United Colours of Africa

Seun Kuti Interview: Arts Alive 2016

Reggae music unite the people, is afrobeat music able to do the same?

Afrobeat music is about the struggle. The majority of humanity is united in the struggle. The struggle is one thing that humanity has in common. This is why the religious folks always believe in fasting. God created this world, but what do we have in common as men – hunger. Hunger is the thing that connects the world because 70% of the world is hungry. 50% of them can barely eat and 5% can barely survive. This is what God uses to unify us. Afrobeat understands this struggle that unifies the majority of humanity, as one. Either you are black or white, Asian, Catholic or whatever, the struggle is in our lives.

There has to be a Pan Africanist movement that unifies Africa. Africa has to look out for itself. It is ridiculous that black people are minorities in other places and Africa as well. This should not exist.

You said the Shrine is in Joburg?

Yes for 1 hour and 20 minutes I brought it here. African people need to understand how the struggle unifies us all. My message teaches us that we have to not only dream about escaping poverty, as young black people we also have to dream about eradicating poverty from our community.

If we go to the Shrine in Lagos, what would we experience?

I can't quantify it in words you have to come and experience it yourself! The Kalakuta Republic is there, it is now a museum also.

THC is your new album?

It is my previous album, I have an EP coming out in 2 months and my album is coming out in March. This song THC, The Higher Consciousness is from my previous album. I stand for nature. Weed, marijuana, grass was put on earth for a purpose. Humanity must begin to understand what the purpose is. I am tired of the world victimising things that are black and used by people of colour. Alcohol is worse. Drinking and driving is more dangerous. If drinking and driving was strictly enforced many white people would be in jail, as black people are in jail too. They want to use the war on drugs to keep our economies down. Marijuana does not kill anybody. Alcohol and cigarettes kill more people than marijuana, but they still keep this illegal. As they say all white is all right!

Are there things that Fela stood for that you are continuing?

Definitely, my father and I stand for a lot of things when it comes to African emancipation and development. We are socialists; we are revolutionaries; we are Pan Africanists. The only thing I differ from my dad is that he was religious. My dad was very religious in a traditional African sense. But I am an atheist. I don't want to use the word atheist, but I don't believe in anything but myself.

… and the youth … ?

Of course, the youth are the truth. They are the real picture of what we are. People in South Africa say the young people are stealing. South Africa is dangerous. When you make people believe that they are worthless if they don't have gold and diamonds and money and phones and cars. If you make them feel they are worthless without these things and you don't provide them the opportunities to get these things, don't blame young people for trying to get these things because you are the one who told them they are worthless without these things. The news teaches young people if you don't have money you are worthless. If you don't have a big car you are worthless. Society does not believe in community. I don't blame young people for being violent. The example the system has set for them and to blame them and victimise them and segregate them; for this reason we are coming to the true cause of their problems, and trying to address it from a real social point of view.

Central Park was built as a rehabilitation programme for white criminals in New York. The trees were specifically picked to bring calm to anybody walking through that park, because of the high amount of Irish, white criminals coming out of the harbour in New York. Imagine when America was mostly white, they didn't build jails, Central Park is a rehabilitation programme. And now that black people are the ones at the bottom of the ladder, look at how we are treated – punitively. There are no social ideas to ease the problems in community to remove strife from the youth. Everything is punitive, punishment … jail them, kill them. It is kind of negative. When the black man became free in the 60's and could work and vote, suddenly they changed the economy from an industrialised one to a financialised one. So, there were no blue collar jobs for black up and coming families. We have never been involved in any industrial services. We are uneducated we can't work in the big financial industry. You need education before you work there. But in the past the white family could work in the factory and feed his family okay. But as soon as the black people entered the market and are free, no more industry, no more building.

But it seems things are changing?

Now it is economic jail.

But you are making money?

I can't complain. Even if you don't put me on the radio and you don't show me on TV, the struggle is bright and loud enough for my people to hear and see me. I believe when you play conscious music in Africa you are not given the opportunities you deserve, because to play conscious music in Africa is to stand against those who believe they own Africa. When you play the music you are excluded from a lot of things that could give you the opportunity to make your career a lot better. I don't complain about that, my path is my path…


Tribute to Fela Kuti

The spiritual significance of music is seen in very ancient music styles, such as the traditional Bushmen music, Tibetan music and the compositions of Isaiah Shembe. Through this music the participant reaches a meditative state. It is in the meditative state that much is accomplished for the human being. This is why Fela Kuti called his venue The Shrine.

“If Africa is the home of music, then anything that comes from the head of an African artist must depict Africa. That is the true African artist,” said Fela. The Shrine was also a shrine to Kwame Nkrumah. In the book Fela by John Collins, Obiba the bass player says: “Sometimes Fela would baptise all his musicians with the 'spirit of music’. He would tell us: “If you know you are quarrelling with any of the other musicians remove it now, before we go to the stage, or the spirit will catch you and the fire will burn your head.”

Fela was born on 15 October 1938. His father was the reverend Israel Oludoton Ransome-Kuti. His mother was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Fela had a very beautiful and loving relationship with his mom. And after her death 'the Shrine' became a Shrine to her too. She died on the 13th April 1978 from injuries received on a police attack on the Kuti homestead, Kalakuta Republic .
Fela died on the 2nd of August 1997. Frank Siisi-Yoyo (Fela's drummer at the time of his death) maintains that Fela's health depreciated rapidly following an injection he had received in hospital one year before his death. (This resembles the decline of Bob Marley.) Fela was jailed, beaten, monitored and harassed by politicians and police alike, throughout his career. To him, VIP's were 'Vagabonds in Power.' He sung “they leave sorrow, tears and blood, their regular trademark.”

