African Sounds: Remembering the King of Afro-Beat, Fela Kuti

By on November 15, 2016

In this essential episode of Night Flight from late 1988, Pat Prescott guides us through the African music landscape’s “African Sounds,” telling us: “It’s no secret that rock ‘n’ roll is based on African rhythms. Africa created tempo and 4/4 time, the basis for all our generation’s popular dance music. Today, another sound is coming from Africa as the eyes of the world turn to the political abuses on the dark continent. African-born musicians are crying out for their civil rights.” Watch this episode on Night Flight Plus, and read more about the King of Afro-Beat, Fela Kuti, below.

In the first music video included in this 45-minute episode — which was produced by Amnesty International — Fela Kuti performs “Army Arrangement” in London and in Lagos, Nigeria, at his own nightclub, the Afrika Shrine, in Okeja, the capital.

It ends with the announcement of his arrest on “trumped up currency smuggling charges” in September 1984, and news that he was, at the time, still serving a five year prison sentence in Nigeria.

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Fela Kuti pretty much invented the pulsating, horn-laden Afro-Beat sound, becoming Nigeria’s first international megastar. Afro-Beat was developed in the early 1960s, and has its own distinctive beats and rhythms, fusing jazz and highlife with improvised segments that are energetic and repetitive, and almost hypnotic.

Fela Kuti’s Afro-Beat (sometimes “Afrobeat”) was a heady, mesmerizing concoction with traditional African rhythmic roots which also drew on various strands of contemporary black music — jazz, Calypso, funk.

The characteristic rhythms of Afro-Beat were the hallmark of Kuti’s longtime collaborator, Tony Allen, although the music required a large group of musicians playing a wide variety of instruments in order to meet its demands.

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The infectious groove of his compositions was accompanied by razor-sharp social commentary, shifting gear and groove during tracks which sometimes lasted a half-hour in length.

Fela’s vocals were usually sung in a mixture of Yoruba and Pidgin, with lyrics dealing wittily and provocatively with everything from gender relations to government corruption, which made him accessible and hugely popular not only in Nigeria, but in the rest of Africa, in line with the Nkrumahist Pan-Africanism he espoused.

His music also brought him to the attention of a lot of top musicians around the world.

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Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born into a middle-class family on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria, also the home town of Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo.

He was the son of a preacher, the Reverend Israel Ransome-Kuti, the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, and his mother, Funmilayo, Nigeria’s first feminist activist, was the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria.

Radicalism was in his blood, from day one. He considered himself an abiku, a spirit child in the Yoruba tradition, from birth.

At age nineteen, he was sent to London to study medicine, but instead enrolled himself at Trinity College of Music, forming his first group, Koola Lobitos, in 1961 with a school friend, J.K. Braimah. They were a large jazz, funk and Afro-Beat collective who underwent many changes over the decades they were together.

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Fela was always interested in human rights, and in 1969, Fela’s group traveled to America, where he connected with Black Power militants, in particular Sandra Smith, a member of the Black Panthers, who turned him on to Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Upon his return, he offloaded his “slave name” of Ransome, and renamed himself Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the middle name meaning “he who carries death in his pouch” (he says this during the video we’ve got for you to see in this episode).

By the end of his life, he was universally known simply as Fela.

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He changed the name of his group to Afrika ’70, and set to championing the cause of the poor underclass and became a revolutionary, starting his own political party, Movement of the People, to protest the kleptocracy he was witnessing in Nigeria.

He founded his own commune-style compound, the Kalakuta Republic, located in Ikeja, which he declared independent from Nigeria.

The Nigerian government constantly terrorized him. He endured countless beatings from authorities, and was imprisoned frequently for his outspoken views.

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He was also a man of contradictions — a visionary rather than a technical virtuoso, a pot-smoking rebel and revolutionary figure, but also a kind of shirtless shaman.

At one point he abandoned his earlier use of heroin, cocaine and his cocktail mix of gin and lime because the drugs and alcohol were destroying his sexual powers, only smoking marijuana and cigarettes thereafter.

