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Remembering the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti,-born 15 October 1938,Abeokuta,Nigeria
died---2 August 1997

Fela AnikulapoKuti has been the primary influence behind the invention and development of 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 afrobeat—as a retort to the slavish relationship most other local bandleaders had with black Americanmusic.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 1971enjoyed a big local hit with Jeun Ko'ku (Yoruba for ‘eat and die’).He also foundedthe Shrine Club in Lagos, which was to become the focus for his music and politicalactivity.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 wereunderstandable in all Anglophone countries; and because he rejected the traditional African band leader stance of promoting local politicians and their policies, choosinginstead 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 ina 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 these—nor 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 themunsuccessful 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 histotal 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 ControlOver Death (Anikulapo),Death Cannot Be Caused By Human Entity (Kuti)'.Kuti wasgoing 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 KalakutaRepublic.Some 1,000 soldiers cordoned off the area,set fire to the premises and viciously attacked the occupants—Kuti 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 goodmeasure beat up and arrested anyone they identified as a journalist among theonlookers.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-upcurrency 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

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