Things I've Discovered While Working At the Library, Part 2: Fela Kuti
August 31, 2010
I've always been something of a music geek. Working at the library means I see a lot of CDs. I keep an eye out for artists that I have never heard, just so I can give them a listen.
A few years back, I saw a CD come across the counter titled Fela Originals: Live! with Ginger Baker. I knew that Ginger Baker had been the drummer for Cream, the power trio that made Eric Clapton into a rock legend. I figured that anybody that Ginger Baker wanted to play with was worth a listen. So, I checked it out and took it home.
What I heard was a revelation. Who was this Fela Kuti, and why had I never heard of him? The music was a heady, propulsive mix of jazz, funk, R & B, and African rhythms, full of extended virtuoso instrumentals. I had to find out more about this incredible musician.
So I did a little research. Born in Nigeria and educated in London, Kuti returned to Nigeria to lay the foundation of his signature "Afrobeat" sound, which mixed jazz and funk elements with more traditional African music. A talented multi-instrumentalist and band leader, Kuti played saxophone, alto saxophone, guitar, piano and keyboards, and trumpet, in addition to providing vocals.
While touring in America, Kuti was exposed to the Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism of Malcolm X and others, which led him to incorporate into his music an explicit critique of colonialism, political corruption, and oppression of the poor. As a result, Kuti became massively popular among the poor and downtrodden of Nigeria and much of Africa. Needless to say, the ruling military government of Nigeria was none too pleased to have a popular and charismatic critic in the mold of Bob Marley, so Kuti was repeatedly harassed, beaten, and jailed.
For a great summary of his career, check out "The Best Best of Fela Kuti".
Fela Kuti died in 1997 from HIV-related complications, but his legacy lives on with his son Femi Kuti and followers such as the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. Of course, all of this launched me into an obsession with Afro-Pop music, which I will leave for a later post.