There’s is a lot to be said for hearing a band in their country of origin. Dylan blaring out in a soft top convertible down to Monterrey sticks out, Peter Gabriel at Hammersmith concluding his Shock the Monkey tour also sticks out. Then there is Fela. We’d been travelling through Africa, had cut across the top of Cameroun into Nigeria and headed for the northern town of Maidiguri. As we approached Maidiguri, the van we were was travelling at high speed along the largest highways we’d seen for months. The side of the highway was littered with crashed and burned out cars, a broad flat landscape behind them until we reached the chaotic centre of town. The soundtrack to our arrival was Fela Anikulapo Kuti and the Egypt 80 band. Fela and Afro funk was by no means the most popular music in Africa or even Nigeria (more a Western thing), but on this occasion it was and it conveyed all the the power, the energy, the fury, the crowds, the heat, the busyness, of this part of the world.
We never got to see Fela at the Shrine in Lagos but I finally saw him at the Brixton Academy in 83, I think. I got close again when travelling in the States. Drove all the way back from Arizona to San Francisco only to hear on the radio that he had been arrested on currency charges as he was leaving Nigeria for the US tour.Things never go smoothly in the world of Fela. A couple of years later he had died of AIDS.
Fela’s Afrobeat is popular in the West. It’s a fusion of West African highlife, jazz and funk. It’s accessibility is increased for Westerners by his mix of English and a patois so you can sort of understand a lot of what he is saying/singing. Long long intros, big horn sections and irresistible grooves. Never had a party where Fela didn’t do his job. And the music is embroidered with the remarkable personality of Fela. Born into a well off family his mother was a communist and remarkably militant feminist in colonial Nigeria. She met Mao, was the first Nigerian to to go Russia and was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. Fela’s brother was at one time Minister for Health in the Federal Government but also ran free clinics and was imprisoned by the Abacha regime for militating for democracy. Fela was originally enrolled at Trinity College in London to study medicine but switched to music. He may well be the most outspoken musician critic and defier of authority Africa has seen. The stories are many. Conciliatory police authorities would attend his concerts and he would point them out and harangue them – there’s conciliation for you- not. His most famous track -Zombie was directed at the army and soldiers for their blind obedience. Shuffering and Shmiling referred to the propensity for Africans to keep on smiling despite their oppression. Expensive Shit was about when he swallowed the grass he had and was jailed until it came out. Only the other prisoners swapped theirs for his and no evidence was found. His mother was thrown out of the first storey window of his compound Alagbon Close and of course there are the wives, 18 of them at one stage, all featured on the cover of Shakara along with Fela in his trademark undies. In fact, they were his dancers and having visa issues getting into Ghanan he married them on the spot to facilitate entry. His performances at the Shrine would start late and finish very very late. James Brown like he would fine musicians and be a hard task master. The Shrine still exists with his sons and others playing .$US entry ,it’s a pretty basic place but back in the seventies in the sweat of Lagos one can only imagine the groove. It certainly attracted top-notch musicians. Ginger Baker famously drove across the Sahara and ended up staying with Fela for over a year smoking the incredibly strong Nigerian weed and playing with the band. He acquitted himself well. He is featured on a live album double-teaming with the engine room behind Afro-beat,Tony Allen. The American jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie featured in the band for a stint. Bootsy Collins and some of James Brown’s band were staggered by the show when they were in town for FESTAC. JB , of course, was to proud to attend.Paul Mc Cartney and Wings recorded Band on the Run in /lagos and caught a show. Fela was concerned he was going to rip his music off. “We seem to be going ok ourselves”said Paul.
So a snapshot of the life of Fela Kuti. There are interviews with him but he is invariably seriously stoned and coherence is not uppermost. Carlos Moore put out a book in the early eighties and it is not very good. Fawning sensationalist hagiography. John Collins book Kalakuta Notes is a different kettle of fish. John Collins moved from Britain to Ghana in 1952 and has lived there ever since as a writer ,musician and producer. The excellent Guitar and the Gun compilation series was his work bit I didn’t realise he had also played with Fela and was a genuine insider.So he was there before the scene developed ,watched it unfold,was a part of it and now can sit back and view it all – a rare position to be in.
This book is a remarkably dispassionate series of observations of the development of the music scene in West Africa and Fela’s development as a musician,, bandleader and cultural force. His own experiences including diary notes are included as well as interviews with others close to Fela. As a musician there is plenty of “meat in what he writes. I will quote a section . “Fela actually combined a number of musical styles into his Afrobeat that, besides highlife and soul music also includes three other important ingredients. First there was jazz music with Fela employing the modal jazz approach of artists such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane…..As such,Afrobeat created a convergence between modal jazz and African music.Another jazz feature found in Afrobeat is that its rhythmic basis was created by the half Ghanaian-half Nigerian trap drummer Tony Allen who played in a modern jazz style- moving away from simply providing regular dance rhythms to also including improvisations, polyrhythmic high-hat pulses and offbeat accents that supplied rhythmic space and ventilation for the dance groove. Allen also developed the double bass-drum technique so distinctive of his afrobeat style in which he does a double kick on the bass pedal a sixteenth note apart ,which usually falls right at the beginning of the four-bar measure and propels the rhythm emphatically forward. Beside highlife, soul and jazz, another source that Fela drew on for his Afrobeat was traditional Yoruba music making which included the modal melodic movements already mentioned as well as other traditional features such as call and response between chorus and singer /soloist and the use of a pentatonic singing style that Fela blended in with the minor blues scale..” So there’s plenty here for the student of the music or those looking for some technical unpacking of Afrobreat. There is also a lot on highlife and how it evolved ,plus the confluence with other musical styles in the region.
There are interviews with band members, promoters, producers ,other prominent musicians at the time Joe Mensah, the guys from Osibisa etc and the questions are good. There’s plenty of humour especially around the making of a film Black President which the author played a part – needless to say it’s chaotic. And, for the first time, I get proper feel for who Fela was , what it was like in the scene at the time at his compound and playing at the Shrine. That’s quite an achievement. Kalakuta Notes by John Collins was first published in 2009 and reissued in expanded form in 2015 by Wesleyan University Press with a foreword by Banning Eyre and discography by Ronnie Graham.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Afrobeat, fela, funk,soul, jazz, polyrhythm,
One thing you’ve learned
I should have gone to Lagos instead of heading north to Chad.