Legend series:Fela Kuti

There is something altogether gutsy and admirable about a man who can write a song titled, “you give me shit, I give you shit”. That was Fela Anikulapo Kuti for you. The black president, Africa man original. He simply did not give a shit what people thought of him. He was not afraid of ruffling feathers. But he did care a lot about other things. About Africa and it’s people, our culture, resources and governance. He was passionate about African music and explored it indepth. He was completely obsessed with reclaiming Africa’s lost dignity. Yet this obsession came with a high price that included police beatings and near death encounters with the military. Let’s not forget the unfair court rulings and even the loss of his own mother.
Fela changed his name from Ransome, which was his birth name, because he did not want to remain with what he saw as a slave name.  He instead took up Anikulapo, meaning ‘he who carries death in his pouch’. He was basically saying that he would be the master of his destiny. That he would decide when it was time for death to take him. It’s hardly surprising that at his funeral one million voices chanted, ‘Fela will live forever’.

felaI  have great reverence for Fela. To me he has always seemed like a demi god. This man whose hypnotic music first began a guilty pleasure in my otherwise completely western classical music world. Yet his music like Bob Marley’s got me hooked. And I would spend hours completely mesmerized. Fela is complex, I did not know what to make of him in the beginning. This man who once married 27 women on one day.  This man who referred to his music as the underground spiritual game. This man who reverted back to the religion of our ancestors. This man who boldly  denounced being a gentlemen. I don’t know, Fela is like magic. Ever mysterious yet one cannot help but fall in love. He is the root of our music. He is to Africa what Bach is to western classical music. The foundation which we rest upon. The root which holds the tree firmly in the ground.

Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born in Abeokuta Nigeria in 1938.  His father was an Anglican minister and mother a Feminist activist. He left for London in 1958 to go study music at Trinity college. He was to study  was to study medicine initially. While in London he formed his first band, known as Koola Lobitos. He went back to Nigeria upon finishing his studies. Here he would perform with his band for a few years before leaving for Ghana in ’67. He wanted to think up a new musical direction. It was here that his music was first referred to as Afrobeat . He is the pioneer of Afrobeat, a genre that fuses funk, jazz, salsa, calypso, juju, high life and African percussive patterns. Two years later, he left for America. Here he was influenced by black power ideals. It was the era of the Black Panther party. While in America, he recorded the Los Angeles sessions with his band Nigeria ’70. He came back to Nigeria and renamed his band Afrika ’70. He also formed the Kalakuta Republic. It was a commune of sorts,  a recording studio and the ultimate chill spot. He even later declared it independent from the Nigerian state!

Fela set up a night club as well, the Afrika Shrine.  He would perform here regularly and practice the traditional Yoruba religion. In 1979 he put himself forward as a candidate for president  but it was declined. He created Egypt ’80 around this time.
Fela’s legacy lives through his music as well as through his two sons.  Seun, the youngest, who leads his father’s band Egypt ’80. Femi, the first born who has his own band, Positive force. Fela is one of the most sampled artists of all time with musicians such as Yasiin Bey, Wizkid and Nas having sampled his music. There are also numerous covers of his music.

Every year in October the “Felabration” concert is held his honour. I hope I can get to attend one of these someday. This and a visit to the ‘New Afrika Shrine’ in Lagos.

I leave you with “Shakara” and “Trouble sleep yanga wake am. ” The latter being the first Fela song I heard. I always get wistful whenever I listen to it playing.

 

Legend series: Hugh Masekela

 

A few months ago, a friend of mine called me up to tell me that Hugh Masekela would be performing in Nairobi, in August. We spent about half an hour screaming on the phone, we couldn’t believe that the music gods had answered our prayers.
Hugh Masekela is many things, musician, activist, preserver of African heritage. But the image that always pops up in my head is of him blowing passionately into trumpet. He plays the flugelhorn (which looks a lot like a trumpet), is a singer, composer and bandleader as well. His musical journey began in his homeland at the tender age of 8 when he began to take lessons in classical piano. As fate would have it, he watched the 1950 biopic Young man with a horn, based on the legendary Bix Beiderbecle.He then decided to take up the trumpet. He joined the Huddleston jazz band and began playing on a horn donated by Louis Armstrong who, coincidentally, would be a key influence later on in his musical journey.
1960 was the year that began what was to be his 30 year exile from Apartheid South Africa. He ended up in New York after a brief stay in Britain. I can only imagine the energy that was in New York when Hugh Masekela arrived there. New York must have been oozing all round coolness. Swung rhythms and improvisation must have been all over the place. It was the golden era of jazz and he was ushered into it by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. In New York, he immersed himself into this jazz scene where he would regularly watch the greats Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other cool cats of jazz. He was also enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music at the time. In this space he was encouraged to find his own voice and this resulted in his debut album ‘Trumpet Africaine’, released in 1963.Five years later his instrumental single ‘Grazin in the grass’ went to number one in the American pop charts, catapulting him to the international stage.
He has had a solo career that has spanned 5 decades and over 40 albums. He has worked with the likes of Fela Kuti, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba (whom he was once married to), Dizzy Gillespie amongst others. His ability to synthesize different musical influences while maintaining artistic authenticity is what truly sets him apart as a legend. His latest release ‘Playing at work ‘was released by own record label, House of Masekela.
Here is a link to ‘Stimela’.This was the first song of Masekela’s that I listened to and I was completely hooked on him afterwards. Honestly, I thought I would pass out from euphoria when he performed it. But that’s just me, enjoy.