Jump! The Legend of FELA KUTI
The year was 1970. Three years of war had wrought havoc on the music industry in the East of Nigeria. Like parched land soaking up water, we listened to everything: soul, highlife, juju, pop-local and foreign, everything! Out of this mix came Jeun K’oku! A shockingly smooth and exciting lyric with a dancing step of its own: Jeun K’oku o, Ode! Parara (horn riff) Chop and quench, Ode! Parara…Hey hey hey…
That was our heady introduction to Fela Ransome-Kuti, in a singles vinyl disc of those days. He employed a distinctive echo to make this recording so memorable. Soon also, his showmanship became a trademark of the Fela brand. The piano riffs for example. And the horn solos. The yabis too, his scathing repertoire of criticisms targeted mostly at the government and its high officials. Oh, his dress sense too; the tight fitting, sometimes embroidered native suits he wore until death- that marked him out from the bell-bottomed crowd of the era.
The Afro Spot was his place and pulpit. With regular posts in the newspaper, he invited Lagosians to the Jump as he called the weekend gigs. The shows became a social compass for the incrowd and a baptism followed, Afrobeat. Nothing special really, because it was the habit of musicians those days, even till the eighties, to coin names for their brand of music, which never amounted to much really-just a wish to be different. Victor Uwaifo gave us his Ekassa Sound, Sony Okosun spoke of Oziddism, a blend of pop and highlife topped by reggae musical expressions, while Sunny Ade tweaked the grassroots juju beat with the novelty of a Syncro System. But none of the myriads of musical monikers has survived till date, except Afrobeat.
To prove his mettle further, Fela produced a mélange of nearly four releases in 1971 alone that showcased a versatile range of interpretations, from the largely jazzy Fela’s London Scene, the pounding, Live! album which presented a new face of rock music, with masks and moon light dancing through the rolling dance of Tony Allen’s drumsticks and the throbbing mix of conga drums. Returning to Nigeria, Fela regaled his fan base with Why Blackman Dey Suffer and the seductive Open and Close with its dance lesson and resonant lyrics. No gainsaying that the Live! recording established Fela’s beat around the world, though he would admit that “there would have been no Afrobeat without Tony Allen,” Lagos born drummer of Ghanaian descent who died in France in 2020, during the Covid pandemic.
Allen was with Fela from the start at the Koola Lobitos, Fela’s neophyte group during his student days at the Royal College of Music, London. Back to Nigeria in 1963 and through his job-hunting days at the Army Band and later the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, the Lobitos, played sparingly at social occasions as Fela sparred with the more established highlife musicians of the time. The entertainment pages of the West African Pilot, Sunday Times, the Sketch and others, chronicled his altercations with Rex Jim Lawson and the reigning musicians of the time for reasons that did not always have to do with music. He sought recognition as an “educated” musician, but they scoffed at his paper qualification. Then Fela travelled to the US in 1970 and returned as a fighter for black rights. He changed the name of the band to Africa ’70 and with it a new persona was born as he introduced Afrobeat into the musical lexicon.
Deny it who can, Fela became sharper with Shakara and Lady in 1972, alongside Roforofo Fight. Fela, the “troublemaker” came into existence about this time, who used his Mercedes Benz to carry firewood across the busy Yaba end of Idi Iroko/ Fadeyi/ Ikorodu Road merely to prove that he did not give a hoot for the “skin pain” of government officials, military and civilian alike, who thought that the classy, expensive car denoted worth and achievement. On occasions, he rode a donkey on the streets, causing the traffic to jam behind him as commuters ogled and cheered or booed. It was all the same to the errant gadfly he had become. I no be gentleman at all, he sang in 1973 to concretize his world view and persona.
The stories we heard about this lithe character in far flung places beyond the federal capital were legion and varied. Each quip, anecdote or fabulous story underlined a naughty, irreverent spirit much admired by the youth of the day. He spoke the truths they dared not express for fear of retribution by the powers that were. Most times too, he put his views across in Pidgin English, the street lingo closest to their hearts and brains. Agents of government gave Fela a hard time. Fela did not fight shy of stating his side of the argument. In lyric after lyric such as Confusion, Expensive Shit, He Miss Road and the hugely successful and ever popular Water No Get Enemy, he espoused a new ethic that spoke truth to power without reserve.
I have read that Fela took his chant and response singing style from James Brown. Perhaps, during that trip to the States. Unbelievable, I say. By ’75, Fela had put a stamp on Afrobeat by which it could be recognised anywhere. His stature grew as well so that he had regular playing engagements in Europe and the United States. The beat was jazzy, and rocked audiences in a very African way. Plus, he dispensed with the love and romance of Western music idioms and immersed his music in local social concerns.
Then came Zombie, the striking musical composition that showcased his vast creative energy as a singer, composer and arranger. Arguably then, Zombie was the first quintessential Afrobeat tune. Released in 1977, just before Festac ’77- the Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture-which brought international focus on Nigeria through the exhibition of arts and culture from all over the Black and African world. Zombie was a regular feature at the Africa Shrine, yes, the new name of the old Afro Spot.
