He was probably one of the first African musicians north of the Limpopo I ever took notice of. When I was a kid, there was Fela Ransome Kuti, as he then was, and Osibisa, and that was it. Not that I had any idea what Fela's music sounded like. In the mid-Eighties the NME championed the high life sounds of King Sunny Adé and mentioned Fela Anikulapo Kuti every now and then and the most basic facts I learnt about him, was that he was very political, opposed the then Nigerian government and often suffered incarceration and violence for it, and that he had a bunch of wives and a very large band. He had dropped the colonialist name of Ransome and adopted Anikulapo or reverted to it, to emphasise his African roots. He was called the king of Afrobeat and Ginger Baker played with his band once in a while when Baker was living in Lagos and running Airforce. Fela died of AIDS in 1997. There might have been more bits and pieces of information I have now forgotten.
I still had no idea what the music sounded like.
All that changed on a sunny Saturday afternoon in early 2000 in a car on its way to Clanwilliam. In the car were Braam Botha, Margaret Follett, their two daughters Emma and Tessa, Kim Pinkerton and me. Margaret had recently become owner of a piece of land fronting on the Clanwilliam dam and we were going there to see it and spend the night. The trip was eventful for two reasons. The first was that Kim and I became lovers, and the second, and with perhaps a more lasting effect, was that I heard the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti for the very first time.
Somewhere 13h00 and 15h00 of a Saturday afternoon one Richard Mawemba presented a radio show in which he showcased a selection of mostly contemporary music from all over Africa. Braam who listened to the radio a lot and who liked all manner of slightly off-beat music religiously tuned in to Richard Mawemba's show when he was at home and it was no different on the long journey along the N7.
I'd heard this show before and although I never made an effort to listen to it when I was at home; I enjoyed the music, as I like music in general and African music in particular. It was one more genre amongst dozens out there that had merit and moved me. It had a good beat and you could dance to it. There was always a language barrier but because music is a language that transcends language barriers and cultural divides as well, it did not matter to me that the lyrics were, well, foreign to me. The fact that I could not understand what the singer was going on about simply made the whole effort, words and instrumental backing, one big, integrated piece of music.
Anyhow, Richard Mawemba announced that he was going to commemorate Fela by playing one of his songs. The track he chose was "Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense." It is over 25 minutes long and blew my fragile mind a little to the extent that I went to the African Music Store in Long Street, Cape Town, to look for the album, also called Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense. To my delighted surprise they had the CD in stock and I bought it. There are 2 very long tracks on the album: the title track and "Look and Laugh," which is longer than 30 minutes
If the album had been a record "Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense" would probably have been divided into 2 parts over two sides of vinyl, with the instrumental opening on one side and the section with the vocal on the other. I guess the CD version makes the best sense and as it has the impact of the full power of the build-up of the tune, because it can be played as one organic piece with the instrumental section constructing the groove slowly but surely, before the song moves into the political diatribe that is the point of the exercise. There were all manner of funky percussion, fluid bass, lots of interweaving guitar parts, hot saxophone and slinky keyboard parts. There is the message, which sounds a bit like an Africanised "Another Brick In The Wall, part II" and is sung in some kind of pidgin English that makes sense some of the time and no sense a lot of the time, but I guess that could be just me. The intro has electronic organ and saxophone and a loping bass and a riffing horn section and this mix is something between funk and big band jazz without sounding exactly like either. Tony Allen's drumming, precise and strong throughout, is a joy. It must have been a gas to be at a Fela concert. The band might not have played many songs but the endless groove would have driven an audience into a frenzy.
"Looking an Laughing" follows a similar pattern but the instrumental opening section is a lot more restrained and cooler, with electric piano leading the way.
Anyhow, this song and this album was my introduction to the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and I absolutely loved it. "Look and Laugh" was every bit as exciting as the title track.
It must be the never-to-be-repeated impact of the new that makes this record seem so brilliant to me, but I nonetheless believe that is great and thrills me each time I hear it. When I saw that it was released in 1986 I was slightly shocked. I am used to what Eighties music sounds like in general, and it is not a good sound, yet this record does not seem to have dated at all, though I do not yet know what the Seventies style of Fela's music sounds like. Even in South African, though, there was a marked, and in my opinion not very wonderful, change in local African music during that decade where African pop producers adopted the feel of White rock and pop product from that era and manufactured a more sophisticated hybrid that utterly turned me off. Fela's music does not have any of that influence as far as I can tell; it is not primitive but it is of its own.
Given that I love Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense so much, it is perhaps strange that this was the only Fela album I owned for a couple of years. I guess I did not want to buy anything else by him for fear that another album would be a relative disappointment.
