Fela Kuti was, to borrow from That Petrol Emotion, an agitator, an educator, an organiser. A music and sociopolitical trailblazer, he was equal parts multi-instrumentalist and political activist. The founder of Afrobeat, he combined on-the-one funk with rippling, rattling one chord jazz and more often than not included a lyric that savaged the powers in charge; look for 1977’s Sorrow, Tears and Blood, which calls out police brutality as the perfect example.
1975’s Expensive Shit is the story of being framed, set to a groove that falls somewhere between the freeflowing Blue Note jazz of Gil Evans and James Brown’s mid 70s excursions in funk. Wandering, electric piano fights for earspace with chattering, polyrhythmic drums and clickety-clacking off-beat percussion. Underpinned by body popping bass and fanfaring trumpets, Fela’s saxophone noodles across the top with just as much regard for boundaries as its player’s attitude to authority.
Fela Kuti – Expensive Shit
Just as you begin to think you’re in the middle of a tight-but-loose instrumental – those muted trumpets really know how to elongate their presence – along comes Fela and his backing singers, singing a song, half-Nigerian, half-English, of being set up by the police.
Finding himself in posssesion of a joint that had been planted on him by corrupt police officers, Kuti swallowed it. The police took him into custody, knowing that nature’s way would eventually incriminate their innocent target. Always one step ahead of the authorities though, Fela managed to swap stool samples with a sympathetic inmate and was released without charge.
On 1976’s Zombie, Kuti waged a war on the militaristic Nigerian government of the era. He likened the military to zombies, dead-eyed government stooges, incessantly carrying out sinister orders from above.
Fela Kuti – Zombie
Propelled by a fluid and skittering Tony Allen drum groove and the assembled brass of Africa 70, Kuti’s band, Zombie begins on a fade-in, suggesting the band have been working up the groove for a quite some time before we get to hear it. It’s not until it reaches Kaa the snake levels of hypnotism that Kuti’s call-and-response vocals come in.
Attention! (Zombie!) Double up! (Zombie!) Fall In! (Zombie!) Fall out! (Zombie!) Fall down! (Zombie!) Get ready! (Zombie!)
Nigerians loved it, to the point where they’d mimick the soldiers who lined the streets. “Zombies!” they’d shout, arms straight out ahead and limp at the wrist in mocking pose. So incensed was the government at Kuti, they systematically attacked and destroyed Kalakuta Republic, the studio-based commune he’d set up with his family and band. On the government’s say-so, 1000 soldiers raided the community. They beat Kuti to within an inch of his life, raped the women and threw Kuti’s elderly mother from a first floor window. She would die of her injuries.
As an inflammatory reaction to the charge that he was kidnapping women and keeping them hostage against their will, on the first anniversary of the Kalakuta violence he simultaneously married 27 of the women in his community; dancers, vocalists, musicians. Not long after, he was banned from Ghana after a riot broke out during Zombie. Later that same year at the Berlin Jazz Festival, his band would quit following rumours that he planned to use their fee to fund his presidential campaign. A colourful figure to say the least.
Fela Kuti fought a long fight with authority, calling out injustice, corruption, brutality and downright wrongness at every possible turm. He continued to be a real thorn in the side of those in charge for another 20 years, before his death in 1997. His back catalogue and life story is worth some of your time.