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FELA RANSOME KUTI
: The Life & Times of an African Musical Icon
Nigerian Musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti DiesMonday, August 4, 1997
The Washington Post
LAGOS, Nigeria -- Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, 58, the maverick Nigerian singer, composer and saxophonist who fused rock with African rhythms into a blend known as "Afrobeat" and popularized it around the world, died here Aug. 3. He had AIDS.
Known to his fans as "Fela," he rose to national and international fame with his distinctive Afrobeat music and his criticism of Nigeria's military government, and for his bohemian lifestyle. Known for openly smoking marijuana, dressing only in his underpants and sleeping with numerous women, Fela was a legend among his fans.
After learning of his death, hundreds of tearful fans gathered to mourn at "the Shrine," Fela's home and club in the Ikeja working-class district of Lagos, Nigeria's capital.
Fela, one of the dominant superstars of African music in the 1970s and 1980s, recorded more than 50 albums. He also became famous for his songs criticizing the military junta of Gen. Sani Abacha, as well as earlier military regimes in Nigeria. He was detained several times and even imprisoned on a variety of charges.
In his final two years, Fela made no effort to oppose military rule, even though one of his brothers, democracy activist Beko Ransome-Kuti, is serving a prison term for involvement in an alleged coup plot. The musician stayed at home, giving infrequent, and usually brief, musical performances at the Shrine.
Fela was born in Abeokuta, about 50 miles north of Lagos. He started out as a jazz musician but shifted toward pop and reggae while studying at Trinity College of Music in Oxford, England, from 1959 to 1962.
He also spent time in Ghana and the United States, where he developed a strong interest in politics and civil rights. After returning to Nigeria for good in 1973, he swiftly became a star. His top albums included "Zombie," "Army Arrangement" and "Vagabond in Power."
He became enmeshed in a long-running confrontation with military authorities because of his urging that young Nigerians become more politically active. Troops burned down his house in 1977.
In 1979, Fela and his entourage of wives and girlfriends went to the ruling junta's headquarters and placed the coffin of his recently deceased mother on the steps. Fela said he wanted to demonstrate that the power of the state was impotent compared with the power of the human spirit.
Fela was convicted of illegally exporting foreign currency in 1984 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. A year later, the military government of Gen. Muhammed Buhari was overthrown by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who freed Fela. In March 1996, Fela's home was attacked by gunmen. His most recent arrest came April 9. He and about 100 others -- including several of his wives -- were detained for marijuana use by police drug agents who raided his nightclub north of Lagos.
During his heyday, Fela changed part of the family name from Ransome to Anikulapo -- which means "one who keeps death in his pouch" in his local Yoruba language.
The announcement of the cause of his death raised questions about whether any of his 27 wives had contracted the disease.~Washington Post
Kuti has been the primary influence behind the invention and developmentof afrobeat, the west African fusion of agit-prop lyrics and dance rhythms which has been a major medium of social protest for the urban poor since the late '60s.
Kuti was born to middle-class parents and enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood and adolescence before breaking with family wishes and becoming a bandleader and political catalyst. In 1958, he was sent to London by his parents, who had agreed to support him there while he studied to become a doctor. Within weeks of arriving, however, he had enrolled at Trinity College of Music, where he spent the next four years studying piano, composition and theory and leading his highlife-meets-jazz group Koola Lobitos.
By 1961, the band was a regular fixture on London's growing R&B club scene, drawing substantial audiences to influential clubs like the Marquee and Birdland. In 1962, Kuti left Trinity and moved back to Nigeria, basing himself in Lagos, where he became a trainee radio producer with Nigerian Broadcasting. His after-hours activities with a re-formed Koola Lobitos interfered with his work, however, and he was fired after a few months. From this point on, he devoted himself entirely to a career as a bandleader.
By 1968, Kuti was calling the music Koola Lobitos played afrobeatas a retort to the slavish relationship most other local bandleaders had with black American music. His ambition to reverse the one-way tide of musical influence led him to take Koola Lobitos to the USA in 1969, where the group struggled to survive playing small clubs on the west coast. Although financially unsuccessful, the visit did much to awaken Kuti's political sensibilities, and he forged important friendships with radical black activists such as Angela Davis, Stokley Carmichael and the Last Poets.
