Rebel’s rhythm

May 31, 2006 at 12:00 am

When he took the Orchestra Hall stage in Detroit 20 years ago, it was part party and part political rally. Stripped to the waist, arms pumping in the air, he played sax and keyboards; he prowled the stage, spit out songs like calls to action, and directed the band and his 20-odd scantily clad, suggestively dancing wives like a ruler. The founder of Afro-beat music, that churning musical mixture of Africa and Africa-America, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was the Dionysus of protest singers.

In this country, he was never more than a modest "draw." He toured in the United States infrequently, and made it to Detroit only two more times (playing Chene Park and the Majestic) before his AIDS-related death in 1997 at age 58. But in his native Nigeria he was a cultural and political icon. He was the taunter-in-chief and chief thorn in the side of successive civilian and military governments, which harassed him, charged him with various offenses, barred his electoral bid, jailed him for 18 months and, at one point, reportedly stormed his communal household with 1,000 troops. His funeral rites drew a crowd estimated at 1 million.

The magnitude of those responses — both the adulation and the opposition — were in keeping with Fela's sense of himself during his later years. "He did believe he was some kind of god," his son and musical heir Femi Kuti has said since his father's death. "And, yes, I would say he is a god. He is a god of music."

Fela grew up in a middle-class Nigerian family where his mother, in particular, was known for agitation against Britain's colonial rule and later received the Lenin Peace Prize. He studied classical music in England in the late '50s and early '60s, playing in the jazz and R&B scenes while there. He played jazz and the Nigerian popular styles on his return home, but was radicalized in a disastrous U.S. tour in 1969. If no one in the States bothered to hear out the young Nigerian and his group, he imbibed the radical currents of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, and the musical energy of James Brown.

Back home, he created a new style of music and a new political stance for a musician. He denounced the military man in his hit "Zombie"; the multinational ITT was slammed as "International Thief Thief (ITT)"; and the middle-class gent in Western clothes was full of shit, or as Fela phrased it pidgin English, "him go smell like shit." His commune grew into something he claimed as an independent state. (Visitor Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter, paints an underside to the sex, drugs and Afro-beat in his memoir Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela. There was martial punishment and a chicken coop for a jail with Fela's word as law in "a private kingdom.")

His reputation spread beyond Nigeria; he was sometimes called the most famous musician on the continent. Ghana banned him, but pilgrims to Fela's nightclub, the Shrine — in addition to Masekela — included Lester Bowie, James Brown, Bootsy Collins, Caetano Veloso and Paul McCartney.

McCartney said the music left him weeping, and he would have recorded with some of the musicians there — and perhaps widened the Afro-beat audience in the '70s — but for Fela's denunciation and interference with what he saw as a impending rip-off. And it seems Fela may have been as much to blame as Motown when a prospective deal between them collapsed.

That left his music to filter into America at the margins, mainly through releases on small and imported labels, through college and progressive radio stations, through word of mouth and the occasional news and magazine article.

But that music still plays on nearly a decade after his death. African pop bands of various genres bear his influence, and Femi is carrying on his father's Afro-beat flame. Hip-hop audiences, generally without knowing, are digging on Fela through samples on discs by Nas, Mos Def, Missy Elliott and others. And then there is the rise of Afro-beat American bands in Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago, along with Nomo and Odu Afrobeat Orchestra in Detroit.

All of that's bringing the music to listeners who were in grade school or younger during Fela's U.S. touring heyday. But it's debatable how much of the real Fela most of those tour-stop fans saw anyway.

Photographer Leni Sinclair recalls that after one of Fela's Detroit shows she trekked to Chicago to see him in an African club where "there wasn't a chair in sight" and the music and dancing went on until the wee hours. "People in Detroit never experienced that," she says, recalling the exhilaration of it all.

And even that wasn't the Shrine in Lagos in the old days.

W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]