It's almost impossible to overstate the impact and importance of Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti (or just Fela as he's more commonly known) to the global musical village: producer, arranger, musician, political radical, outlaw. He was all that, as well as showman par excellence, inventor of Afro-beat, an unredeemable sexist, and a moody megalomaniac. His death on August 3, 1997 of complications from AIDS deeply affected musicians and fans internationally, as a musical and sociopolitical voice on a par with Bob Marley was silenced. A press release from the United Democratic Front of Nigeria on the occasion of Fela's death noted: "Those who knew you well were insistent that you could never compromise with the evil you had fought all your life. Even though made weak by time and fate, you remained strong in will and never abandoned your goal of a free, democratic, socialist Africa." This is as succinct a summation of Fela's political agenda as one is likely to find.
Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, north of Lagos in 1938, Fela's family was firmly middle class as well as politically active. His father was a pastor (and talented pianist), his mother active in the anti-colonial, anti-military, Nigerian home rule movement. So at an early age, Fela experienced politics and music in a seamless combination. His parents, however, were less interested in his becoming a musician and more interested in his becoming a doctor, so they packed him off to London in 1958 for what they assumed would be a medical education; instead, Fela registered at Trinity College's school of music. Tired of studying European composers, Fela formed his first band, Koola Lobitos, in 1961, and quickly became a fixture on the London club scene. He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and started another version of Koola Lobitos that was more influenced by the James Brown-style singing of Geraldo Pina from Sierra Leone. Combining this with elements of traditional high life and jazz, Fela dubbed this intensely rhythmic hybrid "Afro-beat," partly as critique of African performers whom he felt had turned their backs on their African musical roots in order to emulate current American pop music trends.
The '69 Los Angeles Sessions In 1969, Fela brought Koola Lobitos to Los Angeles to tour and record. They toured America for about eight months using Los Angeles as a home base. It was while in L.A. that Fela hooked up with a friend, Sandra Isidore, who introduced him to the writings and politics of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver (and by extension the Black Panthers), and other proponents of Black nationalism and Afrocentrism. Impressed at what he read, Fela was politically revivified and decided that some changes were in order: first, the name of the band, as Koola Lobitos became Nigeria 70; second, the music would become more politically explicit and critical of the oppression of the powerless worldwide. After a disagreement with an unscrupulous promoter who turned them in to the Immigration and Naturalization Services, Fela and band were charged with working without work permits. Realizing that time was short before they were sent back to Nigeria, they were able to scrape together some money to record some new songs in L.A. What came to be known as the '69 Los Angeles Sessions were remarkable, an indication of a maturing sound and of the raucous, propulsive music that was to mark Fela's career. Afrobeat's combination of blaring horn sections, antiphonal vocals, Fela's quasi-rapping pidgin English, and percolating guitars, all wrapped up in a smoldering groove (in the early days driven by the band's brilliant drummer Tony Allen) that could last nearly an hour, was an intoxicating sound. Once hooked, it was impossible to get enough.
Upon returning to Nigeria, Fela founded a communal compound-cum-recording studio and rehearsal space he called the Kalakuta Republic, and a nightclub, the Shrine.
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