Mojo JULY 2018 - by David Hutcheon


The Godfather Of Afrobeat

Fela Kuti recorded more classic albums than The Beatles or almost any other band you care to mention - and he released most of them in a three-year spell (1974-77) when he and his band were living a life of sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and perpetual brutal conflict with the Nigerian state. Yes, the friction was a two-way thing, but you'd have got better odds on the Spartans triumphing at Thermopylae.

Born into a middle-class family eighty years ago, Kuti was sent to Britain to study medicine in the 1950s, and only turned to music once beyond his mother's reach. He came of age in London's jazz clubs, but it wasn't until a US tour alerted him to the civil rights struggle and the socio-cultural significance of black music that he found his niche as a musician. It took a 1970 concert in Lagos by James Brown, however, before Nigerian audiences caught up with Kuti's blend of funk and African rhythms, but thereafter the decade belonged to him.

Or should have: a contretemps with the police put Kuti and the authorities at loggerheads, a destructive spiral that would see his home burnt down, many of his twenty-eight (simultaneous) wives raped, his mother killed and Kuti counting the cost of his outspokenness. Admittedly, some of the things he said, did and believed don't elicit much sympathy now (nor did they then) but, to quote Mos Def: "Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was James Brown, Huey Newton, Rick James, Bob Marley and Ol' Dirty Bastard all rolled up in one black African fist."

Despite the distractions, his output was prodigious: he and his musicians recorded more than forty LPs in the 1970s (albeit, usually comprising only one or two extended songs) and continued at a rate of almost three a year until 1991. So you're going to need a very large space on your shelves.

10 FELA RANSOME-KUTI AND HIS AFRICA 70 Fela's London Scene [1971]

You say: "This is the gateway." - @robvollmar via Twitter

The musicians in Fela's Africa 70 band who arrived in London in 1971 were funkier than the mosquito's proverbial. Warmed up on the live scene - Ginger Baker made introductions - by the time they moved into Abbey Road studios, they were untouchable, unrecognisable from the group that recorded 1969's Afrobeat debut, Fela Fela Fela (AKA The '69 Los Angeles Sessions). "I'm gonna change the rhythm of this thing, so get ready," Kuti warns on J'Ehin J'Ehin. A terrific second LP - Live!, recorded in front of a hundred and fifty guests in Abbey Road - was recorded with Baker helping out on drums.

9 FÉLÁ ANIKULAPO KUTI & EGYPT 80 Original Suffer Head [1981]

You Say: "Power Show is a song for the masses." - @OOyinbowale via Twitter

Having lost most of the Africa 70 musicians in 1979-80, Kuti debuted Egypt 80, with baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun replacing Tony Allen as bandleader (he's still there today). Their first album together features two grandly ambitious songs, the title track and Power Show, listing the problems after Nigeria's wealth was carved up, leaving an African powerhouse adrift in the Third World. The reboot is both seamless and obvious, but the decade would see Fela's fortunes slide, his energies funnelled into politics, legal and money woes, or sapped by spirituality, drugs and battle scars.

8 FELA RANSOME KUTI AND HIS KOOLA LOBITOS Fela Ransome Kuti And His Koola Lobitos [2016]

You Say: "Start from the top." - @Mr_Fola via Twitter

In lieu of a definitive collection of Fela's early singles - some may yet remain undiscovered - this compilation of pre-funk 45s and highlife-via-Afro-jazz LPs is the best example of Kuti's music prior to his political awakening. Existing between Kuti's return from studying in London in 1963 and the disastrous - but pivotal - tour of America in 1969, the Koola Lobitos (Cool Cats) made little impact in Nigeria, reputedly because nobody could dance to their Miles Davis stylings. Approached as a stepping stone, however, the roots of the revolution are here for all to see. What was missing was attitude.


You Say: "Lady made me levitate and first seated Fela among the gods." - @awobu13 via Twitter

As the 1970s dawned, Kuti was a prophet with few followers at home: American Black Power statements didn't resonate in an independent Nigeria looking forward to its oil-rich future. In 1972-73, however, he delivered Shakara and Gentleman. On the latter, he makes fun of suit-wearing Nigerian men; on the former's Lady, he berates African women for adopting Women's Lib and expecting men to do the dishes. While his listeners could brush over the misogyny as satire, the interplay between guitars, horns and percussion was irresistible. At last, both Fela and Nigeria club-goers had found out what he could do.

