Africaman Original

by Carter Van Pelt

first published, The Beat V5/6 1997
photo: Leni Sinclair

A leaden cloud crept over Africa on August 2nd, 1997. Tears flowed from eyes in Nigeria, in Africa, and all over the world. Hearts became heavier. Many wished it hadn't happened. Some accepted it as part of a divine order. Anyone who was conscious of it at all recognized it as the end of an era. The battle hardened and seemingly invincible African music legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti was dead at 58 from heart failure related to AIDS.

To the Pan-African world, Fela was a towering figure who arguably combined elements of pure artistry, political perseverance, and a mystic, spiritual consciousness in a way that no other individual ever has. Musically, he achieved a level comparable to Miles Davis, James Brown, Thelonius Monk, and Bob Marley. At times, he was a Peter Tosh or a Sun Ra, yet more. Politically, he subscribed to the point of view of Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, and Kwame Ture. Spiritually, less is known about Fela, except that his spiritual vision grew from the African tradition and his belief in the sublime power of musicians.

"The world should mourn," said engineer/producer Dennis Bovell, who recorded eight albums worth of material for Fela in the mid-80s. "The world should mourn, especially the African world, because one of its outspoken has spoken. I hope another one comes along straight-away to fill the gap. Otherwise everything's going to be hush-hush and swept under the carpet, and a lotta injustice is gonna occur."

"We didn't expect it," said Nigerian reggae/afropop star Sonny Okosuns, shortly after hearing of Fela's death. "We've been very great friends since 1969 when he came back from America. We [musicians] studied him seriously. He's been a very strong force to reckon with, and he will continue to be a strong force to reckon with. He will be remembered. We hope that he will rise again."

Fela Ransome Kuti was born on October 15, 1938 and raised by a colonial Christian family of means in the town of Abeokuta, Nigeria. "My father was very strict," he told journalist Roger Steffens in 1986. "I thought he was wicked. He kicked my ass so many times. It was tough in school under our father. That's how he understood life should be, cause he read the Bible: 'Spare the rod and spoil the child.' My mother, she was wicked too. She kicked my ass so much man -- systematic ass kicking. [But] on the whole, they were beautiful parents, they taught me heavy things. They made me see life in perspective. I think if they had not brought me up with these experiences, I do not think I would have been what I am today. So the upbringing was not negative."

Fela left Nigeria and studied music at Trinity College in London from 1958 to 1962. In 1960, Nigeria gained its independence from England in no small part due to the activism of people like his mother, Funmilayo -- a central figure in his Fela's life. Fela married his first wife, Remi, in London in 1961. While Fela studied classical music at Trinity, outside school he studied and played jazz. The first recordings of his band Koola Lobitos are rumored to date from this period. His first verifiable recording was "Aigna" as Fela Ransome Kuti and His Highlife Rakers from around 1961. He also recorded several titles under the name Highlife Jazz Band in the mid to late 60s, and there was a full Koola Lobitos album released by EMI in Nigeria in 1969.

Fela's journey to Los Angeles in 1969 was the most formative experience of his life. In L.A., he met a young Africentric woman named Sandra Smith, who exposed him to the consciousness then sweeping Black America. She gave Fela a copy of Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X and unknowingly sent him on his way.

"It was incredible how my head was turned," he told the New York Times in 1987. "Everything fell into place. For the first time, I saw the essence of blackism. It's crazy; in the States people think the black power movement drew inspiration from Africa. All these Americans come over here looking for awareness, they don't realize they're the ones who've got it over there. We were even ashamed to go around in national dress until we saw pictures of blacks wearing dashikis on 125th street."

"I wasn't aware I was sending him," says a proudly reflective Sandra (Smith) Isadore. "I was being myself and so happy that I had met an urban African. I was trying to get to my roots in 1969. In my own mind, they (Africans) didn't have a struggle. It came to me as a surprise when I was in Nigeria [in 76] and Fela gave me this credit, cause I had not given the credit to myself."