Visitors from all over came to watch Fela at the Shrine, where he indulged in fetish ceremonies as befitted his newfound rank of Chief Priest. Many thought it was mere theatre, but many also believed in what he preached, a new awareness of African mysticism and a return to his African roots through the worship of Yoruba deities.
But the military authorities were not impressed with the huge publicity that accrued to the Africa Shrine and of course, Zombie, scathing ridicule of military mentality. During Festac, yabis flowed heavily at the Shrine but the military authorities bid their time till the festival was over. Then they descended on Kalakuta Republic, his home in Idi-Oro, with 1,000 soldiers according to Fela in Unknown Soldier, his eponymous song to commemorate the shocking judgement of the tribunal of inquiry set up by government to determine the cause of the inferno that gutted his home.
Like a phoenix of sorts, Fela rose from the ashes of Kalakuta and with new verve and gusto found a new perch on Pepple Street, Ikeja, though the old name Africa Shrine remained. The old rebel remained too, brash, loud, vulgar and disrespectful of moral suasions only bowing to the ideology of Nkrumahism, quaint pan-Africanist world view that comes from the years of the independence struggles around the continent.
Musically, Afrobeat had taken on subtle new weight, beginning from the years of Shakara and Lady but expanding in its dimensions through Zombie to Yellow Fever and sundry compositions like Sorrow, Tears and Blood, also Shuffering and Shmiling. He offered extended elpees with just two compositions consisting of long instrumentals and short vocals. The fans took it in without complaint as Fela rode a huge wave of public acceptance.
Fela was silent from 1978 till 1981, because of his adventure into politics it would seem. The release of Unknown Soldier marked another break till Army Arrangement (1985). Another four-year break occurred before Beasts of No Nation (1989). In several interviews, Fela did indicate that his protestations had taken a huge toll on his energy. He had grown weary of “fighting” and as usual expressed the malevolence of power in a song. Dem go tire your body, Tire your mind… Na that time dem go start dem power show…Na wrong show…
But he continued to express his disgust with the system, even in his last recorded production, Confusion Break Bone. Such was his popularity that the Africa Shrine was always a mecca of ardent fans anytime Fela was to play. Meanwhile, he took musicians like Dede Mabiaku under his wing. Dede would sing Fela’s song on stage with the Egypt ’80 band, new name of the Africa ’70. It was still the tightest band in Nigeria, though a good number of members had deserted him on a trip to Europe during Fela’s venture into politics.
To Fela’s credit, he was able to recruit and train fresh band members as he had always done from hangers on at the Shrine. From him many of the youth who flocked to Kalakuta Republic and the Africa Shrine from wherever learnt to play one instrument or the other or found gainful employment as handymen or skilled technicians. The girls among them became his dancers. Others turned to petty trading of alcohol, food, cigarettes, and marijuana around the premises. Fela could not help it, the crowd of followers simply flowed out of the Shrine and took over the street, much to the dismay and discomfort of his neighbors who argued that he was a bad influence on their wards.
They wanted him evicted by the police. But after the burning of Kalakuta and the losses he suffered as a result, Fela had become almost untouchable among the hierarchy of law enforcement officers. In typical Fela fashion, he told his traducers that a Shrine chose its place and cannot be relocated. As if to imitate the words of, Stalemate, his song of the seventies, the Shrine remained om Pepple Street and his neighbours continued to fret and curse till his death in October 1997.
Fate took its course and afterwards the entire adugbo of Pepple Street and environs morphed into the present-day Computer Village of Ikeja, hub of the neophyte information technology industry in Nigeria. Today, 25 years after Fela the ever-busy area bears little resemblance to the old Pepple Street. A good thing too because, there can never be another Fela Anikulapo Kuti, middle name he took after the debacle at Empire Hotel when uniform clad thugs, raided Kalakuta Republic, the artiste commune he had created in the seventies.
That was the Fela who took the communal name of his Egba extended clan to himself; Anikulapo- We’ve got death in our pocket. Later, in the 80’s some close fans named him Abami Eda –the Dreadful or Fearful One, and Fela reveled in it. This same Fela married 27 wives in one day, women who came to and found a home in Kalakuta, the old commune in Idi Oro and worked as dancers, traders or handygirls. Why did he do that? Because people had said, and it was adduced at the tribunal of inquiry into the burning of the place, that he had kidnapped them. The Fela, who cared less about appearing naked in panties only for photo shoots, who bragged always about his sexual prowess. That Fela is gone; the stuff of legend such that his entire discography cannot contain. But Afrobeat his creative legacy (with Tony Allen!) lives in the generation of latter-day adherents-fans and musicians alike-beginning with his sons, Femi, Seun and grandson, Made in the forefront of those who keep the horns blowing in the wind, the drums pounding still. And not forgetting others like Dede Mabiaku, Dele Sosinmi also on the trail and taking the beat beyond Ikeja to places like Ghana and England.
But as Fela would say, that is matter for a future symposium!