Kuti, Fela (also Fela Ransome Kuti and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti)

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Kuti, Fela (also Fela Ransome Kuti and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti)

Kuti, Fela (also Fela Ransome Kuti and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti), African musician and political activist; b. Abeokuta, Nigeria, Oct. 15, 1938; d. Lagos, Nigeria, Aug. 2, 1997. In Africa, Fela Kuti is best known as a musician, political irritant, and supporter of Pan-Africanism. Afrobeat, the musical hybrid created by Kuti, combines elements of highlife (via Ghana), soul (a la James Brown), and jazz for a potent rhythmic force to which he adds lyrics decrying government corruption sung in either Yoruba or pidgin English. He got his performance baptism as a vocalist with trumpeter and highlife superstar Victor Olaiya. In 1958 Kuti went to London and studied at Trinity Coll. of Music. While in England he formed a highlife band known as Koola Lobitos. After studying trumpet and musical theory for four years, he returned to Nigeria, where he re-formed Koola Lobitos. Between 1963 and 1968 Kuti unveiled the first version of “Afrobeat/’ but it was his trip to the United States in 1969 that helped to crystallize his musical ideas. Kuti lived and recorded in Los Angeles for most of the year, absorbing lessons in black history and Black Power through an impressive reading regimen that helped develop his political consciousness. He also rethought his approach to music, as he said in an interview that he had been using jazz to play African music, when he should have been using African music to play jazz. The horn section work from James Brown’s funk band also made an impression on Kuti at this time. 1970 found him back in Nigeria with a newly minted evolution of Afrobeat, a band (Africa 70), and a vision of social justice that endeared him to much of the African populace while marking him as a gadfly for the ruling establishment. Since then Kuti has released more than 40 albums, been harassed, beaten up, and imprisoned by Nigerian governments, renamed his band Egypt 80, and remained as popular with the African masses as ever. After his release from prison in 1986 (he had been charged with money laundering by the ruling Nigerian military junta), Kuti reclaimed his band, enlarged it to 40 pieces, and jumped back into the musical fray. O.D.O.O. (Overtake Don Overtake Overtake) (1990) shows a strengthening of Kuti’s composing, arranging, and playing skills. There are only two pieces on the album, each hovering around the half hour mark, and both contain fiery solos within the context of Kuti’s rhythm and polemic. Black Man’s Cry (1992) is probably the best single-volume Fela sampler now available, binding together six of his most popular performances from the mid- to late 1970s. The version of “Black Man’s Cry” comes from a 1975 recording that Kuti made with rock drummer Ginger Baker, while “Zombie,” with its constantly moving rhythm accents, post-Masekela trumpet, and Maceo Parker-inspired sax playing, is a true Afro-beat classic.

In the early days of Afrobeat, drummer Tony Allen defined the jazz-oriented rhythm that would drive Kuti’s music. The songs on Open & Close (1971) were breaking the five-minute barrier that many of Kuti’s pre-Africa 70 songs had hovered near, and Allen’s flexible stick work and sophisticated cymbal splashing provided the constant push needed to enhance the leader’s horn charts. “Gbagada Gbagada Gbogodo Gbo-godo” provides ample evidence of Allen’s importance to this edition of the band, while the title tune, purporting to provide instruction for a brand new dance, is one of the last apolitical works Kuti recorded. He died on Aug. 2, 1997.


Original Sufferhead (1981); Beasts of No Nation (1989); Volumes 1 & 2 (1996).


Carlos Moore, F.: This Bitch of a Life (Paris, 1982).

—Garaud MacTaggart