Obituary: Fela Kuti

Philip Sweeney
Sunday 03 August 1997 23:02 BST

Fela Kuti's family circumstances marked him for distinction, though not necessarily as one of the earliest and wildest of Africa's handful of world- famous popular singers. The Ransome-Kuti family is a sort of Nigerian equivalent of the Foots or the Redgraves - intellectual, uncompromising and both of the establishment and against it at the same time.

Kuti's father and grandfather were both eminent Christian churchmen and liturgical composers, and his mother was a pioneering African feminist, the first female holder of a Nigerian driving licence, and a visitor of Mao Tse-tung in China. One of Kuti's brothers, Beko, a lawyer, is the leader of the Nigerian democratic opposition; a second, the doctor Koye, served as health minister in the 1970s; while Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Literature laureate, is a cousin.

Kuti's introduction to music began in the most conservative way, studying composition and trumpet at the Trinity College of Music in London in the late 1950s. He began to absorb jazz and black American styles - James Brown was an important influence - to add to his knowledge of Yoruba traditional music and Ghanaian and Nigerian "highlife" style. He formed his first band, the Koola Lobitos, and played trumpet backing Soyinka, who was at Leeds University and composing songs in his spare time.

In 1969 the Koola Lobitos toured the United States. Kuti immersed himself in the black power politics of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers, then in full bloom, and before long the Koola Lobitos, who had already been rechristened Nigeria 70, became Egypt 70, a reflection of the new theory that Africa was the cradle of humanity and culture, with ancient Egypt a black rival to Aryan Greece.

The classic 69 Los Angeles Sessions album, recorded rapidly on a shoestring before the band was deported for working without work permits, opened in characteristically discursive form with a rambling spoken introduction before settling into its trademark mix of rich brass and heavy, multi- layered percussion - the drummer Tony Allen was of vital importance to the creative process.

By the early Seventies Kuti was establishing a reputation in Lagos, and recording prolifically and successfully. His musical trademark was the rich mix he christened "Afro beat", coupled with lyrics almost exclusively in either Yoruba or pidgin.

His songs, always concerned with social and political issues, began to turn into robust criticism of the corruption and incompetence manifesting itself among African leaders as the independence dream began to turn sour.

In 1971, Kuti returned to London to record at EMI's Abbey Road studios, with production handled by the drummer Ginger Baker. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, he solidified his reputation for musical excitement, showmanship and outspokenness. His name transmuted to the more African Fela Anikalapu- Kuti and Egypt 70 became Egypt 80. He set up a nightclub-cum-commune called the Kalakuta Republic, in which he held court over a harem of women - in a much-publicised ceremony he simultaneously married 27 of them - and raised the smoking of igbo (Nigerian grass) to the status of ritual. His songwriting became more and more pointed as he lambasted the politicians, generals and businessmen he saw despoiling and oppressing Nigeria. A torrent of colourful pidgin lyrics flowed from his pen - "Expensive Shit", "Zombie", "ITT (International Thief Thief)", generally assumed to refer to Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of Nigeria's most recent election, and "Beats of No Nation" (on the cover of which Margaret Thatcher was depicted as one of a trio of hyenas with Ronald Reagan and Pik Botha).

By 1988 Kuti was able to pack Brixton Academy with a coalition of not only London Nigerians and world music enthusiasts, but young Jamaicans and soul, rap and hip hop fans, transfixed by the relentless trundling percussion of a huge 6ft log drum, the half-dozen female singers, and the bare-chested Kuti, face painted white, strutting back and forth in front of his minutely drilled 30-strong battalion, blowing saxophone solos and pausing for cigarettes between verses.

Kuti's political views, expounded to the press as he sprawled in underpants, joint in hand, attracted regular and violent reprisals from the Nigerian authorities. In 1977 the Kalakuta Republic was sacked by a large police raid during which Kuti's mother was pushed from a window, dying afterwards from her injuries. In 1985 Kuti served 20 months in prison on a charge (trumped up, he insisted) of illegally exporting a small sum of foreign currency. Earlier this year, the Shrine, the club which succeeded the Kalakuta Republic, received yet another major drugs squad visitation, with Kuti incarcerated for some days before being released mysteriously with no charge.

Though Kuti remained an enthusiastic provocateur till the end, he abandoned political commentary in disgust by the late Eighties, and turned instead to what he described as "spirituality" - which entailed a study of the mystical processes underlying the ways of the world. His pronouncements remained just as colourful. A much-aired recent theory, characteristically unsupported by anything as mundane as evidence, concerned the presence in Windsor Castle of a Yoruba ritual pot purloined by the explorer Mungo Park, the vibrations from which were fomenting global misfortunes.

He leaves a large and important catalogue of records, and his son and musical heir Femi at the helm of his own band, a flourishing live version of the sound Fela Kuti created, still unique, and still in world demand.

Philip Sweeney

Fela Ransome-Kuti, musician: born Abeokura, Nigeria 15 October 1938; died Lagos 2 August 1997.

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