Monday, January 9, 2012 / 5:00 am

Injustice’s Jukebox A1: The Music of Fela Kuti

An occasional feature in which we’ll look at music that responded to, and helped shape, the events and moods of its time.

by Jim Washburn

Fela Kuti

Welcome to Injustice’s Jukebox, an occasional feature in which we’ll look at music that responded to, and helped shape, the events and moods of its time. Oh boy, here we go:

We saw Fela! last week, the Broadway musical recently transplanted to the Ahmanson, about which critics are exulting, “It’s a breathtaking roller-coaster ride!” “unbridled joy … a poignant human rights statement!” and “be prepared to get out of your seat and shake your derriere!” to which I can only add: “Oh, it’s all right.”

At a time when shows tend not to get produced unless they’re adapted from a Disney movie or are decades-old revivals, it is a laudable thing that there is a commercially successful musical in the US about Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the firebrand Nigerian musician who died in 1997, who could be described as James Brown, Bob Marley, Archie Shepp and Malcolm X rolled into one, had not Fela been entirely his own animal.

The actor who plays Fela, Sahr Ngaujah, does a remarkable job of emulating the original’s speaking and singing voice, as well as his physicality, and does the most convincing sax-syncing I’ve ever seen (while Ngaujah lips a tenor onstage, it’s the show band’s Morgan Price who is actually recreating Fela’s torrential sax style at the back of the stage).

The music—written by Fela and performed by the Fela tribute band Antibalas—is a good recreation of Fela’s Afrobeat style. The Bill T. Jones choreography is sensual and vibrant. The book is kind of stiff, rifling through Fela’s achievements and travails without much illuminating them, and having his mother loom over the entire proceedings. (Literally, with both a poster of her hanging over the stage throughout, and with an actress playing her wandering atop a platform, singing ethereally while radiating light. I love my mom, but she doesn’t do that.)

Maybe it was an attempt to impose a story arc on Fela’s fantastically chaotic life, but the net effect is to give the show a hoked-up Lion King tone. It was a world removed from the actual Fela performance I saw at LA’s Olympic Auditorium back in the 1980s. Fela didn’t need an exclamation point added to his name; he was a walking, breathing exclamation point.

Some background: Fela was born in Ogun State, Nigeria, in 1938, to middle-class parents: His father was a Protestant minister, school official and unionist; his mother was a teacher and anti-colonial, pro-women’s-rights activist. The couple’s two other sons became doctors, but when Fela was sent to London to study medicine, he pursued the tenor saxophone instead.

Once back in Lagos, Fela became a full-time musician. There are recordings of him from this period, the early ’60s, where he’s playing hi-life music—innocuous jolly-time stuff made by a colonized people.

Fela moved to Los Angeles (illegally, of course) in 1969, and his music had grown both more tribal and individualistic, drawing on traditional rhythms, James Brown funk and Fela’s own perspectives. Those were broadened in LA via Sandra Isidore, a Black Panther who became his girlfriend and turned him on to Malcolm X, Nina Simone and other fine things.

By the time he was deported and landed again in Lagos, he was no longer a jolly good Fela. His new music was a hit, but it railed against Nigeria’s corrupt, repressive military dictatorship.

It is one thing to be an American rock star and descend from your canyon to wax a constitutionally protected protest jingle against “the Man.” It is quite another to be living in the capital city of a thuggish junta with guns and prisons to assure that a discouraging word was seldom heard, and to stand on a stage nightly, naming the names of the corrupt in song, and prodding them further with dance floor smashes with titles like “Government Chicken Boy.” He attacked the corporations he saw robbing his country in other songs, such as “I.T.T.: International Thief Thief.”

His first Africa-wide hit was a track called “Zombie.” In Nigeria and much of the continent, it was a prestige gig to be in the military. You got to swagger around in a uniform brandishing a gun, and you basically had a license to extort. But “Zombie” told soldiers that they were just laughable brain-dead slaves.

The song’s effect was like a Nigerian Lysistrata: In dance halls, soldiers who had counted on their uniforms to attract women instead found those women singing along with Fela’s scoffing marching orders to the idiot troops.

Fela was a different sort of fearless. I interviewed him in 1986 (I’ll post it, once I figure how to trowel printed text back into computerland). He had just spent two years in prison on trumped-up charges. It was his longest of literally hundreds of jail stints for his music.

He said he took it as a given that his path was laid before him, whatever it brought, and that he’d been the one to lay it: “I do not know why I was singled out, but I want to say one thing: I know myself. I know my duty of the performer. I know what I have to do in this world. I know that, but I guess everybody else can speak for themselves.”

