Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


KUTI, Fela Anikolapu

(b Fela Ransome Kuti, 15 Oct. '38, Abeokuta, Nigeria; d 2 Aug. '97 of an AIDS-related disease) Singer, composer, bandleader, playing saxophone, trumpet, keyboards; a controversial dissident in Nigeria who once intended to run for president. He fought for basic rights of ordinary people despite vilification and even imprisonment by the government; a hero to many Africans, he became an international star, with over 50 politically pointed LPs. In his heyday he changed part of his family name to Anikolapu, which means 'one who keeps death in his pouch'. Strongly infl. in opposite directions by his Yoruban parents, his father and grandfather were Anglican clerics while his mother Funmilayo was active in Nigerian nationalist movements. First musical venture came after being introduced by J. K. Braimah to Victor Olaiya, whose brand of highlife was becoming dominant; Kuti joined Olaiya's Cool Cats as a singer but carried on with studies, obtained a school certificate, worked in a government office for six months, persuaded his mother that music could be a full-time career and went to London's Trinity College of Music '58, studied theory and the trumpet for four years and formed his first band Koola Lobitos with Braimah, who was studying law in London. He returned to Nigeria, worked briefly for Nigeria Broadcasting and played with a re-formed band, his music described as highlife jazz, releasing singles incl. 'Yeshe Yeshe', 'Mr Who Are You'. The Sierra Leonean soul singer Geraldo Pino arrived in Lagos '66--7 and created a big stir: Kuti flitted between Nigeria and Ghana for two years trying to define the direction of his music, finally announcing the launch of afro-beat in Lagos '68. Went to the USA '69 for ten months, made single 'Keep Nigeria One' out of financial necessity more than sympathy with Federal government. The band played shows in LA (recorded ten tracks not released until '93) but for Kuti it was a period of education; he read widely in black history, returned to Lagos to shake things up with a politicized afro-beat; formed co-operative compound in the Surulere suburb, later called the Kalakuta Republic; opened a club called the Shrine, changed the name of the band to Africa '70 and began making albums, cautiously at first with Fela's London Scene '71; Jeunko'ku, Live With Ginger Baker '71; afro- beat classics Shakara and Roforofo Fight '72, Gentleman and Afrodisiac '73, Alagbon Close '74, Open And Close '75 followed by a purple patch of political music-making, 17 LPs in three years incl. Expensive Shit, Noise For Vendor Mouth, Confusion, Unnecessary Begging, Zombie, Yellow Fever, Kalakuta Show, Colonial Mentality and Opposite People.

His constant attacks on military corruption and social injustice combined with the tight afro-beat of the band made him a hero throughout West Africa, but brought down the wrath of the government, who burned the Kalakuta Republic to the ground '77, destroying master tapes and throwing his mother out of a window. He continued with albums Shuffering And Shmiling '78, then Unknown Soldier, V.I.P. (Vagrants In Power), I.T.T. (International Thief Thief), all '79, the year of a temporary return to civilian government. In a gesture of defiance he had married 27 women in a traditional ceremony; then started a political party M.O.P. (Movement of the People) and continued attacking waste, greed and corruption, carrying the message abroad to Europe and the USA. By now he was an international celebrity and a mature musician, as well as a thorn in the side of successive Nigerian regimes, themselves doomed by endemic corruption in the Nigerian marketplace and successive traumas of international economics. Africa '70 grew to a troupe of 80 and recorded prolifically, incl. Authority Stealing, Coffin For Head Of State (when his mother died, her coffin was carried past soldiers' quarters), Black President, Original Sufferhead, Live In Amsterdam, Perambulator, Army Arrangement. The last was finished by his son Femi Kuti, working with Bill Laswell while Fela was in jail: he had been beaten by soldiers with rifle butts '81 and the return of military government in Jan. '83 did not bode well; in Sep. '84 he was arrested on the eve of a US tour, sentenced to five years in jail for alleged currency violations but paroled in 18 months partly due to Amnesty International. He was highly regarded on the Continent but only a cult figure in the UK, where his band, now called Egypt 80, was a travelling troupe of 30 dancers and musicians (nine-piece brass section) plus technicians, children etc and could not afford to tour outside London. His long, carefully crafted songs made good use of musical dynamics, knit together with polyrhythmic percussion and guitars. First US tour '86 (finally) incl. Amnesty benefit; he was given the Key to the City in Austin and Detroit; the mayor of Berkeley named 14 Nov. after him; at the end of the month he appeared in London and taped a studio segment for TV's The Tube. He said the government having passed a law forbidding anyone to use the word 'republic' to describe his home, he had built another house and threatened to call it 'Empire'. Album Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense '87 with Egypt 80 was on Mercury. His son Femi Kuti later ran his own band Positive Force (CD Femi Kuti on Tabu/Motown); Fela's brother Beko, a doctor, became president of the Nigerian Medical Association, formed human rights organization Campaign for Democracy, and was put in solitary confinement mid-'90s by Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha, who also hanged writers. In the last few years of his life Fela had become discouraged and disillusioned, staying at home and appearing occasionally at the Shrine, where he smoked marijuana on stage; in '97 he was once again arrested, but freed because of the national uproar when he appeared on TV in handcuffs. His albums Black Man's Cry and Original Sufferhead appeared on Shanachie USA; Stern's UK reissued The '69 Los Angeles Sessions, Fela's London Scene, He Miss Road '73 (prod. by Ginger Baker), Open And Close and Underground System '93 (in praise of Thomas Sankara) in their African Classics series.