Written By: Ethan Griggs
My Music: ethangriggsmusic.virb.com
Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born in Abeokuta, British Nigeria in on 15 October 1938. As a young man in his hometown, he became proficient on the trumpet and the saxophone, and he had a love for highlife, an African style of guitar music. After moving to London to attend the Trinty School of Music he developed a distinct strain of African music based on highlife called Afrobeat. After learning of the Black Panther movement in Los Angeles upon visiting the city with his band, he decided his brand of music should be catered towards social themes rather than the typical love song. Thus, Fela Ransome-Kuti and his band the Afrika 70 returned to Nigeria to debut their new material, and the rest is history. Often renowned as “the first Black President”, Fela Kuti is not only known as an extreme innovator in African music, but also one of the most influential African political figures of the 20th century. Dying from AIDS in 1997, his life story has even been adapted into a Broadway musical. Here are five of his best songs:
- “Lady” from Shakara (1972)
This is one of Fela’s most instantly infectious tracks. Taking up the entire first side of this 1972 record, the rhythm of the drums and guitar on “Lady” provide an undeniable groove and the tone of the horns are immediately catchy, with a carefully played organ toying around mischievously in the background. Finally, Fela’s voice cuts through the mix with powerful lyrics about the power of womanhood. “She go say him equal to man/She go say him get power like man/ She go say anything man do himself fit do”, wails Kuti over the perfect flow of the band.
- “Shakara (Oloje)” from Shakara (1972)
The singular track on side two of its namesake album is the thesis for why Shakara remains Fela’s best album, at least arguably. Musically, the track is very much in the same vain as “Lady”, but there is more mystery to the instrumental tones. It takes some time to build up the horns on this one, and when they come in they take on a much darker melody than on side one. Lyrically, “Shakara” is mostly a spoken word piece. It’s a bit difficult to understand what the song is about, since Fela’s English is mostly broken, but it seems to be about the relationship between men & women. The music on the track is so infectious that it doesn’t even matter.
- “Water Get No Enemy” from Expensive Shit (1975)
The second side of Fela’s acclaimed 1975 album can be promoted as his jazziest. The saxophone is front and center on this track and his reminiscent of all the great American Latin Jazz of Kenny Dorham and Getz/Gilberto. It is absolutely Fela’s most “American” sounding track. Potentially Fela’s most popular song, the lyrics are a call and response of his native language Yoruba and our native English in an admiration for the miracle of water. “Nothing without water,” chants Fela on the track in a salute to one of the world’s most universal and connecting elements.
- “Zombie” from Zombie (1977)
When the title track of Fela’s 1977 effort was released as a single, Fela was feeling very critical of the Nigerian government. The song describes his distaste with the armed forces and compares the soldiers to zombies who “don’t think unless you tell them to think.” When the album and single became a smash hit, it infuriated the Nigerian government so much that they launched an attack on Fela’s headquarters, commune, and studio called the Kalakuta Republic. Fela was severely beaten in these attacks and his mother was unfortunately killed when she was thrown from a window.
- “Sorrow Tears and Blood” from Sorrow Tears and Blood (1977)
Reeling from the tragedy of the assault on his compound, Fela wrote this song in response to the way the common-folk are treated by the government. Fela describes the apathy some have towards the forces of corruption and evil in the world and he sees it as a problem. “We fear to fight for liberty/We fear to fight for justice/We fear to fight for happiness/We always get reason to fear”. Fela’s constant lack of fear for the truth and what is socially and politically right is what has made his music last throughout the past few generations of the socially unrested, black or white.