Without much words, meet the pioneer of Afrobeat and the one who paved the way for the success and prominence of the African music and it’s industry. The great Pan-African.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born 15th October, 1938. He was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre and Pan-Africanist. At the height of his popularity, he was referred to as one of Africa’s most “challenging and charismatic music performers”.
Kuti is remembered as an influential icon who was brave enough to boldly voice his opinions on matters that affected the nation through his music. An annual festival “Felabration” held each year to celebrate the life of this music legend and his birthday.
Since his death in 1997, there has been a revival of his influence in music and popular culture, culminating in another re-release of his catalog controlled by Universal Music, Broadway and off-Broadway biographically based shows, and new bands, such as Antibalas, who carry the Afrobeat banner to a new generation of listeners.
Fela was born in Abeokuta, the modern-day capital of Ogun State in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, then a city in the British Colony of Nigeria, into an upper-middle-class family. His mother, Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement; his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican minister and school principal, was the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers. His brothers Beko Ransome-Kuti and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, both medical doctors, were well known in Nigeria. Fela is a first cousin to the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Fela attended Abeokuta Grammar School. Later he was sent to London in 1958 to study medicine, but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music, the trumpet being his preferred instrument. While there, he formed the band Koola Lobitos, playing a fusion of jazz and highlife.
The musical style of Fela is called Afrobeat, a style he largely created, which is a complex fusion of jazz, funk, Ghanaian highlife, psychedelic rock and traditional West African chants and rhythms. Afrobeat also borrows heavily from the native “tinker pan”. Tony Allen (Fela’s drummer of twenty years) was instrumental in the creation of Afrobeat. Fela once stated that “there would be no Afrobeat, without Tony Allen”.
Afrobeat is characterized by a fairly large band with many instruments, vocals and a musical structure featuring jazzy, funky horn sections. A riff-based “endless groove” is used, in which a base rhythm of drums, shekere, muted West African-style guitar and melodic bass guitar riffs are repeated throughout the song. Commonly, interlocking melodic riffs and rhythms are introduced one by one, building the groove bit-by-bit and layer-by-layer. The horn section then becomes prominent, introducing other riffs and main melodic themes.
Fela’s band was notable for featuring two baritone saxophones, whereas most groups were using only one of this instrument. This is a common technique in African and African-influenced musical styles and can be seen in funk and hip hop. His bands at times even performed with two bassists at the same time both playing interlocking melodies and rhythms. There were always two or more guitarists. The electric West African style guitar in Afrobeat bands are paramount, but are used to give basic structure, playing a repeating chordal/melodic statement, riff or groove.
Fela’s songs were mostly sung in Nigerian pidgin English, although he also performed a few songs in the Yoruba language. His main instruments were the saxophone and the keyboards, but he also played the trumpet, electric guitar, and took the occasional drum solo. Fela refused to perform songs again after he had already recorded them, which also hindered his popularity outside Africa.
As Fela’s musical career developed, so too did his political influence throughout the world. In turn, the religious aspect of his musical approach grew. Fela was a part of an Afro-Centric consciousness movement that was founded on and delivered through his music. In an interview found in the Hank Bordowitz analysis Noise of the World, Fela stated: “Music is supposed to have an effect. If you’re playing music and people don’t feel something, you’re not doing shit. That’s what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think. Music wants to dictate a better life, against a bad life. When you’re listening to something that depicts having a better life, and you’re not having a better life, it must have an effect on you.”
Kuti was a political giant in Africa from the 1970s until his death. He criticized the corruption of Nigerian government officials and the mistreatment of Nigerian citizens. He spoke of colonialism as the root of the socio-economic and political problems that plagued the African people. Corruption was one of the worst political problems facing Africa in the 70s, if not the worst; and Nigeria was among the most corrupt countries of the time. Its government was responsible for election rigging and coups that ultimately worsened poverty, economic inequality, unemployment, and political instability, which further promoted corruption and thuggery. Fela’s protest songs covered themes inspired by the realities of corruption and socio-economic inequality in Africa. Fela Kuti’s political statements could be heard throughout Africa.
Kuti was outspoken; his songs spoke his inner thoughts. His rise in popularity throughout the 1970s signaled a change in the relation between music as an art form and Nigerian socio-political discourse. In 1984, he harshly criticized and insulted the then authoritarian president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari. One of his popular songs, “Beast Of No Nation”, refers to Buhari as an animal in a madman’s body; in Nigerian Pidgin: “No be outside Buhari dey ee, na krase man be dat, animal in krase man skin ii”. Kuti strongly believed in Africa and always preached peace among Africans.