Then I found an album called Music of Many Colours (1980), an interesting combination of one track each by Fela and American jazz / funk musician Roy Ayers, at a sale at a CD shop in Cavendish Square and I bought it because it was cheap and I was intrigued to hear this combination of African and Afro-American musical styles. Roy Ayers contributes "2000 - Blacks Got To Be Free", a somewhat prophetic song for 1981, when South Africa was still very much in the throes of apartheid, as it not only foretold a more liberated Africa in general but also spoke of a free and democratic South Africa. Fela gives us "Africa – Centre of the world", which (I guess) is your early version of the kind of African boosterism that is now quite prevalent and the result of which is all the furore about the first FIFA soccer World Cup being hosted in Africa in 2010, some 30 years after this tune was recorded. It took Africa a while to get there.
Why the record is called Music of Many Colours is a mystery to me unless it is a reference to the "rainbow nation" cliché of South African after 1994, which it obviously is not. Black seems to be the only colour thought I guess you can say it has a few shades of black in it, given the cultural differences an American and an African must have, for all the vaunted back to the roots claims of African-Americans. There is plenty of funk groove to it, but at first listen it was not as wonderful as Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense. It's taken time and repeated listening before Music of Many Colours started working for me. The Ayers tune sounds pretty much like a conventional funk track from the late Seventies, with added political consciousness, and the Fela track is more horn driven and more overtly Afrobeat, as it would be, somewhat lighter and more jazzy for it. The musicians backing both stars are mostly from Fela's Africa 70 band and the big guys play on each other's tracks. One explanation for the difference in mood and swing might be that Flea writers his tune whereas Ayers relies on somebody else, two of them in fact.
My Fela Anikulapo Kuti collection suddenly grew over a few weeks in August and September 2010.
In mid-August I was at The African Music Store, primarily looking for the latest album by Tinariwen, pretty much my favourite African band of the moment, and saw that the shop had a whole selection of Fela's music, part of a recent programme of re-issuing the entire catalogue, of Fela albums, mostly value for money two vinyl release per CD album and often with bonus tracks. Amongst this lot I saw the CD album Original Suffer-Head / I.T.T (2000),
featuring the title track from 1984 and another well-known diatribe called "I.T.T (international thief thief)" from 1981 plus "Power Show", a much shorter track.
Some months ago I upgraded my contract cell phone and when I messed around with the set-up I found that I could download a bunch of so-called welcome tones and individual ringtones from a strange list of tracks. One of the tracks I could download was the Fela song "Original Suffer-Head" and I did download it, thinking that this would be a brilliantly different ringtone to have. Well, I tried to download it and somehow the download just did not happen, or if it did, I could not find the tune on the cell phone to allocate as ringtone.
So, when I saw the eponymous album, I had to buy it, and I did.
As I often do, I checked out Robert Christgau's consumer's guide website to see what he had to say about Fela Kuti. He had a lot to say and had his trademark potted reviews of a whole lot of Afrobeat, including the two albums I owned and he also referred to Army Arrangement (1985) as probably Fela's best album. The next time I visited The African Music Store, I bought this album.
Then, on another visit to the shop (it is conveniently located on my route from Labour Court to High Court) I not only found the latest Tinariwen album, Companions, but also again had a look through the Fela albums and saw Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense there. I had started writing this piece and could not remember the second track of the album, and could not look it up on my CD of it, as it is packed away in a box in our outside room, so I picked up this copy in the store and saw that this CD had a bonus track as well, called "Just Like That", 22 more minutes or Fela music added to two other quite long tracks. Of course I had to have it. For good measure I then also bought a CD entitled Fela Ransome Kuti with four tracks recorded in the early Seventies.
"Just Like That" starts off with a mix of chanted vocals and stabbing, raging horns before it settles into Fela's tale, starting with him and the chorus exchanging call and response exhortations, much like an entertainer on a stage asking his audience to respond by completing a catch phrase of which he shouts the first word.
Shakara is a collection of 4 tracks from the early years of Afrobeat, when Tony Allen was the drumming powerhouse. The sound is slightly more inclined towards funk and R & B but the African influences are there, all right.
Why Black Men Dey Suffer is another album of early Fela, recording as Ransome Kuti and allegedly featuring Ginger Baker who settled in Lagos for a few years in the early Seventies. The particular album I have is not part of the re-issue series of albums with additional tracks and sleeve notes. This CD has just 2 tracks on it, that would originally have been the A and B sides of the LP release. I have to confess that the R75 selling price was the decisive factor in my decision to buy it.
The other factor was the sleeve's indication that Ginger Baker plays on the album. After a few listens I still do not detect any presence of Baker on any track and it sounds to me like only one drummer after all, which would be Tony Allen. I know Baker's style of restless, relentless polyrhythmic drumming from Cream and believe that he would have fitted in well with Afrobeat. Tony Allen's style may be polyrhythmic as hell but it sounds too much like funk drumming to me. Baker's propulsive drive is not discernible at all. For all that the 2 tracks are pretty good anyway.
