Fela Kuti Profile
Photo: Bernard Matussière
The Nigerian superstar helped invent Afrobeat, which has gone on to become one of the most popular styles of world music
While the Sex Pistols were leading the punk insurgency in the UK in 1977, Nigeria was rocking to the insurrectionary sound of Fela Kuti, whose big hit that year was ‘Zombie’, a coruscating song which lambasted the corruption of the country’s leaders.
The Sex Pistols were banned and harried from pillar to post, but it was mostly media froth. Kuti’s punk spirit was punished with a far more violent response: soldiers burnt his compound to the ground and destroyed his studio. Characteristically he responded in the only way he knew how: by recording a set of even more incendiary songs.
Born in Lagos in 1938, Fela Ransome-Kuti studied saxophone and composition at London’s Trinity College of Music and became a star in Nigeria in the 1960s playing a sophisticated mix of highlife and jazz with his band Koola Lobitos.
A visit to America in 1969 exposed him to the revolutionary ideas of black power movement and the funk music that soundtracked it. He renamed his band Africa 70 and launched the dynamic sound that came to be known as Afrobeat, fusing jazz, funk, traditional African trance grooves, provocative lyrics in pidgin English and call-and-response vocals.
An outsize character for whom life, art, politics and music inextricably combined into a single incendiary package, he recorded countless albums filled with sprawling, serpentine tracks of transgressive genius that filled entire sides of vinyl.
His existence was turbulent, volatile and tempestuous and on his death in 1997 at the age of 58 from an AIDS-related illness, hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Lagos to say farewell. Since his demise his reputation has continued to grow and as a voice from the developing world, perhaps only Bob Marley has been more influential on the global musical mainstream.