The thing about Nigerian-born singer-songwriter Fela Kuti is that his music… really is special.
A delicate mixture of genres, impossible to pin to just one, Fela’s music also incorporates his political and social views – exemplified in a mistrust of authority figures and oppressive structures within his home country, a viewpoint that’s become the hallmark of his music.
Fela Kuti is one of the pioneers of Afrobeat, a musical genre that is a fusion of many elements of African music — chants, call-and-response vocals, complex rhythmic structures, et al. — combined with elements from Western musical genres — like jazz, funk and soul. Note that just about all of these genres originated out of the African American experience – Fela was a strong supporter of the Black Power Movement and Pan-Africanism in the United States. This isn’t to say that he appropriated these musical genres, not at all — rather, Afrobeat has influenced many American genres and vice versa. Celebrating his African heritage, Fela also tended to speak in Nigerian Pidgin English, a ‘broken’ form of English spoken widely throughout Nigeria but lacking an official status with the state.
Fela’s music carries a simultaneous freedom and structure — with drums, guitar, electric bass and rhythm section laying down an endless groove, the horn section, electric piano and vocals are given liberty to expand on melodies and run away with improvisation. There’s also this tendency, especially on the bass and guitar, to incessantly repeat the same chords and licks for the entirety of a song, which can stretch as long as 20 minutes. For some, the duration of Fela’s tracks can be off-putting, but to most, the length only adds to the groove.
The 1976 track “Zombie” is one of his most notable works. It slowly builds from a funky beat laid down by the rhythm section, up to an intricate trumpet and sax back-and-forth. Fela’s political voice also comes through, with a poignant discussion of injustice and military corruption in the struggle for Nigerian society to overcome colonialism in a transition to self-determination. Throughout the 1970s, post-colonial Nigerian society was run by an oppressive junta that enjoyed the fruits of the oil boom and incorporation into OPEC, while neglecting the standard of living for its citizens. Written about the Nigerian military, “Zombie” speaks volumes about Fela’s social and political perspective on the Nigerian state. The song characterizes Nigerian soldiers with a zombie metaphor: that they have no mind of their own and whose only role in society is to follow orders as well as kill and die for their country.
One of my personal favorites is the wonderfully blunt, “Expensive Shit.” This 1975 track begins with an off-beat clave and shaker rhythm, joined in with keyboard hits and a relentless guitar line. Another important aspect of Afrobeat comes through here: an impressive, booming big band with sections of saxes, trumpets and trombones. In fact, many of Fela’s tracks lend a large role for the big band to carry the song. The most fascinating (and hilarious) part about this song is in the lyrics. “Expensive Shit” directly refers to the military government’s attempt to plant a joint in Fela’s home and arrest him for possession. Fela ate it. In his holding cell, the police waited for him to pass the joint (so to speak), so that they could find THC in the feces. He was able to exchange his stool with another inmates and slide his way out of custody.
Off the 1973 album Afrodisiac, “Alu Jon Jonki Jon” starts off with one of the more engrossing electric keyboard parts I’ve heard. There’s nothing too flashy or technical about it — it’s actually quite simple, but the sound fits in perfectly with the anxious, in-your-face big band vamp, forming the backing beat for the keyboard to shine through. The gain and high-end on the keyboard is jacked up so that when these staccato chords are jumping around they sound bright and punchy.
I lastly and highly recommend listening to tracks like “Water No Get Enemy”, “Beasts of No Nation”, “Lady”, and “Swegbe and Pako”. Fela Kuti is a one-of-a-kind musician, and I think more than a few of you deserve to know and love the Afrobeat sound – it’s hard not to…