He also opened a club of his own, the Afrika Shrine, where he played with visiting musicians, sometimes even recording with them, as he did on Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa ’70 with Ginger Baker Live!

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In the 1970s, fans of Fela’s infectious combo of high-stepping soul revival and African township jazz — his band featured drummer Tony Allen, baritone sax man Lekan Animashaun, trumpet player Tunde Williams, and bassist Franco Aboddy — began focusing on the lyrics Fela was singing, which were aimed at the oppressive Nigerian government and military, the increasing Westernization of Africa, unnecessary violence, hypocrisy of the ruling elites and other protest targets.

During the early 80s, Fela Kuti’s profile was high enough to warrant releasing his records in the United States, and so, for the first time, his American fans did not have to scour the import bins or pay import prices to get a dose of Afro-Beat, Kuti-style.

By this time (1981), he’d changed his group’s name again, and for the last time, to Egypt ’80.

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On September 4, 1984, Fela Kuti was arrested in Lagos, Nigeria, and charged with illegal currency importation for attempting to smuggle some £1,600 out of Nigeria on a flight to New York.

The charge was blatantly concocted (among other abuses of process, the currency declaration form Kuti had completed at Lagos airport was “lost” by the police) although he wasn’t attempting to hide the currency he was carrying with him.

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At the time, the Nigerian military regime running the country had already begun a propaganda blitz on National TV discouraging Nigerians from fleeing abroad.

Fela had been en route to the United States for what would have been his first American tour in fifteen years. He told his band, Egypt ’80, to go on ahead, that he would meet them in New York, but that did not happen.

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Fela was treated as a saboteur of the economy, and jailed in order to keep him from talking to the press (he was not allowed pen, paper or musical instruments in his cell either).

In November 1984, Fela Kuti was sentenced to two concurrent five-year prison sentences by the Foreign Exchange Control Anti-Sabotage Tribunal.

In the courtroom hallways, and on his way to prison, he smiled throughout, even giving the Black Power salute to his fans.

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Meanwhile, Army Arrangement was awaiting release by Paris-based Celluloid Records, who had made a deal to re-release some of his back catalog along with the new album.

Celluloid had been established in Paris, France, in 1979, specializing in African music. They had already released albums by many of Africa’s biggest artists, including Youssou N’Dour, Johnny Clegg, the barefoot diva of Cape Verde music Cesaria Evoria, and the Senegalese band Touré Kunda, noted for their musical versatility and political activism, which broke into the French mainstream with sales of 100,000 each for their double-album Paris-Ziguinchor Live and for Toubab Bi.

In 1981, Celluloid had set up a New York City branch of the label, and would go on to release albums by Manu Dibango, Foday Musa Sosa, Touré Kunda and Fela Kuti.

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The release of Army Arrangement bothered the military junta in Nigeria so much that they seized copies of the album and banned its sale (in the album, Fela had indicted the army for arranging for foreign exchange belonging to Nigeria to disappear overseas).

A year into his five-year sentence, Fela was declared a “Prisoner of Conscience” by Amnesty International, who drew attention to his situation by making the video we featured in our “African Sounds” episode, among other international events which explained to the world what was happening.

He was finally released after serving 20 months in prison.

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Fela Kuti died on August 2, 1997, from AIDS-related complications, including heart failure, in Lagos, Nigeria. He was 57 years old.

Even on his deathbed, he denied the existence of HIV; throughout his life, he refused to wear condoms, even though he had 28 wives, many of whom would also die of AIDS.

On the day of his funeral, the streets of Lagos were brought to a standstill, with more than a million people defying the Nigerian government band on public gatherings that had been imposed by their military dictator, General Sani Abacha.

One hundred and fifty thousand mourners filed past his glass coffin, which was then carried by hearse through the crowds for the next seven hours in order to reach the neighborhood of Ikeja, where he was buried.

In addition to pre-eminent pan-Africanist Fela, “African Sounds” also features music videos by Senegalese brothers Touré Kunda, Nigerian Juju music leader King Sunny Ade and South African Apartheid activists Juluka, as well as videos by Stewart Copeland, Specials AKA, Hugh Masakela, Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Colin James Hay and UB40. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.