AFRO-BEAT AND HIGHLIFE JAZZ
BOOK REVIEW: Fela Kuti freed his mind (kind of) from slavery
Throughout his life Fela relentlessly sought social justice for ordinary Nigerians
Originally published in 1982 and resurfacing again under the auspices of Rose Francis’s African Perspectives Publishing, this authorised biography of the late Nigerian music icon Fela Kuti is a gripping tale of a colourful, controversial life.
Fela: This Bitch of a Life has a foreword by Gilberto Gil and an introduction by Margaret Busby, who were close to the musician. Carlos Moore captures well the life of an activist, musician and philosopher who found himself in and out of Nigerian prisons for being too outspoken.
The founder of the Afro-beat sound, infused widely with music from neighbouring Ghana called High Life to create a medley of music, made it difficult and confusing for musicologists and ordinary people alike to define his music. His lyrics were not confusing, though — they clearly defined his social, political and philosophical agenda.
Albums such as Zombie, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, Mr Follow Follow, Fear Not for Man, Vagabonds in Power, International Thief and Authority Stealing connected easily with the masses in Nigeria and beyond. But Kuti ruffled the feathers of the political elite in Nigeria, both the military and civilian governments.
Due to his hard-hitting song-and-dance-act, supported by a huge band mainly made up of his girlfriends, wives and hangers-on who believed in his philosophy, he suffered much harassment and painful periods of imprisonment in his country of birth. But his music touched many across continents and countries, including in SA. It still does, 20 years after his death.
Written in a first-person narrative, with Kuti telling his story from his birth in 1938, the biography is not only about his musical journey. The son of the Right Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a strict disciplinarian school principal — who insisted that everyone call him Sir, including his children —
and gender activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who counted luminaries such as Kwame Nkrumah among her friends, defied his parents and studied music in England.
During the height of his mother’s activism in 1955, she met Mao Tse-tung when she was one of the vice-presidents of the Women’s International Democratic Federation.
Touching on a wide range of issues that defined the life and times of Kuti — from politics, religion, culture, colonialism, power and gender relations to hypocrisy in Nigeria during colonialism — the book provides a deep understanding of African politics unlike anything learned in a history lesson.
Kuti died in 1997 from AIDS-related complications. Throughout his life, he relentlessly sought social justice for ordinary Nigerians. The book also sheds light on how this genius was a flawed human.
For example, he had a horrific patriarchal attitude towards his wives, slapping them sometimes "to put them in line" and conducting a mass marriage with 27 women in one day. And he was afflicted by religious delusions in his last years. Kuti began to believe in spirits and accused some of his wives of practising witchcraft. He also believed that his late mother was able to speak to him through one of his wives.
"Do I beat my wives? Not beat. Not that brutal thing, man. Until I was 17, I got beaten [by both his parents]. Me, I have never beaten my children. I swear," Kuti told Moore.
"But sometimes it’s necessary to give my wives some paf-paf, paf-paf. I slap. I slap them, yeah. You see, when you talk about women, you are talking about something else, man. A woman has to respect her husband. They need you to show authority, man."
But the book also paints a picture of a man who clung to his political principles in the face of a sustained onslaught from successive Nigerian governments and social prejudice.
Kuti was a rebel through and through. His legacy is celebrated throughout the world alongside icons such as Bob Marley and James Brown, who he regarded as role models.
There is also the "small matter" of how Kuti disparaged western education as no good for Africans — an argument that in contemporary Nigeria is made by the militant terrorist group Boko Haram.
After the death of his father when he was 17, Kuti successfully persuaded his mother to allow him to pursue a career in music, his childhood passion, rather than medicine as his father had insisted. Though he was already performing in Lagos clubs with his best friend, Jimo Kombi Braimah, he went to Trinity College London, where he studied not just any music but western music.
"But my four-and-a-half years in Britain allowed me to really get in touch with jazz. At school, I studied classical music. But outside Trinity, I played jazz," he says in the book.
After graduating and returning to Nigeria in 1963, Kuti pursued his brand of jazz, which he called Highlife Jazz.
He was apolitical until he met Sandra Smith in the US in 1969 when he toured there with his group for 10 months. She was a member of the Black Panther movement and "Africanised" him with her hard-line pan-Africanist politics.
Again, he refers to his father while describing his political awakening in the US: "We had never had anything like a close relationship. But he was an honest man. Strict. With a colonial attitude towards training, education and discipline."
So when Kuti denigrated western education, it can be argued that he was criticising the prescriptive character of Nigeria’s colonially influenced higher education system at the time, which did not give young people scope to pursue fields other than teaching, medicine and law.
TITLE: FELA: This Bitch of a Life
Author: Carlos Moore
Publisher: African Perspectives Publishing