A Musical — and Political — Icon, Remembered: Fela Lives!
by Steve Heilig, November 23, 2011
How many musicians can really be seen as revolutionaries — in not just musical terms but political ones as well? Fela Kuti is one such figure, and Americans are finally learning about him. The award-winning play Fela! was a sensation on Broadway last year and has now come to the West coast, playing at the Curran theatre in San Francisco. I haven’t seen it yet, but plan to. I was lucky enough to witness Fela himself in concert a few times, which was an unforgettable spectacle.
The only writing I've done regarding Fela Kuti was the following book review, about the still-definitive biography and critical study by Micheal Veal published five years after his death. It might provide some good context for those interested in the play and in Fela's music. Fela’s sons Femi and Seun continue in his tradition, updating it with their own bands and recordings, which are also highly recommended — they've both appeared in Northern California more than once and will likely be back.
The Life & Times of a Musical Icon
I remember where I was when I heard that Fela Anikulapo-Kuti had died. It was August 3, 1997, and the veteran Nigerian singer Sonny Okosuns was onstage at the Reggae on the River festival in Northern California; his expected energetic live set seemed subdued. At one point he apparently could no longer keep his feelings hidden, stepped to the microphone, and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to have to say this, but just today we have learned that Fela Kuti has died. I do not want to believe this is true but I feel I have to tell you now.” There were tears on his cheeks as he turned from the microphone.
I also remember the days I learned that Bob Marley, John Lennon, and Jimi Hendrix died. And I mention those names only to reinforce just how important a musical figure Fela Kuti was. Perhaps only the Congolese guitarist and singer Franco obtained similar stature as a true Pan-African icon, but nobody — anywhere in the world — has ever matched Fela in terms of presenting a singular, controversial, uncompromising body of work — with a life story to match.
Fela’s life story and music have been the subject of a couple of books published while he was still living, but those works were not only hard to find, but generally judged to be not up to the weighty task of presenting all that their topic warranted. Now the definitive book on Fela has arrived.
Michael Veal is uniquely qualified to tell Fela’s story. A Yale ethnomusicologist, he not only has the intellectual and research skills to present a comprehensive biography, anchored throughout in the chaotic sociopolitical context of West Africa in recent decades, but — get this — actually played saxophone with Fela’s band when they toured the United States. He also visited Fela in Lagos to see him working and playing in his home element. Veal knows his subject as well as anyone could, with a proper mix of objectivity and passion for the music that makes his book both analytically challenging, even dense at times (it originated as a Master’s thesis), and compelling reading.
In 260 packed and large pages, Veal tells Fela’s unique and already legendary life story, drawing on over 500 publications, many interviews, and a deep and wide familiarity with Fela’s work as reflected in his own musical experience and an exhaustive discography. Given Fela’s continual involvement with the political and musical forces of his times, the book also becomes a de facto history of modern Nigeria and African music, centered around an enigmatic and powerful — and ultimately tragic — figure.
Even for readers already familiar with Fela’s work and life, Veal’s exploration is full of surprises and ironies. Veal begins this retelling (following a vivid opening recollection of a night at Fela’s legendary Lagos club The Shrine) before Fela’s birth in 1938 to second-generation Christian parents. His father, an Anglican pastor, was also a union activist. His mother was a well-known women’s rights activist when that was still very rare. This respected upper middle-class extended family produced prominent doctors and other professionals (including Fela’s cousin, Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka). Fela’s childhood friends, Veal notes, recall him as a “well-mannered, respectful young man with a mischievous, playful streak.” That streak, combined with his family’s stern and strict standards, earned him “systematic ass-kickings.” Nobody could know then that such mischief and beatings would be dominant factors throughout Fela’s life.
Exposed to a heady intellectual upbringing, Veal notes that Fela’s ideological foundations were (Ghana’s first president Kwame) “Nkrumah’s…Marxist rhetoric and the proto-pan-Africanism of Jamaican Marcus Garvey.” Musically, Fela began developing as a young man in the 1950′s “Golden Age” of Nigerian highlife sounds and left for London in 1958 to study music at elite Trinity College. There he became steeped in Afro-American jazz and formed his first band, leading the “Koola Lobitos” (roughly, “young wolves”) as a trumpet player, recording some singles and citing Louis Armstrong as a formative influence. Returning to Lagos in 1963, he began a musical career in earnest as both a bandleader and radio producer, but lost his job due to his focus on his own band’s efforts to present “highlife, jazz, the Twist, the Madison, and what-have-you.”
A trip to the United States in the late 1960s proved revelatory. The band’s planned tour was an organizational nightmare but Fela discovered both funk music and radical politics. He read Malcolm X, listened to James Brown, met African-American activists, and recorded his first unmistakably Fela-esque music in Los Angeles in 1969 — a prototype of the “afrobeat” he invented and would forever epitomize. “Fela returned to Nigeria a changed man,” Veal notes.
