The Genius of Fela Kuti by Abbey Road’s Cameron Colbeck

Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in 1938, this native Nigerian became arguably the most prominent African musician the world has ever known. I first became aware of Fela Kuti’s music in 2012 after moving to London. It exposed me to new rhythms and a subject matter I had absolutely no experience of. In truth I still don’t, but the multiculturalism I’ve found in London along with Fela’s music, have acted as catalysts for a discovery of different cultural perspectives.

I was raised in Santa Cruz, California in the '90s and though a predominantly very liberal, hippy-dippy sort of place, African-Americans were largely unrepresented in my community and African history and culture was strikingly absent from my education. We can casually credit black people for birthing jazz, blues and rock and roll, but rarely do we stop to think about a wider context in terms of cultural appropriation or current systematic racism. My experiences and education in London have helped to open my eyes to this struggle and to understand the extent of my privilege. Through Fela, I’ve found a humbler perspective of what I call “my own” music and a much deeper respect for the music of other cultures. Fela Kuti was born into a certain echelon of Nigerian society, his highly educated parents giving him the opportunity to learn and travel from a young age. It seems that all too easily Fela could have allowed Western indoctrination of culture and values to define him, his African roots becoming secondary, but Fela embraced his blessings in a completely different manner. He remained rooted in truth, and in his music remained focused on the justice and empowerment of those around him. He was so outspoken that he eventually became target number-one for the Nigerian government and was slandered, jailed and brutally beaten on many occasions. “Once his name was Fela Ransome-Kuti, the name of a slave. Since 1977 he has been known as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the name of a king.” (Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon by Jean Jaques Flori, Stéphane Tchalgadjieff)
Fela recorded three albums at Abbey Road Studios in the ‘70s, Fela’s London Scene, Aphrodisiac, and Fela Ransome-Kuti and Africa 70 with Ginger Baker: Live! The latter featuring a 16-minute drum battle between Ginger and Fela’s drummer Tony Allen, who we sadly lost in April of this year. Allen was a long-time, key contributor to Fela’s music and he will be remembered as a human metronome and a father of Afrobeat music. The crossover of English and African music in the ‘60s and ‘70s was an important moment in history. It dared to address the other side of England’s history, that as imperialists and appropriators, the musical exchange attempting to build a bridge between two cultures with a turbulent past. Fela’s work at Abbey Road Studios went on to inspire musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and Damon Albarn to broaden their minds and music. The collaboration gave Fela a wider audience not only in the UK, but also the rest of the world. Fela Kuti first came to London in 1958, apparently to study medicine, but ended up attending Trinity College of Music. “For the next four years, he studied piano, composition and theory, and made a name on the R&B club scene with his jazz and highlife band, Koola Lobitos.” (The Big Fela by Peter Culshaw in The Guardian) Fela was undoubtedly influenced by the jazz and beat music scene in London, frequenting clubs like the 100 Club, the Cue Club and The Four Aces, but he did not let that cause him to lose sight of where he came from. It is interesting that at this exact time, Nigeria was gaining its independence from Britain. It could be argued that this was part of his inspiration to return to Nigeria and keep his music rooted in African rhythms and his lyrics focused on African social issues.

