Friday, January 25, 2008

For He's a Jolly Good Fela

In my ever-expanding search to explore every known genre of music besides jazz, I've recently been listening to a musician named Fela Kuti. I'd known Fela Kuti mostly as an Afrobeat musician who had heavily influenced Talking Heads. My roommate has owned a 2-disc compilation called The Best Best of Fela Kuti and occasionally he has played it in the kitchen. Whenever he put it on I noted that it was not bad. I finally ripped the collection and now have been giving it my serious attention.

Fela Kuti's music is simultaneously very familiar and entirely unique. Imagine James Brown jamming with The Doors and you might get the idea. Or Bob Marley fronting Parliament-Funkadelic. His songs are all about fifteen minutes long and he sings and raps over a seemingly endless groove. Some of his material simply jumps out of the speakers with a wild percussive energy. You can almost feel the oppressive sun blazing down upon an urban African street.

Easily as interesting as Fela Kuti's music is the story of Fela Kuti's life itself. It is the kind of life that is so outrageous and so over-the-top that it is surprising more people don't know about it. If you even have a sliver of time, I recommend that you read his entry on Wikipedia or his bio in the All Music Guide. But if not, then allow me to extract and condense the highlights for you:

Born in Nigeria, Fela studied music in London in the early '60s, and would probably have ended up playing a decidedly non-political hybrid of jazz, funk, and African "Highlife" if he had not met a woman in America who introduced him to the writings of Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement. He dropped his original "slave" middle name "Ransome" and changed it to "Anikupalo" ("he who carries death in his pouch"). Back in Nigeria, he became a superstar and set up his own house/commune/ recording studio and dubbed it the Kalakuta Republic, eventually declaring it independent of the Nigerian state. Suffice to say, the Nigerian government did not like this and attempted to raid the Republic several times. In 1974 they tried to plant a joint on him but, thinking fast, Fela ate the joint. They took him into custody and waited for him to excrete the joint but he swapped feces with another prisoner and was freed. To commemorate this slightly comical event, Fela decided to name his next album Expensive Shit.

But Fela's triumph was shortlived. In 1977 1,000 soldiers raided the Republic, beating Fela and his family mercilessly (they threw his 82-year-old mother from a window, causing fatal injuries), and eventually burned the place down. Fela and his band regrouped, however, and on the one-year anniversary of the attack, Fela married 27 women in an elaborate ceremony. His bandmates eventually began deserting him, but undeterred, he formed his own political party and attempted to run for president of Nigeria, although the government failed to recognize his candidacy. To make a long story short, he officially died of AIDS in 1997 although it was commonly believed that the numerous beatings at the hands of the government had ultimately killed him.

Although politically progressive in many ways, Fela held quite traditional views regarding women. In the song "Lady," for instance, he sings:

If you call woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say I be Lady o

At first you might interpret this as Fela saying, "Don't call African women 'women'; call them 'ladies' please." But what he is actually saying is "Some African women think they are fancy little European ladies instead of good, respectful African women." He goes on:

I want tell you about Lady
She go say him equal to man
She go say him get power like man
She go say anything man do
She go want take cigar before anybody
She go want make you open door for am
She go want make man wash plate for her for kitchen
She want salute man she go sit down for chair
She want sit down for table before anybody
She want piece of meat before anybody

African woman go dance she go dance the fire dance
She know him manna Masster
She go cook for am
She go do anything he say
But Lady no be so

Of course, Fela had a rather sarcastic sense of humor so it is hard to known how serious we should really take these lyrics. And in one sense he has a point, because fancy clothing and elaborate European table manners are ultimately quite worthless. But this song really highlights the dilemma that former colonial powers the world over face: how do you best re-establish your own cultural identity in the aftermath of colonialism? In some ways, it is good to preserve your cultural heritage and traditions. But perhaps some traditions, such as the subjugation of women, are worth abandoning? I guess it's fair to say that before people can worry about having women's rights they first have to worry about having any rights. And on that score, Fela was a warrior.


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