In L.A., H.B. Barnham recorded the high-life jazz sound of Fela Ransome Kuti and the newly renamed 'Nigeria 70.' Those recordings, recently released by Stern's Africa on CD, are the earliest document of Fela's work currently in print. In 1970, EMI financed a session in London at Abbey Road studio, which became Fela's London Scene. In London, Fela was befriended by percussionist Ginger Baker. Fela appeared on Baker's Stratavarious album and played live shows with the former Cream drummer, one of which was released as Live With Ginger Baker. Later, Baker would produce Fela's classic, He Miss Road. By 1971, Fela's musical career was focused and directed, and it exploded in terms of quantity and quality of output. It was the beginning of his own style of music -- Afrobeat.

Over the next six years, Fela Ransome Kuti and the Africa 70 would record some twenty albums that are the bedrock of his musical legacy. Classic titles such as Shakara, Afrodisiac,Open & Close,Why Black Men They Suffer, Gentleman, Algabon Close, Expensive Shit, Upside Down, and Confusion established a standard of intricacy and musical ferocity seldom equaled. While Fela himself was not a sensational horn or keyboard player, his compositional skill and ability to assemble and direct crack musicians was the essence of his art. While the whole of the Africa 70 band exuded talent, the trumpet playing of Tunde Williams and the drumming of Tony Allen in particular exemplified the best musicianship in Africa.

Dennis Bovell echoes the thought. "I would say he was Africa's number one. He was a great composer, and that's more than a musician. The composers compose shit and any musician can play it. I think he was a great composer, full stop."

In 1974, after the first government attack on Kalakuta Republic (as he was calling his self contained commune in his mother's converted house in the Surulere section of Lagos), Fela's resolve and militancy were reinforced, and it was directly reflected in his music. "I refuse to live my life in fear," he later said. "I don't think about it. If somebody wants to do harm for you, it's better for you not to know. So I don't think about it. I can say I don't care. I'm ready for anything." He changed his name to Anikulapo-Kuti in 1976 to shed his colonial name and emphasize that he was 'one who holds death in his pouch.'

Fela needed death in his pouch to survive the second attack on Kalakuta. Several significant events led to the fateful day. In addition to the increasingly anti-authoritarian tone of his music, Fela purchased a printing press and was distributing an anti-government newsletter in late 1976. He also publicly boycotted FESTAC 77, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, and in so doing blatantly criticized the dictatorship for their corrupt dealings with foreign multi-national corporations (Shell, I.T.T., etc.).

On February 18th, 1977, the Nigerian government tried to break Fela for good. 1,000 soldiers attacked Kalakuta in an infamous and brutal display of barbarism that left Fela severely beaten, with broken legs. His followers were brutalized and raped. His mother was thrown from a second story balcony, hastening her death. For Fela, it was truly time for musical war. The event ignited retaliation in the form of Sorry Tears and Blood, No Agreement, Zombie, Vagabonds In Power (VIP) and Coffin For Head of State. Fela would mark the anniversiary of the attack in 1978 with a traditional marriage to 27 of his female followers.

Fela's recording career changed with his spiritual outlook in 1981, when he had a vision in a trance. "[Before 1981] I was spiritually aware, but subconsciously spiritually aware," he told Roger Steffens. "It was a trance -- very spiritual and real. It was like a film. I saw this whole [world] was going to change into what people call the Age of Aquarius. The age of goodness where music was going to be the final expression of the human race and musicians were going to be very important in the development of the human society and that musicians would be presidents of different countries and artists would be dictators of society. The mind would be freer, less complicated institutions, less complicated technologies. It was in that trance that I saw the aspect of the Egyptian civilization. The whole human race were in Egypt under the spiritual guidance of the Gods." On the political front, Fela formed Movement of the People (M.O.P.) and entertained the idea of becoming a democratically elected president of Nigeria.

The spiritual revelation precipitated the name change of his group form Africa 70 to Egypt 80, and he slowed the Afrobeat groove to a more meditative pace and mellower mood and generally referred to it as 'African music' thereafter. While his musical output in the early 80s was also slowed and his skepticism of record companies grew, he struck up a trusted relationship with Linton Kwesi Johnson's musical partner, Dennis Bovell, who recorded Fela Live In Amsterdam for release on EMI in 1983.