Fela travelled to America in 1969 at the tail-end of the Civil Rights Movement. He discovered the works of Malcolm X and met with members of the Black Panther Party. This, in essence, inspired him to dedicate his lyrics to social issues as he once again brought his findings home to Africa, shifting his image in an attempt to unite the continent by coining the genre “Afrobeat” and by renaming his band from Nigeria ’70 to Afrika ’70. Upon his return, Fela was once again confronted by a new political landscape. “When Fela returns to Nigeria, the Biafran War (or Nigerian Civil War) is raging. It will go on for two and a half years and leave 1 million dead among the ruins. As wars go, this one is particularly absurd. The division of Africa among the Colonialist powers, failed to consider ethnic frontiers.” (Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon by Jean Jaques Flori, Stéphane Tchalgadjieff) In the wake of the war, Fela made a most noteworthy move by renting the space for what would become the legendary Afrika Shrine nightclub in Ikeja just outside Lagos. By all accounts Afrika Shrine was a smokey, colourful and vibrant space where every night, Fela and friends would come to play, speak and worship in front of a packed house. This attracted many people from all backgrounds in Africa as well as Western musicians such as Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, James Brown’s entire band, Bootsy Collins and so many more. Fela’s purpose there was not so much to entertain Beatles and Motown stars but to spread awareness of Pan-African ideology, which he did by way of the “Yabis” nights at Afrika Shrine. He would raise issues of the time and lampoon specific individuals in government. The audience would be involved in these discussions and they would often go on to inspire the lyrics of Fela’s songs.
Around this time was also the peak of this exchange between African and English musicians, as Fela came back to London to record at Abbey Road Studios. First they recorded Fela’s London Scene, an album deep with layered percussion, electric pianos and horns, guided by Fela’s piercing vocal. Being in a famous studio in London didn’t cause Fela to shy away from his subject matter, “Anti-colonialist sentiment comes through in Buy Africa, flipping between Nigerian Yoruba and English in order to communicate with Nigerians in their original language and also to address English colonisers.” (Fela Kuti and London’s Underground Spiritual Game by Lottie Brazier on The Quietus) Drummer Ginger Baker appears on Fela’s London Scene and conversely Fela on Ginger’s Live! Baker, as well as EMI, deserves a lot of credit for facilitating these sessions and encouraging Fela and Tony Allen to bring their live experience to Europe and the rest of the world. Two years later, Fela returned to record Aphrodisiac which has become one of his most beloved and influential records. To my Western ear, Aphrodisiac is full of particularly catchy hooks and a truly hypnotic flow, supported by the rhythms and dynamics consistent with Fela’s Afrobeat. “Originally recorded and released in Nigeria on 45rpm, they were Fela’s first successive hits in the Nigerian music charts. The best known song on 1973’s Aphrodisiac is Jeun Ko Ku, a satire about gluttony and Fela’s first major hit in West Africa. In Broken English the title means ‘chop and quench’, which, in turn, means ‘eat and die’ in Standard English.” (Knitting Factory Records)
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Kuti's Mother

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Kuti's Mother

Fela Kuti & his Family

Fela Kuti & his Family

It’s safe to say Fela developed into a fully-fledged protest singer. In Kalakuta Notes, John Collins observes that “In his songs [Fela] went much further than the usual round-up of protest singers such as Bob Dylan, James Brown or Bob Marley. Fela's songs not only protested against various forms of injustice but often fiercely attacked specific agencies and members of the Nigerian government.” As the ‘70s progressed, Fela Kuti came up against more and more backlash from his own government in Nigeria. He had established a safe-haven in the form of a commune, right in the heart of a working-class suburb of Lagos where he and his entourage lived peacefully. He called this compound Kalakuta Republic, named after a prison called “Calcutta” in which he was once detained. In 1977 Fela released his hit song Zombie about the police presence on the streets, who at the time were prone to thoughtlessly beating the public. Almost as a direct response to Zombie, Kalakuta was tear-gassed and cleared out by a thousand soldiers in a 15-hour raid. In the process the men were beaten, the women were beaten and raped, and Fela’s own mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a famous educator and activist, was thrown from a window and killed. Fela was crushed, but in no way did this slow him down, in fact quite the opposite. He became more and more incentivised in his political action.

Fela would never turn a blind eye to corruption or accept a lack of control over his own life. Through music he rebelled, over and over again, forcefully yet peacefully. Artists like Fela are few and far between, those who have the immense talent for creating but also see beyond melodies and structures to the heart of music itself, using it’s power to bring people together and create change, or at the very least, raise awareness. His work at Abbey Road Studios brought Afrobeat to the world and eventually to my ears, for which I’m immensely grateful. By his inspiration, I now see music as an important tool in incorporating alternate views into a society. It has the potential, as it always has, to influence where we go from here. Fela Anikulapo Kuti is a prime example that if we pay attention and recount an injustice clearly, we can isolate broken or abused systems and help to drive change forward. In his own words, “Music is the weapon of the future.”

Thank you to Cameron for providing us with this detailed account. And in case you missed it, producer and former Abbey Road engineer, Jeff Jarratt, also shares his account of the recording sessions at Abbey Road.

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