Monday, March 8, 2010

#26 Pioneering the Afrobeat with Fela Kuti and the African 70

Few people have affected music and culture in the way that Fela Kuti has. Born in Nigeria in 1938, he moved to the UK in 1958 to attend medical school but realized soon after that it was music that was his passion and not medicine. He formed his first band 'Koola Lobitos' in the UK and was crafting a type of music that mixed African jazz with funk and European 50's rock n roll. In 1963, a few years after the formation of the group, Fela had married his first wife and decided to move back to Nigeria to raise a family and had hopes that his band's new kind of sound would be a hit back in his native country. In 1969, Fela and his band travelled to the USA for the first time to experience the music they had heard about. While there, they saw the metamorphosis that the civil rights battles going on in the states had started changing things and Fela got introduced to the 'Black Power' movement. These experiences had a tremendous influence on his musical development as well as his political ideals. He re-named his group the Nigerian 70 and travelled to Los Angeles to begin recording sessions for an album but was cut short when immigration found out he had no permit and deported Fela and the Nigerian 70. Those sessions remained in storage and were eventually released as 'The '69 Los Angeles Sessions'.

By now the band had grown to hold around 30 members with a multitude of drummers and percussionists as well as a (omit) large horns and brass section. Fela wrote all their components as well as his own during the song writing process (a process that became more and more time-consuming as his band's numbers grew). In fact, the only member of the band other than Fela that was allowed to contribute his own ideas was the groups original drummer from the Koola Lobitos days, Tony Allen. Tony was one of the irrefutable back bones of the band and had been with them since shortly after Fela's return to Nigeria in 1964. In regards to Tony, Fela often stated "Without Tony, there would be no Afrobeat". At 18 years old, Tony had taught himself to play drums while working as an engineer for a Nigerian radio station. His unique drumming was influenced by the music his father had loved (mostly African traditional, but also American jazz) and it was through his father that he began to hear American jazz music. Tony was heavily influenced by musicians like Art Blakey and Max Roach, as well as famed Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren who was one of the first to mix tribal Ghanaian drumming with American bop and jazz. Tony was with the band until 1979 when he left to pursue his own creative direction. He is often hailed by critics as one of the most outstanding drummers of all time and was named by music great Brian Eno as "The greatest drummer who has ever lived".

In 1970, Fela Kuti and the re named Africa 70 were back in Nigeria and had formed the Kalakuta Republic on an acreage that Fela owned and pronounced themselves an independent nation. They built a massive compound and recording studio and housed most of the families for the band members as well as a free health clinic that they built for the areas local population. Early in 1971, Ginger Baker (drummer for Cream) met up with Fela in Nigeria and the two hit it off and fela decided to join Baker on his mission to explore africa in a land rover and soak up the roots of music. This trip culminated in the live album 'Live! with Ginger Baker' which is one of the funkiest albums I have ever heard in my life. Throughout the 70's Fela's musical style began to solidify into what is now called Afrobeat, and his lyrics began to reflect his growing disgust with the corruption of Nigerian politics. His standpoint against the government and his popularity with the people caused the Nigerian Government to lash out at him. In 1977, the infuriated Nigerian government sent one thousand army soldiers to attack the Kalakuta Republic. During the attack Fela was beaten half to death and forced to watch as they threw his elderly mother out a second story window where she suffered fatal injuries. Fela was nearly killed but one of the commanding soldiers spared his life and allowed some of Fela's friends to take him away. As Fela was being taken to hospital, he saw the army burn his compound and his former life to ashes.

After the events of 1977, Fela continued with music but became more of a political activist as time went by and eventually gave up on music entirely to focus on his political work in Nigeria. He eventually formed his own political party 'The Movement of the People' and even ran for president of Nigeria. His conflicts with the ruling government never ended however and in 1984 he was beaten and arrested on made up charges of smuggling. In 1993 he was arrested along with four of his former band mates for a murder that none of them had any connection to and was freed a short while later. It was around then that Fela began isolating himself from his wives and was rumoured to be suffering from a secret illness. In 1997, it was announced that Fela had died from complications of disease, brought on by the AIDS virus that he had secretly been suffering from for the past decade.

One of the reasons their music was never extremely successful in Europe and North America is that their songs are usually a minimum of ten minutes in length. In fact, their tracks often extend into the twenty to thirty minute range and a few (mostly unreleased) live tracks go past the 45 minute mark. The seemingly endless grooves contained in this band's music come from a base rhythm of drums, shekere, muted guitar, and bass guitar that are repeated throughout the song. His band was also notable for featuring two baritone saxophones. Fela himself usually played the sax and keyboards but was known to take up the guitar and trombone. An interesting thing about Fela Kuti is that he refused to play a song once he had recorded it with the admission that if someone wanted to hear it after that they could buy the record. He believed that there was too much to still be created for him to focus on the material of the past. Today, his music and hopes for a free Nigeria still resound heavily around the world and his musical legacy is carried on by his sons Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti who are both prominent musicians.

The Facts:
- Fela had over 26 wives!
- In 1978 Fela's Band deserted him just before going on stage at the Berlin Jazz Festival when they heard he was going to use all of the proceeds to fund his presidential campaign.
- More then one million people attended his funeral in Nigeria at the site of the old compound.
- Between 1971 and 1992 he released 46 albums.
- A movie based on the life of Fela Kuti is slated to begin filming this year directed by Steve McQueen.

My Fave Album:
-The live album released in '71 with Ginger Baker is not only my fave Fela Kuti album, but it is also one of the most indisputably fantastic records I have ever heard in my life. This record is Bob Marley meets James Brown meets P-Funk. Ginger Baker brings the psychedelic rock vibe to really take this music to the next level while Fela and the crew of the African 70 show you why Africa is the birthplace of funk. The original album only features 4 tracks but each of them is around the ten minute mark and each of them blasts out a slightly different brand of funky music. I highly reccomend this album to anyone interested in exploring the fusion between rock and world music. A bonus track was released when they re-released this album a few years back has a fifteen minute drum solo battle between Ginger and Tony Allen and is worth the purchase of the album right there. You can really tell that Tony Allen and Ginger Baker are two of the greatest drummers ever on that track.

Shown below is some rare footage of Fela Kuti and the African 70 actually shot by Ginger Baker, at a gig in Nigeria shortly after the Nigerian civil war. Its pretty wild stuff! Let me know what you think of it!


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