Back in Nigeria, Kuti changed the name of Koola Lobitos to Afrika 70, and in 1971 enjoyed a big local hit with Jeun Ko'ku (Yoruba for eat and die). He also founded the Shrine Club in Lagos, which was to become the focus for his music and political activity. By 1972, Kuti had become one of the biggest stars in west Africa; because he sang in broken English rather than one of the tribal languages, his lyrics were understandable in all Anglophone countries; and because he rejected the traditional African bandleader stance of promoting local politicians and their policies, choosing instead to articulate the anger and aspirations of the urban poor, he became a figure- head and hero for street people throughout Nigeria, Ghana and neighbouring countries.
A typical early swipe at the ruling elite was contained in the 1973 album GENTLEMAN, in which Kuti lampooned the black middle-class fetish for wearing western clothing in a tropical climate: him put him socks him put him shoes, him put him pants him put him singlet, him put him trouser him put him shirt, him put him tie him put him coat, him come cover all with him hat; him be gentleman; him go sweat all over, him go faint right down, him go smell like shit. Not surprisingly, the Nigerian establishment did not enjoy hearing songs like thesenor did they approve of Kuti's high-profile propaganda on behalf of igbo (Nigerian marijuana).
The drug squad attempted to clamp down on him on several occasions, all of them unsuccessful and providing the lyric material for a string of hilarious album releases. Enraged, the army was sent to arrest him at his home, Alagbon Close, in late 1974. The house was practically razed to the ground, and Kuti delighted his fans by telling the tale in gory detail on the album ALAGBON CLOSE, questioning the right of uni-formed public servants to go around breaking heads and property at will.
The attack confirmed Kuti's revolutionary politics for all time and also cemented his total embrace of African mores and customs. In 1975, he changed his middle name from Ransome (which he regarded as a slave name) to Anikulapo. His full name, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, now meant 'He Who Emanates Greatness (Fela), Having Control Over Death (Anikulapo), Death Cannot Be Caused By Human Entity (Kuti)'. Kuti was going to need all the power of this name on 18 February 1977, when the army mounted a second, all-out attack on his new home, a walled compound of houses called Kalakuta Republic. Some 1,000 soldiers cordoned off the area, set fire to the premises and viciously attacked the occupantsKuti suffered a fractured skull, arm and leg, while his 82-year-old mother was thrown out of a first-floor window, narrowly escaping death.
The army then prevented the fire brigade reaching the compound, and for good measure beat up and arrested anyone they identified as a journalist among the onlookers. Although Kuti won the war of words which followed, he sensibly decided to leave Nigeria for a while, and in October 1977 went into voluntary exile in Ghana. Unfortunately, his Accra recordings (such as ZOMBIE, a virulent satire on the military mentality), did not endear him to the Ghanaian authorities either, and in 1978 he was deported back to Lagos. On arrival, to mark the anniversary of the previous year's pillage of Kalakuta and to reaffirm his embrace of African culture, he married 27 women simultaneously in a traditional ceremony.
Kuti has not dropped his high revolutionary profile in subsequent years. With albums like COFFIN FOR HEAD OF STATE, INTERNATIONAL THIEF THIEF, VIP VAGABONDS IN POWER and AUTHORITY STEALING (all attacking government corruption and abuse of human rights), he has continued to keep himself and his band (renamed Egypt 80 in 1979) at the forefront of west African roots culture, while also acquiring a substantial international profile.
In 1984, Kuti was jailed in Nigeria on what were widely regarded as trumped-up currency smuggling charges. During his 27-month incarceration, leading New York avant-funk producer Bill Laswell was brought in to complete the production of the outstanding ARMY ARRANGEMENT album. On release from prison in 1987, Kuti released the Wally Badarou-produced TEACHER DON'T TEACH ME NONSENSE a rich, dense, at times almost orchestral work which showed him recharged, rather than weakened, by his latest persecution. He continues to be a vital force in Nigerian, and indeed world, music. ~Music Central '96
Election Promises Civilian Rule, But Voters, Hearing Replay, Tune In To Radical Singer--By Robert Block Staff Reporter Of WSJ
Feb. 25, 1999
LAGOS,Nigeria--Forget the candidates and the campaign rhetoric,the spectors of corrupt generals and debauched power brokers. Nigerians hear and heed one man:singer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.He is outspoken,dynamic and sexy--even 18 months after his death.