Bovell also recorded the original tracks for Fela's ill-fated Army Arrangement, which was completed by Bill Laswell at the urging of Fela's manager Pascal Imbert, while Fela was detained in Ikoyi and later Kiri-Kiri prison on a trumped up currency smuggling charge. Since Fela had received so much recognition as a result of his imprisonment, the album was widely exposed, but without Fela's consent. "It was an idea I had to get Fela to play with new sounds, but not to change his composition," explains Bovell. "I just wanted him to play what he played, but with new equipment. Those guys, they didn't understand. As I told them, 'you wait till I finish with LKJ [and I'll finish the album]. They were like 'we gotta go now, man. The iron's hot, we gotta strike.' -- total record company shit. They changed the whole shit to what they thought was new. And they fucked it up. [When] they snuck a tape recorder into the prison, and they played it to [Fela], he was like, "Motherfucker! Who's that!?' Especially when he heard Bernie Worrell replace his own organ solo he was deeply pissed. 'Take that off. Take that off! I don't want to hear it!'"

Fela was released from the internationally publicized prison term in 1986 after eighteen months. He toured the US several times, slowly fell out of circulation and withdrew to himself and his communal circle at the Ikeja Street residence in Lagos. Fela would only release half a dozen more albums (half of what he recorded with Bovell remains in the can). In his final years, Fela continued to play at The [new] Shrine, but the recordings tapered off. "The thing that bothers me more than anything is that before Fela transcended, he was doing a new music," says Sandra. "And that music was never recorded. Maybe that music was not for the world to hear. Only for a few. He just felt like he didn't need anyone to exploit his music, so he refused to record. Fela even told me in 1991, 'why even bother?' I've said everything. It's all been said. It's all been done.'"

Fela's back catalog of over 75 albums remains largely out of circulation with only nine legitimate CDs on the market: four from Shanachie (Black Man's Cry, Original Sufferhead, Beast of No Nation and O.D.O.O.) and five from Stern's Africa (The 69 Los Angeles Sessions, Fela's London Scene, Open & Close, He Miss Road, and Underground System). Randall Grass of Shanachie Entertainment says that many offers were made on Fela's back catalog while he was alive, but nothing came of it. As Dennis Bovell explains, "Motown came to see him, and he refused. They only offered him a million dollars [for his catalog], and he thought 'hey, shit, no. I wipe my ass with a million dollars. That's my toilet paper bill!'"

Fela briefly found his way into international headlines again in 1993 when a dead body was found near his house. He was arrested, charged with murder, but eventually released. It would blur into the latter part of the list of an alleged 356 trips to court in 25 years.

This past April, Fela made news with yet another 'Indian hemp' bust, but as he did so many times in the past, he escaped conviction. The charges were dropped in early July, a mere month before his passing.

When the government hung the eloquent writer and outspoken environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and imprisoned Fela's brother Beko Ransome Kuti in recent years, it was perhaps a chilling sign of the end for Fela. He did not respond in either case. Some argue that Fela was too ill to fight, yet he clearly was able to muster the energy to elude conviction on the hemp charges. These questions remain unanswered.

Sola Oniyide, a Nigerian member of the Elite Club, an L.A. based organization involved in charitable activities and now focusing on AIDS awareness in Nigeria since Fela's death, says his generation grew up on Fela's music. "He used his music to address a lot of problems within our society. Fela was a very complex man. He was a visionary. He really believed in his cause. He never gave up. If all we Nigerians can learn something from him, [it's] for us to be able to speak to our beliefs and live our beliefs. He taught us that we have to speak up."

Jamaican reggae singer and Pan-Africanist Burning Spear toured with Fela in Africa in the late 80s. "I think Fela is a strong African singer, and I think the masses in Africa into what Fela do," says Spear. "For Fela hitting some strong point and some logical point wherein noone else would hit. His message was very strong within the music. If he wasn't important, they wouldn't try to break him down. When you try to do the right thing you will get a big fight. If you let the wrong things interfere, you going down."

"From what I observe, Fela is a person who stands up for people in Africa, throughout the world, cause his music go beyond. Is not limited," observes former Black Uhuru frontman Michael Rose, with whom Fela recorded in 1986. "When you listen to Fela, you know that his music on a level and it's brilliant."