That changed man was the Fela who became notorious worldwide even before he ever ventured out of Africa again. Starting with a small group (whose fan club was at one point sponsored by a skin-lightening cream company!), during the 1970s Fela’s band, ego, image, following, recording catalog, worldview, and conflicts expanded exponentially. “The man turned Nigeria completely upside down” then, as Veal quotes a fan. “He had the whole country in his hand…Fela at that time was a law unto himself and did whatever he pleased in Nigeria, until he met an equally lawless group- the army.”
“Whatever he pleased” included Fela’s renowned penchant for women, including many wives, and for openly smoking illegal herbs (even though early on he strictly prohibited his band members from doing so), and for baiting his enemies in both the music industry and the government verbally, musically, and in writing in his “Chief Priest” column which ran for years in a major newspaper. The consequences included numerous raids on his homes and clubs, beatings and even death among his family and followers, and much jail time. To his credit, Veal covers all of this extensively but nonsensationally. Charges of Fela’s sexism, exploitation of women and musicians (his greatest drummer, Tony Allen, called Fela a “slave driver”), and inconsistent pronouncements are fully explored.
At each step of Fela’s development, Veal presents just enough of the political context to give a real picture of what Fela was up against — and how much of his problems might have been avoided or escaped had Fela been willing to compromise even on seemingly inconsequential points. But lack of any willingness or even ability to do so brought Fela fame and some fortune at first, and then increased arrests and beatings, criticism even among former followers, something close to poverty, and even, it may be argued, death from AIDS. Veal walks a fine line in presenting various perspectives on this decline and fall, without unduly judging a man who is obviously a musical idol.
On Fela’s music, Veal is analytical and admiring without being blinded. “In musical terms, the afrobeat Fela developed between 1969 and 1972 was his major achievement,” Veal argues. “It clearly drew upon highlife, jazz, and rhythm-and-blues, but Africanized the foreign jazz and soul elements while it deconstructed dance-band highlife, and grafted them all onto a traditional West African rhythmic template.” While I will probably never quite grasp what “deconstruction” is supposed to connote, this is as good a basic description of afrobeat as you’ll find, as is Veal’s view of Fela on stage: “Fela combines the autocratic bandleading style and dancing agility of James Brown, the mystical inclinations of Sun Ra, the polemicism of Malcolm X, and the harsh, insightful satire of Richard Pryor.”
Through the 1970′s and 1980′s, this larger-than-life figure recorded almost seventy albums of extended songs (fully listed chronologically here, with lyrical excerpts and descriptive critical commentary for many), and was arrested, beaten, harassed and jailed too many times to count (although Veal tries, estimating that Fela was arrested around 200 times). His provocations led some to feel he had a death wish, or at least felt himself immune to mortality. He made ventures overseas and was received with anything from ecstasy to derision, and plenty of confusion: “Those who expected a performance of traditional music experienced an electric, Western-influenced popular style. Those who expected virtuosic African jazz experienced instead a social, communal dance music in which virtuosity in the Western sense was not a prime consideration. Those who expected a progressive, leftist ideologue experienced instead an authoritarian, nontraditional polygamist presenting a stage show almost bordering on the burlesque.” And so on; Fela confounded everyone at some point.
Thus even the temporary overseas fame found by a few African musicians such as his compatriot Sunny Ade and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela eluded Fela, and even though he said that did not matter, some of the quotes and information Veal includes indicate that Fela was in fact disappointed. “When I went to America in 1969 I knew Africa had the music to go around the world but I thought it was going to be quicker,” he said in 1983. “I have been waiting for this a long time.” He was to be kept waiting.
By the 1990s Fela’s behavior, never sedate, was increasingly bizarre and unpredictable, alienating even many of his followers. Formerly unmatched as a prolific composer and recorder, he released little music even by other bands’ standards. He had a controversial personal “guru” named Professor Hindu who performed supposed live executions and revitalizations (exposed as fraudulent here), and made ever-more scabrous and sometimes absurd pronouncements about many topics, including the disease which claimed his life at age 58. He likely exposed many others to HIV, a consequence never fully documented. Reading his life story, it’s actually surprising he lived as long as he did. He had been jailed, in a “skeletal” state, one more time just a few months before he died.
However far Fela had fallen, though, his funeral drew not only “dignitaries, politicians, students and diplomats” but over a million Nigerians who saw him a virtual deity. For, Veal concludes, “Despite the strongly divided opinions of Fela, the public reaction to his death was virtually unanimous. While his lifestyle was universally condemned, Fela had never wavered from his self-appointed role of calling attention to the sufferings of the common people….At the heart of his chaotic, contentious, and contradictory lifestyle was an authentic search for an African cultural revitalization, a refusal to submit to mindless authority mindlessly, and one of the most irrepressible and profusely creative African spirits of the late twentieth century.” His music, much of it now reissued and enjoying a posthumous surge in popularity, remains as evidence of all Veal claims for it.
“Fela” fully presents Fela, warts, glories, struggles and all. Veal’s “more than ten years of critical and recreational listening, musical performance, academic research, traveling, and collecting” invested in this book have paid off in a landmark work. This is, and almost certainly will remain, the ultimate book on Fela Kuti. In this life story, truth is indeed stranger — and stronger — than fiction.
Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon, By Michael E. Veal. Temple University Press, Philadelphia; 2003.