The Presidential election on Saturday is trumpeted as a landmark because it is supposed to end 15 years of military rule and move this major oil producer a giant step closer to the democratic rule and stability long sought by the developed world.But the ghost of Nigeria's greatest musician is haunting the political transition and spooking the country's ruling classes as they try to win over 100 million people of Africa's most populous country.
Fela,as he is known to his fans,spent most of his life championing the rights of the common man in songs denouncing the corruption and brutality of Nigeria's miltary and civilian rulers.His lyrics got him beaten tortured,and imprisoned.Nigerians loved his Afro--beat music,a mix of jazz,soul and heavy percussion, but the elite found his message too radical and his private life of drugs and promiscuity scandalous.One day he married his entire troupe of 27 erotic dancers--only to divorce them later.He died of AIDS-related illness.
Now ,Nigerians across the country's deep ethnic regional and political divides are parsing his lyrics,seeking the context for the crucial elections and finding ironies and consolation. Songs that date from 15 years ago remain fresh because so little has changed politically. Foes of the military are trotting out tunes like "Army rrangement," which tells how the military sets the terms for it's departure from government while keeping its hand in the till and on the tiller.
'ICONOCLAST TO THE CORE'
Last week,the military backed People's Democratic Party nominated as its presidential candidate retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo,who ruled Nigeria from 1976 to 1979. In Lagos,people immediately took to the streets and began chanting "Soilder go, soilder come,' a refrain from a once banned Fela song about the military's appetite for power.
So potent is Fela that even the establishment is trying credibility by basking in his glow. Nigerian companies,which never touched Fela during his lifetime,have sponsored memorial concerts in which they promoted their products through association with the singer.
"Fela was a prophet and an iconoclast to the core," says Rasheed Gbadamosi, a childhood friend of the singer, who knows well the power of the Fela name. He admits it probably helped him win his job of minister of national planning in the current military government of Gen. Abdusalami Abubaker, which committed itself to reforms.
But everyone is pulling on the Fela bandwagon, least of all Gen. Obasanjo. The military's favorite and the race's front-runner, the former general also is widely reviled as the singers archenemy.
On Feb.18,1977,hundreds of soilders from Gen. Obasanjo's army raided Fela's communal home, called Kalakuta. The ostensible reason was Fela was haboring criminals. The soilders fractured Fela's skull and broke several other of his bones.They threw his 82-year old mother from an upstairs window, inflicting wounds from which she later died,and injured other people as well.They set fire to the compound and prevented the fire brigade from reaching the site.The blaze destroyed six vehicles,a recording studio and all of Fela's master tapes and musical instruments.
In recent weeks,Gen. Obasanjo has been asked to account for the raid at several news conferences.The general has issued a blanket apology and has asked people to forget the past,but the past refuses to go away."That event,the burning of Fela's house,has become shorthand in the Nigerian press for all the oppressive acts carried out during Obasanjo's time as head of state,'says a Western diplomat.
Fela developed many of his ideas in 1969 in California,where he spent 10 months performing. He absorbed the radical politics of the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the Last Poets and Stokely Carmicheal.After he came back to Nigeria,he tried several times to enter politics.When civilians breifly returned to power in 1979, Fela launched a political party-Movement of the People, or MOP-but was prevented by the military from running for office.
He went on enraging the military with barbed tunes in which he branded the generals and their civilian cronies and international backers as zombies and animals.One such song, "Beast No Nation,"translated from it's pidgin English,goes like this:
Animals in human skins, Animals they put on ties, Animals they wear robes, Animals they put on suits, They many leaders as you see them.
Over the years,governments hit the singer with drug and sex charges and even murder charges. He was convicted only once, in 1984,and sentenced to five years in prison on what Amnesty International called '' spurious" charges of currency violations.He was released after two years, when a new government came to power.
