INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
BBC SEPTEMBER 11, 2014 - by Peter Culshaw
DON'T CALL FELA "WORLD MUSIC"
When I met Fela Kuti, the self-styled "Black President", he was in a London hotel, wearing only a pair of red underpants, smoking a massive joint, surrounded by three of his wives (he notoriously married twenty-six in one day), and his personal magician; a Ghanaian who called himself Professor Hindu. This was the first article I ever got published.
Fela told me he had sex with his wives on a rota basis and said to me, a spotty student type: "A man should be proud to say I had a great fuck last night". He called gays "sissies" and described the use of condoms as "un-African" - his last released song was a tirade against them.
At the time, in the mid-'80s, Fela was a cult figure in the UK. Back in Nigeria and West Africa, though, he had been a major figure for well over a decade; when he died, Lagos came to a standstill and a million people turned up to his funeral. Fela apologists say though that his death actually brought AIDS out in the open and many lives were saved as a result. Some of Fela's opinions were no doubt "deliberately provocative to Western liberals" as his friend and co-manager Rikki Stein said to me last week.
More important, and what gained him a massive following, were Fela's fights for social justice with his songs like International Thief Thief (I.T.T.), which attacked multinational corporations or Zombie, which parodied the mindless military types who unquestioningly followed orders, that were seen as revolutionary.
In 1976, Zombie created riots and will no doubt in time be seen as more radical - certainly musically - than The Sex Pistols' Anarchy In The UK of the same year. I heard it first doing an aerobics class taken by Viv Albertine of The Slits, and I am still astonished by it, not least because Fela takes seven minutes to come in having established an impeccable groove - this may be an incendiary, subversive track, but Fela isn't going to run for the bus. Damon Albarn once called it, "the sexiest track ever".
In the course of his life Fela was arrested over a hundred times, imprisoned and beaten. As for Professor Hindu, Fela said the magician enabled him to talk to his dead mother every night. She was a pioneering feminist and allegedly the first Nigerian woman to drive a car, passing away after the military threw her out of a window in an attack on Fela's compound, which he had declared an independent republic.
Professor Hindu would come on stage with Fela and do magic tricks like seemingly cutting his tongue out or producing watches from nowhere. His most notorious stunt was to ask one Friday night at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town in North London for a volunteer from the audience to be buried alive for the weekend. A grave had been dug behind the club. The audience piled out to see the volunteer, a Nigerian guy covered in soil and buried in his suit. On Sunday evening he was dug up again, at which point the guy propositioned journalist Vivien Goldman (currently a "Professor of Punk" in New York) with the immortal words: "Being buried alive makes you horny."
Fela died of AIDS-related complications in 1987, and it seems that every year since then his profile outside Africa has been steadily increasing. Barely a month goes by without new reissues of his music; this month sees yet another box-set this time selected by Brian Eno, a musical pioneer himself who says he has played his music more than any other artist and "thought it was the music of the future in 1972 and still do."
Fela's music - or the genre he founded, Afrobeat - can be heard in lofts in Dalston or Williamsburg, with artists like Vampire Weekend and Damon Albarn all acknowledging his genius, borrowing elements of his sound. Albarn has even worked with Tony Allen, the original drummer in Fela's Africa 70, the co-creator of Afrobeat, who continues to put out albums prolifically.
Fela's crossover to a mainstream Western audience was boosted by a musical Fela!, co-produced by Jay Z and which ran on London and Broadway in 2010. There's now a feature film Finding Fela, directed by Alex Gibney, which is showing in a score of cinemas in U.S and Europe.
As a musician and social activist, he is being increasingly compared to Bob Marley. But it was as a musical revolutionary that he became a talismanic figure for fellow artists. In the new film, Paul McCartney recounts how he saw Fela's band when recording Band On The Run at the EMI studio in Lagos in 1972, stating: "They were the best band I've ever seen live. When Kuti and his band eventually really began to play, after a long, crazy build-up, I couldn't stop weeping with joy."
One of Fela's main sources was the funk of James Brown, who was in turn influenced by Kuti after his group visited The Shrine, Fela's nightclub in Lagos. As Brown's bassist Bootsy Collins recalls: "We were telling them they're the funkiest cats we ever heard in our life. I mean, this is the James Brown band, but we were totally wiped out!" Great jazzers like Miles Davies also acknowledged him as a "life-transforming artist." With some of the top musicians in the world backing him, what could possibly go wrong?
One reason Kuti wasn't better known in his lifetime was his complex, sometimes self-destructive personality, seeming to never miss a chance to piss on his own parade. When Paul McCartney offered Kuti and his band the chance to be guests on Band On The Run, Fela got up the next night at his Lagos nightclub to say that the "white man has come to steal our music." Band On The Run, incidentally, went on to be the best-selling album of 1973, a record that would have put Fela on the world map instantly.
When Motown wanted to set up an African label called Taboo in the early '80s, it offered Kuti a deal. Rikki Stein, Kuti's manager and friend, claims that Kuti's response was to contact the spirits via Professor Hindu. The spirits refused to let him sign for another two years so Kuti refused Motown his back catalogue, instead wanting a million dollars in cash. "Even then, Motown went along with it," Stein says. "But after two years, in April 1985, the very month that Kuti was about to sign, the Motown guy got the sack and the deal was off."
Kuti received various other offers from American record labels in the '80s but at the time the problem was he was producing sixty-minute long pieces. "Can't you do a three-minute song for the radio?" Stein recalls asking. "Fela just said: 'I wouldn't know how to.'" Another story saw a Western label come to see Fela while he was in the bathroom, leaving the toilet door open and demanding the guy tell him what he had to offer. There was an element of Fela avoiding the Western companies, who he saw as imperialist, while his lack of radio-friendly material also made him into a difficult sell.
One way of seeing his music is as he saw it himself. Kuti studied classical music at Trinity College in London in the early '60s, where he also had a jazz and highlife band called Koola Lobitos. When I asked, cub reporter style, who his favourite musician was, he said: "Handel. Western music is Bach, Handel and Schubert. It's good music, cleverly done. As a musician, I can see that. Classical music gives musicians a kick. But African music gives everyone a kick."
In the '80s, he started calling his music "African classical music", arguing that you wouldn't expect composers like Mozart or Beethoven to write three minute numbers then so why should he? As it happens, D'Banj, who has described himself as a "cross between Fela Kuti and Michael Jackson", who had a global hit in 2012 with Oliver Twist, may well achieve the pop success for a Nigerian artist that Fela never did.
Still, a million people saw the Fela! musical, and the new film will only increase awareness. There may have been a tendency in the film and musical to downplay his less PC attitudes that might have put off liberal "world music" audiences - Fela told me he was "proud to be a sexist." Undoubtedly he put others at risk by willfully denying his AIDS symptoms.
But he was also an extraordinarily courageous guy, a fighter against colonialism and corruption, arrested over a hundred times and beaten but never had his spirit broken. The "world music" category he often shoved into is usually a useless one (musicians who happen not to be born in the US or Europe, that is, most of them) and tends to water down out and make acceptable radicals like Fela. He was closer to Bob Marley, except tougher, and made radical works, none of which could be classed as "world music". He was a genius in a category of one. Bill T Jones, choreographer of the Fela! musical, gave as good as description as any: "He was a sacred monster".