Brian Eno, often considered one of Western music's most articulate musicians, producers and musicologists referred to Fela often in interviews dating back to the 70s, placing him in a class by himself. "In 1972, I first heard a Fela record," Eno said in 1988. "I'd heard James Brown and understood what that was about. Then I heard Fela, and he was an African who listened to James Brown. And he'd taken what James was doing, but really extrapolated it in a big way. The early 70s recordings were the best I think."

In 1995, Eno told the BBC, "I listen to [Fela] over and over and over again. I have more albums by him than by any other single artist . . . I listen particularly to the way the bass is used; that's what really interests me about these records. The use of the bass as an instrument that is both percussive and melodic at the same time. "

Adjectives such as 'unequaled' and 'original' seem entirely appropriate in describing the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. You can search and run the lists of comparisons to try to find another story like his, but then how many communes have there been on the face of the Earth, within the iron clasp of a military dictatorship? How could an island of egalitarianism under its own rule of law possibly exist in a state that has its way with any of its other subjects? How could it flourish for so long and be led by a musician, whose cultural, political and spiritual magnetism drew together the resources to make it possible? How could it be revived after brutal attempts to destroy it? If it was a unique circumstance, then it was a unique individual who made it possible.

Ayuka Babu, Executive Director of the Pan African Film Festival is Los Angeles says there is no other individual in Fela's league and emphasizes the complexity of the artist's motives. "Fela was viewed as a cultural, political and musical leader in the Black world. He was really a Pan-Africanist. Nigeria was his particular platform, [but] all the questions he raised in Nigeria, he felt these were issues that had to be faced in Africa and throughout the Black world as well as the Diaspora. He reflected what everybody felt and everybody thought."

As to Pan-Africanism, Fela often espoused its tenets. "That is the only way the Africans can benefit from their environment," he said in 1986. "The way Africa is cut up now and the way the individual African governments behave in Africa is negative to progress. This is why we see the unified Africa as the ultimate. Because Africa is not unified, that is why South Africa can operate [in apartheid]."

Babu says that what the Western world thought of as 'outrageous' behavior was always a calculated political statement by Fela. "The marriage [to 27 women] was a political act," he explains, as a response to the accusation that he was corrupting young unmarried girls. "'[Now] you can't say they're not married.'"

When Fela later divorced his wives, he explained that he did "not believe any more in the marriage institution. The marriage institution for the progress of the mind is evil. I learned that from prison. Why do people marry? Is it to be together? Is it to have children? People marry because they are jealous. People marry because they are possessive. People marry because they are selfish. All this comes to the very ugly fact that people want to own and control other people's bodies. I think the mind of human beings should develop to the point where that jealous feelings should be completely eradicated."

Babu explains that on the question of "Do we follow ourselves and our traditions or do we follow the European tradition?, Fela squarely was on the side of 'follow ourselves.' Black folks have been smoking ganja for 7,000 years in Africa," Babu explains. "It is a traditional herb that we use to alter our state of consciousness. There is no place on the continent where it is not smoked traditionally. [Fela's] position was that the attack on marijuana was racial and Eurocentric."

Fela himself felt that his views were often marginalized and trivialized. "During the political struggles I had so many names attached to my personality like 'hooligan,' 'hemp smoker,' 'wearing briefs,' 'half-naked.' All this shit -- they gave me all kind of bullshit names. That kind of myth went on so long that it confuse so many people. After the prison, the whole country realized my point much [more] clearly. It's finally go to the point where the honesty of my struggles became very exposed, clear. That vindicated all my views."

"He's got a very unique place in history," says Randall Grass, whose company has released four CDs of Fela's work. "There are very few African artists who are as overtly political as he was. He created a style of music that is completely unique and that virtually nobody else has successfully performed and recorded on an ongoing basis. To a large degree it was an extension of his own persona -- musically, psychically, and lyrically. It sprang out of the whole experience of Fela at the Shrine in Lagos."

Grass, who visited The Shine in 1976, recalls an utterly unique experience. "It was incredible. It was packed with people. It reminded me of the communal rock vibe in the sixties. It was more than just a musical show. It was genuinely an alternative scene. You had this open air club with a couple of levels to it. Hemp smoke was thick in the air -- flags from all the African nations ringing the courtyard. You had the stage with Africa 70, which was just a pretty awesome spectacle. It would just go on for hours, generally until dawn. There were raised platforms with young women gyrating, almost like go-go platforms. There was a real sense of rapport between Fela and the people in the audience.

