Nov 16, 2010 12:00AM

Fela and Femi Kuti

It began in Africa.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti (born Nigeria, 1938) came from a highly political background. His mother was a feminist anti-colonial activist, while his father was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. His cousin was the first African to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. Fela himself was sent to London to study medicine but instead went to the Trinity College of Music and invented afrobeat - a combination of West African chants and rhythms, Ghanian highlife, jazz, funk and psych rock.

While touring the States with his first band, he discovered the Black Panther movement and returned home to form the Kalakuta Republic, a recording studio and commune, eventually declaring it independent from the Nigerian state. His lyrics quickly became more political, and he began to sing in Pidgin English so that his music could reach all of Africa. In 1977 Fela and his band the Afrika 70 released Zombie, which used zombies as a metaphor for the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a huge success, and the government retaliating by sending 1000 soldiers to raid the Kalakuta Republic. Fela was severely beaten (as he was many times throughout his life), and his mother died after being thrown from a second-floor window.

In 1978 Fela marked the anniversary of the attack by marrying 27 women. He ran for president of Nigeria, stating that his first act upon entering office would be to enlist the entire population in the police force - because "before a policeman could slap you, he would have to think twice because you're a policeman, too." However, the government refused his candidacy and imprisoned him on a fabricated charge of currency smuggling. After protests from human rights groups he was released, at which point he divorced his twelve remaining wives, proclaiming that "marriage brings jealousy and selfishness."


Fela's musical output gradually slowed (amidst continued harassment from the Nigerian government), and on 3 August 1997 his brother Olikoye (a prominent AIDS activist) announced Fela's death the day before of an AIDS-related tumour.

From his obituary, written by his manager Rikki Stein:

150,000 people or so gathered in Tafawa Balewa Square to pay their last respects. Bands played, people queued endlessly to file past his glass coffin. We then ran with the coffin to a hearse (there were still 30,000 people queuing up) to make the 20-mile journey to the Shrine, where Fela's children were to carry out a private ceremony for family and friends. In a cavalcade of vehicles we rode through Lagos City behind a band in the back of a pick-up truck playing Fela tunes. The road was thronged with tens of thousands of people, until we came to the brow of a hill. I looked down across the valley to the distant horizon. The road was filled with people from one side to the other and as far as the eye could see. A million people or more, and even more came as we passed through each neighborhood. Seven hours to cover 20 miles and the band never dropped a note. As we came nearer to Ikeja, we began to worry. What would happen when we reached Pepple Street, a small side street in which The Shrine was situated? How, in fact would we reach The Shrine with a million people in front of us? Night fell as we drew near. We turned in to Pepple Street. There was hardly anyone there. A million or more people had decided that it was not appropriate for them to be there.

After growing up in the Shrine, Fela's son Femi Kuti eventually joined his father's band. He formed his own group Positive Force in the late eighties with Dele Sosimi, former keyboard player in Fela's band Egypt 80. Like his father, Femi has shown a strong commitment to social and political causes throughout his career - eventually opening a new Shrine in a different area of Lagos. In 2001, Femi collaborated on his album Fight to Win with a number of musicians including Common, Mos Def and Jaguar Wright. By combining afrobeat with genres like hip-hop and soul, Femi introduced his father's music to a wider audience - in Grand Theft Auto IV, Femi hosts the radio station IF 99 (International Funk 99), playing "a great selection of classics from West Africa, the US and elsewhere."

I started writing this article because Femi Kuti and the Positive Force are coming to Sydney this weekend. I started to write about Femi, but I couldn't do that without writing about Fela, and then all of a sudden I had 700 words. In other words, I think you should go.

Saturday 20 November, The Metro Theatre, Sydney.

Femi will be supported by Afro Moses with DJs James Locksmith and Huwston.

Tickets are available from Ticketek.

PS If you want to know more, there is an excellent documentary about Fela, an upcoming film (from Hunger director Steve McQueen), and even a Broadway play.