6 FELA Live In Detroit 1986 [2012]

You Say: "Fela out of jail and furious... a blistering live document." - Steve Kramer, via e-mail

Having spent eighteen months in prison, Kuti returned to the international stage in 1986 with a tour of Europe and America that was both a celebration of his excesses and - although it would take a while before it became obvious - the last hurrah. Fortunately, somebody in the crowd at the Fox Theatre recorded the five-song, three-hour set, and the four tracks on which Kuti appears demonstrate the power of Egypt 80. It's not for the fainthearted (Confusion Break Bones and Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense both require forty free minutes), but it's worth concentrating to hear the masterful arrangements

5 FELA RANSOME-KUTI & THE AFRICA 70 Confusion [1974]

You Say: "A concept about traffic jams and post-colonial Nigeria... wild." - Derek Hamilton, via e-mail

Kuti goes prog. A twenty-five-minute contemplation of the mounting problems of Lagos - traffic chaos was a useful metaphor for many things - Confusion opens with Kuti and Tony Allen improvising on electric keyboards and drums, creating a psychedelic mood forever on the cusp of being shattered by a crack on the snare. After five minutes, guitar and bass set up the groove, underpinning trumpet and tenor sax solos (tenor was Fela's new thing, having taken it up the year before). Confusion is both Africa 70's most adventurous and least predictable LP; a battle cry and demonstration of musical prowess.

4 FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI AND EGYPT 80 Underground System [1992]

You Say: "His last, powerful hurrah... steadfast until the end." - Ryan Howells, via e-mail

Against the odds, Kuti's final album is one of his very best. Twenty years of confrontation had worn him down - his presence at concerts much reduced, he was physically past his best long before AIDS brought about his death in 1997 - the politics and spiritual beliefs of the 1980s had lost him support outside Africa, and the hundred-plus touring parties were eating up funds and scaring off promoters. Yet here the years fall away as Fela weaves a polemic tying African corruption to the former colonial powers, and contrasts the thieves in power with great leaders who were being airbrushed from history.

3 FELA AND AFRIKA 70 Zombie [1976]

You Say: "It's the archetypical Fela album - artwork, politics, humour, funk..." - Mike Gavin via Facebook

From 1974, Fela's struggles with the authorities became the narrative arc behind his albums: arrests and attacks fuelled his lyrics but also perpetuated the clampdown. For his seventh LP of 1976, Kuti turned on the military, mocking soldiers' inability to think independently. The results were predictable, with the band's compound razed, its inhabitants beaten and horrifically abused. Whatever the cost, Zombie is the Africa 70's finest twelve minutes, galloping along, Fela's sax to the fore - is there a finer brass workout anywhere? - and the refrain is so catchy you can believe reports stating soldiers were singing it as they burnt down Kuti's commune, the self-declared Kalakuta Republic

2 FELA KUTI Anthology 2 [2009]

You Say: "A banquet of the Africa 70 band at full throttle... full of references to the danger he put himself in to speak truth in music." - Lou Bernard, via e-mail

The biggest selling point of Kuti on CD is that twenty-five-minute tracks are no longer split over two sides, but Fela is best experienced on vinyl - the humour running through Lemi Ghariokwu's sleeve designs is a huge part of the overall picture. However, this double-CD set rounds up the best of the Africa 70's peak years (1975-80) and adds a live show - previously unreleased - from the Berlin Jazz Festival on DVD, and recorded for German television in November 1978, shortly before the band disintegrated, fed up with Kuti's autocracy and the lack of money

1 FELA RANSOME KUTI & AFRICA 70 Expensive Shit [1975]

You say: "He literally made a classic record out of a bowel movement." - @clare_hill via Twitter

Imprisoned on drugs charges in 1974, Kuti and fellow inmates conspired to ensure the authorities were provided with a clean sample and had to release him. From the band on fire to the mocking sleeve, with Fela and his topless queens offering celebratory Black Power salutes behind barbed wire, and the joyful snark of the lyrics (as Fela sings about the downside of evacuating his digestive system, the gleeful chorus comes back: "Because the shit dey smell"), it's Afrobeat heaven. Proving Africa 70 could do deep soul too, Water No Get Enemy on side two ensures pole position


Albums by Fela's sidemen started appearing in the 1970s, with Ginger Baker's Stratavarious and trumpeter Tunde Williams' Mr Big Mouth worth searching out. Dele Sosimi and Tony Allen keep the flame burning, while sons Femi and Seun have followed in the family tradition. Carlos Moore's biography Fela: This Bitch Of A Life, for better or worse, couldn't be more Felaesque, while Trevor Schoonmaker and Michael E Veal have produced more scholarly works. Three documentaries fill in a lot of the gaps, even if repetition is inevitable: Teacher Don't Teach Nonsense (on Anthology 1); Finding Fela which was tied to the Broadway musical; and Music Is The Weapon.