True story. In early January 2012 I popped into The African Music Store to check out whether there was anything worthwhile. I was still looking for the debut album of Cape Town rock band Machineri and wanted to see if there was a new Tinariwen release. The Machineri album was there, as well as the third album by another Cape Town band called Hot Water and for good measure I thought it might be time to increase my collection of Fela music. After browsing through the Fela albums on display it came down to choose between a collection of very early recording under the name Fela Ransome Kuti or the album Zombie from about 1977. I picked Zombie. When I got back to my office, where I was keeping most of my recent Fela acquisitions, I saw that I already had Zombie. The point was that I had not really completely acquainted myself with the Fela albums I'd bought after Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense and therefore had no strong memory of what I did or did not own. Fortunately I could return to the shop the following day to exchange the duplicate copy of Zombie for Confusion / Gentleman, two vinyl albums collected on one CD and credited to Fela Ransome Kuti and the Africa 70.
When I played the very long track "Confusion" the unfocused, free form keyboard intro, unlike any other intro to any Fela song I'd ever heard, did not impress me. It sounds like a kid messing about on his doting dad's instrument and the dad then thought it would be a bit of a lark to splice that "improvisation" onto a proper track as intro. I wondered whether I had made the wrong choice of Fela album even though I deliberately selected a Ransome Kuti set as being of earlier vintage than the Anikulapo Kuti albums. The weird drumming gave way to a fat, deep bass groove and perhaps one of the best Fela tracks I've heard. The lyrics, as usual, may be important and significant but it is this monster Afrobeat groove that shakes the floor and fills the room. Even at 25 plus minutes it feels too short when it comes to an end.
The slightly strange thing about collecting Fela's collected works is that there is a whole slew of product available under Flea Ransome Kuti & Africa 70, Fela Anikulapo Kuti & African 70 and Fela Anikulapo Kuti & African 70 and then there are re-issues of the original albums in single record per CD format and in two albums per CD format. The latter is the best deal not only because you get two albums on a CD but also because there are often previously unreleased tracks too.
My collection currently consists of Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971), Shakara (a single record) (1972), Shuffering and Shmiling (1978) / No Agreement (1977), Confusion (1975) / Gentleman (1973), Zombie (single album with previously unreleased tracks) (1977), Music of Many Colours (single album) (1980), Original Sufferhead (1981) / ITT (1980), Army Arrangement (single album with one previously unreleased track) (1985) and Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense (two different versions: one the original single album and one with unreleased tracks)(1986).
That is quite a lot of Fela product yet is but a drop in the ocean.
The thing about owning this much Afrobeat, much like owning a bunch of Tinariwen albums, is that it is difficult for me to have anything but a vague recollection of the tunes. Obviously it partly has to dot with the fact that I have hardly lived with these recordings. I have listened to "Teacher ..." and "Looking and Laughing" more than to any of the other tunes because it was the first Fela album I bought and because I had lots more time to listen to music when I bought it. Music of Many Colors comes second and as for the rest, most of them have had one or two spins on the CD player. On the one hand I have limited time to devote to listening to any kind of music and on the other hand I keep buying new albums that I also need to listen to at least once. It is not only Fela that does not get the attention his music deserves. It is the case with just about everything I buy nowadays.
I like the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The polyrhythms of Afrobeat, with the grooving basslines and stabbing horns, is very much to taste. This music has a kinship to the Parliafunkadelicment Thang, which is where I first learned to appreciate and enjoy deep funk. Flea's lyrics are often inscrutable and almost unintelligible because of his patois but where I do understand them, they are sharp, funny and make points about (his) society that give pause. I like the fact that most of these tunes go on for a very long time. Dance parties with Afrobeat as the rhythm must be insanely great.
The myth or reality of Fela as man, activist and rebel is interesting but not something I dwell on too much. He was an articulate libertarian with a social conscience and the means of expressing his worldview in a commercially viable way. He did not change Nigeria and did not change the word yet he was a powerful force that deserves to be heard and remembered. If there can be a Bob Marley legend, there certainly should be a Fela legend.
Fela's sons Femi and Seun carry on their father's tradition, albeit with far shorter songs on their CD releases. At the time of writing this I have not listened to anything by the two Kuti offspring and I suppose I should, even if it is just to find out what they have done with the legacy. My fear is that they will have updated Afrobeat in a way that is not as satisfying as the template is. There is an organic feel to Fela's music, probably because he had real musicians playing real instruments and did not go for an "Eighties production" sheen even when he was recording in the Eighties. I can believe that contemporary producers would want to make Afrobeat hip for today's young audiences and although this may not be a bad thing, it would not be an authentic thing. Having said that, one cannot be hidebound and reactionary about music. If it works, it works, regardless of which traditions have been adapted or destroyed.