Africa post-independence was generally a very corrupt place, and Nigeria was no different. And with the guise of corruption, comes its military protection and Fela was on the wrong side of this often. “Oooooooooooooooooh, I was beaten by police! So much... How can a human being stand so much beating with clubs and not die?" Drum

There were repeated attacks, the musicians were jailed, brutalised and maimed, but the venue continued. Until three years later, 1977 when the military junta in Lagos sent a thousand soldiers to burn, kill and brutalise where they could. When Fela's mother, a noted nationalist, died after one of these raids, very symbolically, Fela and his entourage went to the ruling junta's Obasanjo headquarters and placed the coffin on the steps. The brutality, his reactions, his survival and his continuing to perform were his personal victories, the victory of personal liberty and freedom over gross power and political futility.

As hot and sweaty as Lagos can be in summer, as intoxicating as the famous palm wine of these shores can be, by all accounts Africa 70 at the Shrine was all of that and more. It was freestyle within a hypnotic structure. The music went on for hours, political, expressive, angsty, intense, trance-like and erotic.

I once saw a video of Fela's on TV. He was dressed only in a tight pare of brightly coloured underpants. He bounced around the stage in the heat and the sweat, furiously singing passionate political messages in his pigeon English, with a joint hanging between his teeth. Strong empowering words and chants, crazy rolling jazz riffs, and a troupe of sexy female dancers, dancing around him, vibrating in a trance like sexuality, inspired by the speedy, busy rhythms, inspired by the words, the passion, the music.

At a ceremony in 1978, wearing only his typical stage gear - the underpants, Fela married 27 women. (to give them visas to get into Ghana.) He says: “Women. I've been very lucky with women. Girls admire me when I am on the stage. Naturally I am happy about it and it is only natural that I should return admiration for admiration.” Drum

He never quit, not even on his death bed when he refused to quit smoking marijuana. But, that is who Fela was: hugely committed to the passion he lived for, a passion that created a beautiful and evangelical music, and his weapon to fight for the emancipation of Africa. He passed away in 1997 at the age of 58. Fela's music was his muse, it expressed everything about him.
Amongst the infectious, feverish heat of the Nigerian coastal capital Lagos, a funky, vigorous beat plays with hypnotic effect. The women vibrate, dancing erotically, passionately entangled in trances. The audiences are massive, celebrities, countrymen amongst their hero, their leader Fela Kuti and their music afrobeat.

These were the visions Drum publisher Jim Bailey used to tell me of the evenings he had spent in Lagos during the 70's, at the seminal African night-club, Fela Kuti's night-club, the Shrine. He talked of the arrival of great stars that visited the venue, Paul McCartney (who swore Jim and his journalists to silence), Roy Ayers and Cream's drummer, Ginger Baker (both recorded with Fela.) He talked of Fela's political antics, the support at the venue, the passion, the unique fire and the mission of re-Africanising the people, re-Africanising them through music.

There was such excitement, love and vibrance poised on the continual edge of danger, the desire to bring about change. Fela was a brave African man and supremely influential musician who suffered for all he stood for. He began his career under the influence of Ghanaian Highlife music and jazz. And it is on this foundation that afrobeat was built. Late in the 60's and already a popular trumpeter and leader of the band Koola Lobitos, Fela decided it was time for change and a radical change at that.

In Fela by John Collins, musician friend Joe Mensah recalls, “Fela had all the qualities of a great trumpet player, the embouchure, the intonation, the dexterity and the fingering.”

In Fela by John Collins, Fela says, "Right from my youth, I have had a special love for jazz during my student days, I spent hours listening to good jazz music on records. I was determined to play only good jazz music, but the Nigerians did not want jazz. A few jazz addicts came to our shows, but we were not reaching the wider public who wanted nothing but High-Life. I did not want to waste my time splitting hairs over definitions. What I was trying to do was evolve a unique and authentic style.”

No quintet, jazz trio or traditional dancing. He needed something bigger and stronger so he settled on 20 instrumentalists and 27 singers and dancers. He wanted the public to hear the music and get to know the band, so for a long while he played without gate fees. He, his musicians, dancers, wives and eventually his audiences and fans were living only for the music and the vision. It took only the one compromise; from jazz to afrobeat and four years of tough musical toil, but from there, Fela was a star and he never compromised again.

Afrobeat was unique to Fela Kuti for many reasons, one of which is articulated elegantly by Nano Danso, the Pan African Orchestra's musical director, also in the book Fela.

He states: “His greatest innovation is the departure from the major and minor modes and into the dorian mode. The dorian scale was used for singing and soloing and most of the basic sounds refer continuously to the root. Fela's music is melodically dorian, harmonically (chord wise) pentatonic. He makes use of the pentatonic (5 note scales) within the dorians 7 notes.”

Fela would use a lot of the ' dynamics' within music, moving between loud and soft sounds. He would tour with two drummers (in case one would jump the tour for another gig.) Fela's female dancers were a secret of his success. Musically their rough voices simplified the call and response technique making it more accessible. And visualy they made quite a show. Fela's musical enterprise was built around the success of his musical venue 'the Shrine.'

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