Since his death ,his musician son,Femi Kuti,has donned the mantle-including his father's electrically sexy dancing and wild saxophone.Through his own music, Femi continues his father's message:Nigeria needs a government of the people and for the people. Femi has set up a new political -musical organization called Movement Against Second Slavery , or MASS, which preaches that corruption and greed are byproducts of European colonialism and should be rejected by blacks as un-African.
"Obasanjo may be president again,but it will not be like in my father's time,when he could burn houses and repress people,'says Femi at his headquaters,a grimy two-story structure on an unpaved road lined with trash."The people of this country need to see the president of this country as nothing more than a ouseboy.When they say,'We need water',it is his job to go get water."
But just like MOP before it Femi's MASS won't be part of the elections,which Nigerians have been awaiting since 1993, when the military cancled the last elections that would have transferred the power to civilians and Gen. Sani Abacha took power. After the sudden death of Gen. Abacha last June, Gen., Abubaker took over, promising to hand power to elected civilians on May 29 this year. The presidential election has been hailed as marking Nigeria's return to democratic rule, but the process is flawed.
Few new personalities have emerged to run for governorships,legislative seats or the presidency.Most candidates are politicians who had either served in the military regimes or held office in short-lived but corrupt and thuggish civilian governments.
Gen. Obasanjo,the former president and clear favorite,is Nigeria's only military ruler ever to have handed over power to elected civilians. But many see him as a stooge of the military, which has ruled Nigeria for all but 10 years since independence from Britain in 1960.His position as front-runner owes something to those who appreciate his apparent break with the military after 1979,when he ceded power to civilians,and to his current close ties to the military,whose tremendous financial clout supports him.Military funds not only give Gen. Obasanjo the campaign's best organization; they also enable him to buy votes from Nigeria's many flexible citizens,a common practice here.
The ex-general's main rival,Chef Olu Falae of the Alliance for Democracy party,was once a cabinet secretary and later a finance minister in the regime of Gen.Ibrahim Babangida.Both have pledged, in vague terms, to improve the living standards.Most troubling is that the country still has no constitution. The military has promised to release one-an amended version of the country's 1979 document--only after the elections, leading to accusations that they want to see who wins before deciding on what powers to give the president.
So on Saturday,voters will chose a president without knowing for how long he will serve. "On the streets you here people ask, 'What would Fela have said?" says Ben Murray-Bruce, the owner of the local radio station."I don't think there is any doubt. If Fela were alive today, he would be savaging the whole affair."
News FELA'S SHRINE RAZED
Bulldozers acting on the orders of a Lagos court have razed the place where late Afro - beat musician Fela Anikulapo KUTI used to play his music.
About 50 policemen and some armed men were around to monitor the demolition which lasted a few hours. The action followed the expiration of an injunction by the court for the family of the late musician to vacate the place. The "shrine" used to serve as a hall for Fela's many admirers before he died of AIDS last year.
The property situated in the heart of Ikeja, southwest Lagos, NIGERIA had been a subject of litigation before Fela died.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Egypt 80 perform at Apollo Theater,
Harlem, New York. 1989. Photo Credit: Gordon Polatnick (all
Partial list of titles
Fela items for sale
|Shuffering and Shmiling
Open and Close
Music of Many Colors w/ Roy Ayers
Teacher Dont Teach Me Nonsense
Mr. Follow Follow
Fela Anikulapo Kuti & the Africa 70 (2 LPs) (From Ginger Baker Live Session)
Fela Ransom Kuti Vol. 1 & 2
Successo, Stratavarious, Ginger Baker
With Ginger Baker- Live
Again, Excuse O
Johnny Just Drop (J.J.D.) Live at Kalakuta
Beasts of No Nation
I Go Shout Plenty
Army Arrangement (Remix)
Live In Amsterdam
Coffin For Head of State
Music of Fela Vol. 1. Roforofo Fight
Music of Fela Vol. 2. Question Jam Answer
New York City Event
Afro-Funk Lessons with Artist Senam Okudzeto
Artist Senam Okudzeto invites audiences to "shake their nyash" at an introductory Afro-Funk dance lesson. Two 20 minute lessons will be offered and guided tours of the exhibition will be given throughout the evening.
Fela Film Screenings: Music is the Weapon and
Red Hot + Riot: Encounters with AIDS in Africa