Fela Kuti Attaakk!!
The immortal Fela Kuti
FELA KUTI’s electrifying performances, seismic music and defiant lifestyle gave him a worldwide following. Fearlessly confronting the Nigerian establishment through his music, he was a thorn in the flesh of every military and civilian despot that occupied Nigeria’s presidential seat during his adulthood. Now, 15 years after his death, the authorities he so often railed against have helped honour the King of Afrobeat.
A new museum in Lagos opened in October at the start of a week-long annual “Felabration” to mark what would have been his 74th birthday. The three-storey building hidden in the backstreets of Lagos, now the home of the museum, grew famous as a hub of raucous dissent during his 27 years of running resistance against successive Nigerian dictators. The commune and self-declared republic housed a recording studio and many of the musicians and dancers connected to his band. The Lagos State Government, now recognising his cultural significance, has chipped in with a grant of $250,000.
Inside, album covers and murals adorn the walls, with old family photographs embellishing the staircase as you climb up to a rooftop bar. A room is devoted to Fela’s eclectic wardrobe, where a collection of his vibrant shoes line an entire wall. Colourful underpants, sometimes the only thing he wore, sit on hangers, including a pair covered with a purple dancing image of “Barney the Dinosaurs”. His bedroom, preserved as a shrine since he died of AIDS in 1997, contains his flamboyant shirts, a mattress and a few modest belongings. His saxophone sits alone on the floor.
Fela’s creation of “Afrobeat” in the 1960s is a brew of traditional African drumming, funk and highlife, punctuated with simple shrill vocals and solo interventions from his saxophone. His irrepressible rebelliousness and determination to champion the cause of Nigeria’s underdogs through his music earned him physical punishment, brutal military and police raids and numerous arrests. “He fought for the common man, for the issues we faced everyday,” says Elizabeth Bassey, a Fela fan who was rifling through a pile of old records in a music shop in Lagos. “But he paid a steep price for it.”
Fela Kuti named the commune after his first prison cell.“The idea of creating a place open to every African escaping prosecution began taking shape in my mind,” he writes in his biography (“Fela: This Bitch of a Life”), after he returned from a tour of the United States. But the commune did not enable him to escape prosecution and became a battleground where he and the authorities fought it out.
In 1977, his smash hit “Zombie”, in which he used the phrase “Zombie no go walk unless you tell am to walk” to describe the brutal methods of Nigeria’s military with the cutting lyrics, led to a vicious attack on the Kalakuta Commune in the same year. Hundreds of soldiers descended on the compound, severely beat Fela and threw his mother out of a first-floor window. The Kalakuta Republic was razed and his studio, instruments and master tapes were destroyed.
His alternative lifestyle aroused the Nigerian authorities’ violent hostility. Often appearing with cigar-sized marijuana spliffs defiantly held between his fingers, he rejected Nigeria’s two main religions, Christianity and Islam; instead he worshipped ancestors and married 27 women. Newspaper cut-outs and extracts from his manifesto, framed in the museum, chronicle his battle against corruption and social injustice as well as his constant scrapes with the law. He is said to have appeared in court 356 times in 25 years.
His memory lives on. The New Afrika Shrine, Fela’s famed nightclub, attracts fans from Nigeria and beyond, who dance to the spellbinding Afrobeat rhythms until sunrise.“I come here every week, lots of these people do,” says Osas, dragging on a huge spliff, as he leans on a sign saying, “Drugs are not allowed in the Shrine”. “The issues of corruption and frustration that he sang about still strike a chord with Nigerians today,” he adds. “Just goes to show that some things never change.”
See the article online here: Nigerian music: The immortal Fela Kuti | The Economist