Nigeria's Afrobeat Legend: What a Fela

Article excerpt

Fela Kuti

Anthology 1

2 CD + DVD

Wrasse Records

WRASS199

A composer, saxophonist, keyboard player, choreographer, activist, spiritualist, philosopher and perhaps the greatest African pop musician of the modern era, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti hardly requires an introduction yet he defies the usual categorisation--he is simply a legend.

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Fela is believed to have released 77 albums during a lifetime career devoted to music and social activism, and the two CD discs in this anthology cover a couple of distinct periods--the very early years, from 1964 up to the 1969 Los Angeles sessions, and Fela Kuti with Africa 70.

The life story of this extraordinary musician is reasonably well known. Born in 1938 to a well-to-do and highly respected Yoruba family in Nigeria--his parents expected Fela and his siblings to take full advantage of their upper-middle class background and pursue conventional professions such as law or medicine. But Fela had other ideas. Already a trumpet player, shortly after his father died, in 1958, he travelled to London.

Fela's mother, Funmilayo, might have thought he was safely studying at a university to become a lawyer or a doctor, but he had enrolled at the College of Music. It was in London that he formed his first band, the Koolah Lobitos, a West African Highlife ensemble.

It was also in London, in 1961, that Fela married his first wife Remi, with whom he had a son Femi (himself a Grammy award musician who, although very much his own man, has taken on his late father's mantle); and a daughter, Yeni, who with Remi, continues to run the New African Shrine--the nightclub that Fela established in Lagos.

Returning from London to Lagos, Fela worked as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and continued the Koola Lobitos tradition, reforming the band he started in London.

Afrobeat--born in the USA

The radio work was never going to hold Fela's restless spirit, and the opportunity for Koolah Lobitos to tour the USA in 1969 was eagerly seized upon.

It was to be a defining period in Fela's life although after three months in the US, Fela's American dream began to fade. "We weren't IN the America we'd dreamt of," Fela recalled. "No, man. We were IN trouble! No gigs! No bread! Nothing!" The band ended up in Los Angeles in August, 1969. …