One time, he was jailed on a marijuana charge, and he had eaten the evidence. They arrested him and waited for said evidence to turn up in his cell bucket. Instead, fellow prisoners helped him smuggle his illicit crap out of the cell, so when he finally did produce one for the authorities, they picked through it and found it to be as unsullied as baby poop, and they had to let him go. Fela immediately rubbed their noses in it with an album about the experience called Expensive Shit.

He claimed his most recent prison stay had only strengthened him. The authorities tried to conquer him with boredom, he said, so he spent his years conquering boredom instead, by out-boring it. “I didn’t write music. I didn’t do anything in prison at all. I made my time very dormant. I didn’t play games. I didn’t read books. I would just think and try to make myself quiet.”

Fela was pretty Zen in some ways, but you don’t see the Dalai Lama writing songs called “You Give Me Shit, I Give You Shit.”

That motto belongs on the Kuti coat of arms. He possibly could have been content with his music, his strong African weed and his eventual 27 wives (who said that two-per-night was his typical regimen), but he didn’t like people giving him shit, and his social conscience and sense of compassion for others was such that when the government transgressed against any of his less fortunate Nigerians, that too was giving Fela shit, and, yes, he was going to give you some back.

At one point, he was so fed up with the dictatorship that he put a fence up around the Lagos apartment complex he owned and declared it an independent republic. It housed his band, his family, and his recording studio. The government sent 1,000 troops, who torched the place, beat and raped his musicians and wives, and threw his mother out a window. When she died following her injuries, Fela led the funeral procession, redirecting it from the cemetery to the residence of the military dictator, where he left his mother and her coffin. Then he slipped into the studio to record the album Coffin for Head of State.

This is all covered, if not exactly brought to life, in Fela! The book isn’t bad, it just is no match for the music it interrupts. The music is tremendously well-played, sung and danced, but it is there my chief quibble lies. Good though it is, it isn’t half as alive as it could be. What with lighting cues, dancers hitting their marks and all that, it probably isn’t practical to have music that goes flowing out into strange new shapes nightly, but that robs the music of something.

At the ’86 show in LA’s brutal old Olympic boxing arena, Fela’s band’s horns had a wonderfully brash, discordant sound, maybe like what Hannibal’s horn section sounded like as his armies advanced on the Po Valley. His dancers were shaking more ass than has perhaps ever been shook on an American stage, before or since, as Fela stood at center stage, enshrouded in smoke of his own making, offering explanations to his songs, such as, “This next song is called ‘Confusion Break Bone.’ It means confusion break bone.” Of all the many things said about him, not enough is said about Fela the surrealist. He and Captain Beefheart probably could have had a fine conversation.

His sax playing was far from virtuosic, but it spoke with a volcanic voice. It darted and wove about ensemble music that was wild and wide open, where even beguiling, locked-tight rhythms would sway and lurch in response to Fela’s smallest gesture. It was a crazy good night of music and I’ve never seen anything like it, certainly not on the Ahmanson stage.

It is a noble, loving tribute they’ve concocted there, but I left thinking what I have after having seen a good Beatles cover band, which is “why just play constrictive versions of Fab Four tunes, from the era when their stage shows had long become a worn joke to them? Why not instead be the drunk young Hamburg Star Club Beatles, screaming their hearts out and making an electric racket that thrilled their own ears to hear it?”

My advice is to see the musical, but don’t stop there. There are several fine videos of Fela on YouTube you should check out. You should read the bio Fela Fela This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore, much of which is in Fela’s own words. Moore also interviewed several of Fela’s wives. One said what she liked most about Fela was “the ideology. The way he do. The way he pity for another person. The way one person get trouble, he am help for trouble.” Another remarked, “I like his mind. And I like his prick … It be good-o,” a commendation many of us would be proud to have on our headstones.

And especially, if the chance presents, see his son Femi Kuti, who I think is one of the most astounding musicians around. He is most definitely a chip off the old shoulder—“Traitors of Africa” and “Blackman Know Yourself” are among his titles—but he is definitely his own man: a fierce performer and an incredibly dedicated musician. There is another son, Seun Kuti, who leads Fela’s own band and is reputedly more of a stickler to his dad’s old sound. Maybe he’s great—I haven’t heard him yet—but I admire Femi for forging his own path. Check out his 2005 DVD Live at the Shrine and see if it doesn’t kick more life into you.

Fela Kuti
Fela album cover
Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.


Well, I can’t speak for your prick, Jim, but as far as your mind?
It really be a good-o.

Keep on keeping us posted on the things that really matter.


2012-01-10 by christopher

Great piece, Jim. Thanks for turning me on to Fela 20+ years ago. And I think we saw Femi together once, no? It’s all getting so fuzzy…

2012-01-11 by Ek

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