Nigeria goes to the polls this weekend, if the ruling government allows this. As it happens, I have been listening a lot lately to that country’s best known musician, and arguably its best known political activist.
I wonder what Fela Kuti would have made of Nigeria today, Africa’s most populous country and one of its most troubled, in a field not short of competition. Kuti was not exactly sparing in his condemnation of the various regimes foisted on his homeland during his lifetime.
As it happens one candidate, the former general Muhammadu Bihari, was one of them, ruling oppressively between 1983 and 1985. Kuti was jailed by him on a charge of currency smuggling which most neutral observers believe was groundless and motivated by his political activism, expressed through his music. He was released by Bihari’s successor and continued to make politically charged protest music, as many as two dozen albums, perhaps.
Kuti is sometimes lazily described as the Bob Marley of Africa. Both men are dead, and they shared a prodigious appetite for marijuana. Both seem to have taken a fairly relaxed view on the pressures imposed by monogamy and marriage – Kuti had a dozen or more wives at any time.
His music was in a style called Afrobeat, a hypnotic, propulsive mix of west African music and influences such as jazz and funk. His band was huge; songs went on for ten, twenty minutes, with long, jazz-derived instrumental sections featuring massed horns, often played out for some stretch of time before the arrival of the first vocals.
Those vocals featured call and response exchanges between Kuti, who sang in a just about comprehensible pidgin English, and his backing singers. If this sounds less than appealing, it is as a sound hugely powerful – it should come as no shock to anyone who likes, say, Weather Report, Bitches Brew-period Miles Davis or even Brazilian music, some of which it resembles. Not to mention American funk such as Sly and George Clinton – perhaps not surprisingly, given all the above’s shared African roots.
Kuti excoriates those corrupt rulers, the global corporations who colluded with them to loot the country’s riches – one of his best known songs is called International Thief Thief, a play on the telecoms company ITT – the Nigerian military, and the lack of water and denial of basic human needs and rights suffered by Nigerians.
Kuti founded in Lagos The Shrine, a nightclub, and a linked commune. His 1977 album, Zombie, which attacked the military in such terms, triggered the inevitable response. Soldiers attacked his commune, it was torched, his studio and instruments were destroyed, he was beaten and his mother suffered fatal injuries.
Kuti’s response was typical. He delivered his mother’s coffin to the barracks where Nigeria’s military ruler then lived. He also marked the occasion the next year by marrying 27 wives.
Kuti died in 1997 of complications related to AIDS. He was probably not a terribly nice person, his attitude to women stank, but he was a man who took up opposition to what needed opposing, and he was never afraid to stand at the head of the Awkward Squad.
I doubt he would have had much more time for the other candidate in this weekend’s election, the incumbent and largely ineffectual Goodluck Johnson, than for his one-time jailor. These are times, however, when Nigeria, and perhaps elsewhere, needs more Fela Kutis.