FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI'S fearless and indefatigable spirit makes him a true African hero. He was one of the greatest and most influential pop musicians of the 20th century. Born into a middle-class family in 1935, Fela's father was an ultra-conservative reverend, Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an ordained minister, grammar school headmaster and the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. By contrast, Fela's mother, Funmilayo, was something of a political firebrand--an early organiser against British colonialism, the first woman to hold a driver's licence in Nigeria, and a leader of the country's nascent socialist-nationalist and suffragette campaigns. As an activist, she travelled to Russia, and also to China where she met Chairman Mao Zedong.
Fela's parents, wanting what all middle-class Nigerian parents aspired to for their children, no matter what their political inclinations--that they qualify for a professional career--decided to send him to London to study medicine. But he had other plans.
He dropped out of medical school and registered at a college of music, a path more usually associated with pursuing a career in classical music. While in London, he married his first wife, Remi, in 1961 and started his own band, the Koola Lobitos.
By 1963, Fela and Remi had had two children--daughter Yeni and son Femi -and Fela had made the decision to return to Nigeria with his family. But back in Nigeria, he had a hard time finding work for his band, so in 1967 he embarked on a tour of Ghana. As John Collins' new book, Fela: Kalakuta Notes, makes clear, Fela loved his time in Ghana.
Collins, a Ghana-based musician and academic, has been on the music
scene since 1969--as a musician, band-leader, recording engineer, music union executive, writer and music journalist. He is currently the resident professor of music at the Music Department of the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra; and tells us that Fela liked Ghana so much that he even considered building a house and settling there.
"Ghana, with its Nkrumahist legacy, was Fela's second home," the author states. Collins is uniquely well qualified to write about Fela's life and times, as in the 1970s he stayed with Fela in Lagos, playing in his band during that golden era.
"What Collins does is draw together the reminiscences of Fela's various friends and colleagues, mainly but not exclusively Ghanaian, and provides an illuminating interview which Fela gave to him in 1975. All together, it presents one of the most fascinating profiles of Fela ever published.
Collins manages to cover the pivotal moments in Fela's extraordinary life with great clarity. He talks with many who figured largely in Fela's life: Joe Mensah, Ghana's pioneering highlife king who first met Fela while touring Nigeria; the guitarist Stan Plange, another Ghanaian highlife legend who toured Nigeria; Fela's Ghanaian dancer and conga player Daniel Koranteng (better known as JB); and Mac Tontoh, a founder-member of Osibisa.
There are also chapters with contributions by Obiba Sly Collins who played percussion and bass with Fela; Smart Binete, a Ghanaian based in Lagos whose family owned the property that was Fela's shrine; Willie Ankuh, a percussionist and violinist who knew Fela well and transcribes one of Fela's songs, Shuffering and Shmiling in the book, and Nana Danso Abiam, the founder of the Pan-African Orchestra who met Fela in 1973 and was heavily influenced by the Afrobeat maestro.
Collins also produces extracts from diaries he kept while staying with Fela at Kalakuta, and recalls his last meeting with the great man in 1981 in Amsterdam.
Along the way, the book describes Fela's extraordinary life story, how he was radicalised in the early 1970s, nor in Africa but in California, USA, being heavily influenced by the black-power movement after meeting Sandra Smith and being introduced to the books of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcom X. …