The jit jive of the Bhundu Boys made them one of the best-known African acts of the late 80s and the singer and guitarist Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi remains an iconic figure. But the undisputed ‘Lion of Zimbabwe’ is Thomas Mapfumo, who adopted traditional mbira (thumb piano) into a contemporary style and soundtracked the liberation war with his militant chimurenga music. He then became a critic of the Mugabe regime and went into exile in the US, but his music remains as potent as ever. NW

RECOMMENDED ALBUM Thomas Mapfumo, The Chimurenga Singles 1976-1980 (Shanachie, 1984)


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This article originally appeared in Songlines #110 (Aug/Sept 2015). Subscribe to Songlines

Photo credits: George Kahumoku Jr (© Matt Thayer); Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (© Ishida Masataka); Youssou N’Dour (© Youri Lenquette)

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Fela Kuti: A Beginner’s Guide

Posted on August 18th, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .

Nigel Williamson introduces Fela Kuti – a true original: ‘Never have life, politics, art and music been so inextricably linked together in one incendiary, insurrectionary and highly danceable package’

In Nigeria, 1977 will always be remembered as a year of musical revolution. While in the UK the Sex Pistols continued to gain notoriety for ‘Anarchy In The UK’, Lagos was rocking to ‘Zombie’ by Fela Kuti and Africa 70, a far more dangerously subversive record with a feral riff, thunderous brass and lyrics in pidgin English, satirically lambasting the Nigerian military and the corrupt junta it sustained.

The Sex Pistols got themselves banned by the BBC. Fela’s musical insurgency sparked a more violent reaction from the Nigerian establishment. Enraged by his performance of ‘Zombie’ at a festival in Lagos which sparked street riots against the government, on February 18, 1977, Nigeria’s military dictators sent more than 1,000 soldiers to attack Fela and destroy the commune which he had named the ‘Kalakuta (Rascal) Republic’ and declared independent from the Nigerian state.

Fela was severely beaten and his elderly mother thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. His Kalakuta compound was burned to the ground and his studio destroyed along with it. Fela’s response was to record yet more uncompromisingly provocative songs about the incident and its aftermath, such as ‘Coffin for Head of State’ and ‘Unknown Soldier’.

It was just one of the many turbulent episodes in the volatile, tempestuous story of Fela Kuti, but it goes a long way to explaining why more than a decade after his death in 1997, he’s still revered as the most iconic musical figure Africa has ever produced. Never have life, politics, art and music been so inextricably linked together in one incendiary, insurrectionary and highly danceable package. ‘His songs went much further than the usual round-up of protest singers such as Bob Dylan, James Brown or Bob Marley,’ writes John Collins in his book Fela: Kalakuta Notes. His polemic and his music were indivisible and he laid his life on the line in his struggle against injustice, corruption and the abuse of power.

Fela’s personal and musical revolution had its seeds sowed several years earlier, on his first trip to the US in 1969. His band Koola Lobitos had spent the previous half dozen years in Nigeria playing an appealing mix of highlife and jazz. In the US, however, he met Sandra Smith, a member of the Black Panther movement. They became lovers and she introduced him to the radical philosophy of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and other black activists, persuading him to begin writing his own ‘conscious’ lyrics. In Los Angeles, he changed the name of his band to Africa 70 and, inspired by a combination of the black power movement and the funk music that soundtracked it, he formulated his own unique musical vision, which he named Afro-beat.

He made his first recordings in the new style before leaving Los Angeles. Once back in Lagos, he opened a club called the Shrine, started singing in pidgin English rather than in Yoruba – so that his message could be understood all over Africa – and in 1974 set up the Kalakuta Republic as an alternative ‘state within a state’. Despite harassment, beatings, arrests, imprisonment and the distraction of marrying 27 of his backing singers and dancers in a collective ceremony on the same day, he wrote and recorded prolifically – so prolifically that it has become notoriously difficult to negotiate one’s way around his vast back catalogue.

In all, he recorded more than 50 albums of great but often sprawling and radio-hostile music. In the tumultuous 1976-77 period alone, he recorded and released some 15 LPs, mostly containing just one or two uncompromisingly long numbers each. The sheer length of most tracks has also made the compilation of ‘Best of Fela’ and ‘Greatest Hits’ packages problematic, to say the least.

Yet in Afro-beat, and its unique fusion of jazz, funk, traditional African chant and call-and-response vocals, all underpinned by a mighty and endless, trance-like groove, he left behind a legacy that’s unrivalled. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Lagos for Fela’s funeral in 1997 and his beat lives on. But we shall surely not see his like again.

Recommended recordings

fela-kuti-69-sessionsKoola Lobitos The 69 LA Sessions

(Knitting Factory Records)

A fascinating insight into the genesis of Afro-beat, coupling half a dozen previously unreleased jazz-highlife tracks recorded in Lagos between 1964-68 with his first band, Koola Lobitos, and ten visionary tracks recorded in LA in 1969 as he began to reshape the future of African music.

fela-expensive-shitExpensive Shit

(Knitting Factory Records)

Funky, hypnotic trance-like grooves, Fela’s soulful keyboards and propulsive horns on just two long tracks of typically mordant Fela political satire in ‘Water No Get Enemy’ and the title-track, on which he declares ‘I be black power man’. The CD reissue is coupled with the He Miss Road LP, also from 1975.


(Knitting Factory Records)

Many feel the 13 minute title-track was Fela’s finest hour. In nominating it as the sexiest piece of music ever recorded, Damon Albarn described it in #23 as ‘one climax after another’. The CD reissue is augmented with two previously unreleased live tracks from the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1978.

fela-kuti-amsterdamLive In Amsterdam

(Knitting Factory Records)

With his band now renamed Egypt 80, this is arguably the best Fela live recording, from an Amsterdam concert in November 1983, the three elongated tracks stretched out to almost an hour and a half ’s worth of music. You can’t hurry genius.


For more information about Fela Kuti, visit 

This article originally appeared in Songlines #56 (November/December 2008). Subscribe to Songlines

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