The Kuti musical family stands for African emancipation and development. The Kutis use their music for revolution and Pan Africanism. Whilst Fela had a traditional African religious sense, his children did not. But they all play conscious African music. “To play conscious music in Africa is to stand against those who believe they own Africa,” said his youngest son Seun. Although the Kuti family has faced both wrath and exclusion, they have trodden a unique and empowering path for African music. The path is called afrobeat and founded by Fela Kuti.
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 loving relationship with his mother. He began his career under the influence of Ghanaian Highlife music and jazz. Late in the 60s 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 the book 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. They wanted nothing but Highlife. 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.” Musician friend, Joe Mensah recalls, “Fela had all the qualities of a great trumpet player, the embouchure, the intonation, the dexterity and the fingering.”
“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,” Fela.
Not a quintet or jazz trio, Fela wanted something bigger and stronger. 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. He shifted the music from jazz to afrobeat and, in four years of tough musical toil, built up his star.
At a ceremony in 1978, wearing only his typical stage gear, the underpants, Fela married 27 women. This was in order to give them visas to get into Ghana, but it raised a lot of publicity. Fela said in Drum magazine: “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.”
The live music performances were hot and sweaty. The afrobeat music was freestyle, within a hypnotic structure. The music went on for hours, political, expressive, angsty, intense, trance-like and exotic. A performance of Fela’s band, Africa 70 at The Shrine brought in good audiences and quite often celebrities and esteemed visitors from abroad.
Watch the videos. Fela is dressed in a tight pare of brightly coloured underpants. He bounces around the stage in the heat and the sweat, furiously singing passionate political messages in his pigeon English. A joint is hanging between his teeth. Strong empowering words and chants meet crazy rolling riffs. This is afrobeat music concluded with a troupe of sexy female dancers vibrating in a trance, inspired by the speedy, busy rhythms and the passion of the music.
Drum publisher Jim Bailey described evenings he had spent in Lagos during the 70s, at 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.)
Afrobeat was unique to Fela for many reasons, one of which is articulated elegantly by Nano Danso, the Pan African Orchestra's musical director. He states in Fela: “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 dorian 7 notes.” Fela would use dynamics in music, moving between loud and soft sounds. He would tour with two drummers.
Apparently, this was 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, visually, they made quite a show. Fela's musical enterprise was built around the success of his musical venue, The Shrine and it captured the imagination.
Fela’s Shrine was also a shrine to Kwame Nkrumah. In Fela, 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.” After the death of his beloved mother, The Shrine became a shrine to her too. She died on the 13th April 1978 from injuries received during a police attack on the Kuti homestead, Kalakuta Republic.
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. Fela was jailed, beaten, monitored and harassed by politicians and police alike, throughout his career. To him, VIP stood for 'Vagabonds in Power.' He sang “They leave sorrow, tears and blood, their regular trademark.”
Then: “Oooooooooooooooooh, I was beaten by police! So much... How can a human being stand so much beating with clubs and not die?" he said in a Drum Magazine interview. “There were repeated attacks, the musicians were jailed, brutalised and maimed but the venue continued.” In 1977, the military junta in Lagos sent a thousand soldiers to burn, kill and brutalise where they could. Fela's mother was a noted nationalist. She died after one of these raids. Fela and his entourage went to the ruling junta's Obasanjo headquarters and placed the coffin on the steps.
Seun Kuti keeps the Shrine venue going strong but now it is also a Shrine to his father, who died on the 2nd of August 1997 at the age of 58. At an interview before his performance in Johannesburg, Seun said, “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 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.
“There has to be a Pan Africanist movement that unifies Africa. African people need to understand how the struggle unifies us all. My message teaches us that we have not only to dream about escaping poverty. As young black people we also have to dream about eradicating poverty from our community.”
Fela's mission was re-Africanising the people through music. Fela was a brave African man and supremely influential musician who suffered for all he stood for. Seun’s latest album is titled The Higher Consciousness. He said, “I stand for nature. Weed, marijuana, grass - it 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. Marijuana does not kill anybody. Alcohol and cigarettes kill more people than marijuana but they still keep this illegal!”