Fela Anikulapo Kuti – From the Foot of the Shrine

Fela Anikulapo Kuti
From the Foot of the Shrine

By Struan Douglas
Photos: Bailey’s African Archives

Amongst the infectious, feverish heat of the Nigerian coastal capital – Lagos, a funky, vigorous beat plays with hypnotic effect. The women vibrate, dancing erotically, passionately entangled in trances, cages – half naked. The audiences are massive – celebrities, countrymen – all politicised, amongst their hero, their leader – Fela Kuti – and their music – afrobeat.

These were the visions Drum publisher Jim Bailey used to tell me of the evenings he had spent in Lagos during the 70’s, at the seminal African night-club – Fela Kuti’s night-club – the Shrine. He talked of the arrival of great stars that visited the venue, Paul McCartney ( who swore Jim and his journalists to silence), Roy Ayers and Cream’s fabled drummer, Ginger Baker (both recorded with Fela) and Hugh Masekela who gained inspiration there. He talked of Fela’s political antics, the support at the venue, the passion, the unique fire and the mission of re-Africanising the people, re-Africanising them through music.

There was such excitement, love and vibrance poised on the continual edge of danger, the desire to bring about change. The Shrine was not only a politicised venue to showcase Fela’s new edge of music – Afrobeat, but it was also a Shrine at the feat of a great man- a brave African evangelist and supremely influential musician who suffered for all he stood for and eventually died by the vicious hand he had lived by.

A little bit of James Brown, a touch of Bob Marley – but a completely unique style – Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Out with Western Imperialism, the American pop. Out with the old fashioned traditional Nigerian dance music, High-Life and in with something new, something rooted in Africa, something free and expressive. Late in the 60’s and already a popular trumpeter and leader of the band Koola Lobitos – Fela decided it was time for change and a radical change at that. “Right from my youth, I have had a special love for jazz,” says Fela (bibliography 4) “During my student days, I spent hours listening to good jazz music on records.” He says in reference to Parker, Coltrane, Gillespie and Davis who were big in America that time. “I was determined to play only good jazz music, but the Nigerians did not want jazz. A few jazz addicts came to our shows, but we were not reaching the wider public who wanted nothing but High-Life. I did not want to waste my time splitting hairs over definitions. What I was trying to do was evolve a unique and authentic style.”

No quintet. jazz trio or traditional dancing – he needed something bigger, stronger – so he settled on 20 instrumentalists and 27 singers and dancers. A big band and an ambitious journey into the hearts and minds of the African people. The seminal group ‘Africa 70’ was thus borne. Fela was original, dynamic, insightful, charismatic and brilliant. To African music he was what Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were to jazz, with the same inventive wickedness, the same impassioned hysteria, a destructive / creative edge and serious awareness – politically and culturally.

He wanted the public to hear the music and get to know the band, so for a long while he played without gate fees. Him, his musicians, dancers, wives and eventually his audiences and fans were living only for the music and the vision. It took only the one compromise – from jazz to afrobeat – and four years of tough musical toil, but from there, Fela was a star and he never compromised again.

As hot and sweaty as Lagos can be in summer, as intoxicating as the famous palm wine of these shores can be – by all accounts Africa 70 at the Shrine was more. It was freestyle within a tight polyrythmic, hypnotic structure. The music went on for hours, political, expressive, angsty, intense, trance-like and sexual.

Furiously sexual. I once caught a video of Fela’s on TV. He was dressed only in a tight pare of brightly coloured hot-pants. He bounced around the stage in the heat and the sweat, furiously singing passionate political messages in his pigeon English, with a joint half hanging between his teeth. Strong empowering words and chants, crazy rolling jazz riffs, and a troupe of sexy female dancers, dancing around him, vibrating in a trance like sexuality, inspired by the speedy, busy rhythms, inspired by the words, the passion, the music.

At a ceremony in 1978, wearing only his typical stage gear – the hot-pants – Fela married 27 women. “Women. I’ve been very lucky with women. Girls admire me when I am on the stage. Naturally I am happy about it and it is only natural that I should return admiration for admiration.” he said in a quote from Drum (Dec. 1963- bibliography 3) written on a young Fela when he had only one wife and two children.

Even though he divorced all these women, he maintained a throng of admirers until he passed away in 1997 at the age of 58 from HIV / Aids. Saint or sinner, sexist or romantic? Who says, but it was his energy, his attitude – a liberal, negritudinal and anarchist flare – that compounded itself in his truest expressions, sex and political distaste. Fela’s music was his muse – it expressed everything about him.

‘Coffin for Head of State.’ Music is poetry an expression of your strongest convictions and faiths.

Shey our leaders dem like us or dem like themselves?”
I get my own answer for you”
Dem be original criminals,” he sang

Africa post-independence was generally a very corrupt place – and Nigeria was no different. And with the guise of corruption, comes its military protection – and Fela was on the wrong side of this – often.. “Oooooooooooooooooh, I was beaten by police! So much… How can a human being stand so much beating with clubs and not die?” (bibliography 1- ) tells Fela about the first attack by the police on the Shrine. There were repeated attacks – the musicians were jailed, brutalised and maimed, but the venue continued – almost irresponsibly. Until three years later, 1977 when the military junta in Lagos sent a thousand soldiers to burn, kill and brutalise where they could.

When Fela’s mother, a noted nationalist, died at the hands of the military-police in one of these raids, very symbolically, Fela and his entourage of wives and girlfriends went to the ruling junta’s Obasanjo headquarters and placed the coffin on the steps.

Like with banning a song on the radio, these raids and murders only confirmed the power of Fela Kuti. As with Steve Biko and Che Cuevara the victims were raised to the status of martyrs, whilst Fela became a myth. The brutality, his reactions, his survival and his continuing to perform were his personal victories – the victory of personal liberty and freedom over gross power and political futility.

After military rule ended in 1979, he established his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People), in the early ’80s responding to the rise of conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. However his rise never materialised as in 1984 he was sentenced to five years in prison on what Amnesty International later called “spurious” charges. (bibliography 2).

‘Shey police wey go protect people dey burn burn things
Shey army wey suppose protect us na dem dey burn burn so
Why dem like to burn the things wey cost money’

He never quit, he never compromised. Not even on his death bed when he refused to quit smoking marijuana. But, that is who Fela was: Very stubborn, but hugely committed to the passion he lived for, a passion that created a beautiful and evangelical music, and his weapon to fight for the emancipation of Africa.

A basic Discography:

Finding an old Fela Kuti 78 is like finding gold -every DJ I know is desperately searching for that. Throughout his lifetime, Kuti’s albums were poorly distributed and promoted, particularly outside Africa. Black President, arguably his greatest release, is now out of print, as are other classics such as Teacher Don’t Teach Me No Nonsense. Universal has just released a double compilation album of his greatest works entitled ‘Black President’ after the seminal release. His son Femi Kuti has recently released ‘Shoki Shoki’ – a fantastic album and continuation of the big band afrobeat his father created.

In fact, Fela recorded more than 50 albums. He played a key role in the spread of African pop music around the world. Like James Brown is the godfather of funk, Fela is the godfather of modern African music.


. Fela: The Life & Times of controversial Afrobeat superstar by Chido Nwangwu
. A Legend And His Life, By Osofisan
. Drum Magazine December 1963: Fela’s fabulous Highlife. Journalist un-named
. Drum Magazine October 1971: Fela’s Afro-revolution by Olu Akarangun
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