"Before the performance there would be a ceremony, a libation to the ancestors and sort of a consecration. That's why he called it The Shrine. He would come out with a cigarette or a spliff in his hand and stroll around and talk for twenty or thirty minutes about whatever was going on at that time -- the latest police attack or something the government was doing, anything that was on his mind. Then a small boy would run up with his saxophone, and he would play a solo and then someone else would solo. Then Fela would go over to the keyboards and play there for a while. Then he would take the mike and go into the main melody of the song with a lot of call and response. A typical song would be like forty-five minutes or an hour."

"He was very important to many people," says Sandra Isadore. "Right now, I think about those people that he left behind. Those in the compound that he gave employment to. Those that he took in off the streets. Those that would not have had a place to stay or a job or a future had it not been for Fela. Fela was a very generous man. This is the man that I know. He gave opportunities to many. At the same time, he was like a common man. He was very simple. He didn't need a lot of flair. I know it sounds strange, but . . . when he came [to America], I said 'Fela, you're a star, I should hire a limousine.' He said, 'No. Can all my band members go in the limo?' If everybody couldn't go in the limousine, then he couldn't have it. He would not be separated. He didn't put himself above any of them or anyone."

Fela's enormous appetite for life was both an essential part of his genius and a direct contributor to his decline. His last political statement was made by ironic counter-example. He died of AIDS as a result of his promiscuity. For Africa, the death of a figure with the stature of Fela may change minds about the reality of the AIDS problem. "Even in death, Fela has raised the question [of AIDS]," notes Ayuka Babu. "The leadership [in Africa] has not come to grips with AIDS. Had Fela known how sick he was, he would have spoken out."

Fela's view of death and fear itself were among his defining characteristics. He told biographer Carlos Moore in This Bitch Of A Life: "Death doesn't worry me man. When my mother died it was because she finished her time on earth. I know that when I die I'll see her again, so how can I fear death? . . . So what is this motherfucking world about? . . . I believe there is a plan . . . I believe there is no accident in our lives. What I am experiencing today completely vindicates the African religions. . . I will do my part . . . then I'll just go, man. . .Just go!"

While his rejection of Western medicine and safe-sex practices clearly hastened his death in the end, his Africentric approach to life allowed him to live to the fullest in the overall sense. He lived more life in 58 years than most could in 116. "Fela will make no apologies for nothing," says Sandra. "He lived his life his way, the way he wanted to live it. It can definitely be said he had a full life. He twisted his shoes his way, nobody told him what to do. I fought with him on many occasions. It was not easy dealing with Fela Anikulapo Kuti. From the very beginning it was a fight, but it was fun. It's the end of an era for me."

When a person of far reaching impact passes from the Earth, it is tempting to bring out the superlatives, grand statements, and conjecture in an attempt to be convincing. Time will determine the real legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. As it has been, Fela's will likely continue to be an underground story outside the African world. Perhaps his back catalog will see the light of day and his music will be widely available for the world's inspection and appreciation.

Equally possible, his legacy will pass into further obscurity as his catalog becomes increasingly out of print. Perhaps Fela will take on the dimensions of blues singer Robert Johnson, another griot who lived life in his own way, was at times loved and at times loathed, but among those who truly knew his art, was undeniably revered as its most important player. To whatever history Fela Anikulapo Kuti will ultimately belong, for those who touched him -- either personally or through the intangibly intimate contact of his greatest recordings -- he will never be forgotten.

Copyright 1997 Carter Van Pelt

A special thanks to Roger Steffens for the priceless interviews with Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Further reading:

This Bitch Of A Life by Carlos Moore; Allison & Busby, London 1982
The Beat; December 1984
"My Life In Prison by Fela Anikulapo Kuti"; Newswatch, May 12, 1986
"Free At Last" by Roger Steffens; Option, October 1986
"Last Days Of Fela?" by Ademola Adedoyin; Theweek, August 4, 1997

Other docs:

Rumours of Fela's death

Collected reports on Fela's death from the WWW