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African Legends

Fela Kuti

By Tom Pryor

The founder and king of Afro-beat, Fela’s legend continues to grow long after his death from AIDS-related complications in 1997.

The late, great Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti was one of the most dynamic, original and uncompromising musicians to emerge from the great post-colonial African pop explosion in the 1960s and ’70s. A natural-born iconoclast, Fela was a legend in his own lifetime; as infamous for his lifestyle and politics as he was acclaimed for his music.
Fela Ransome Kuti (he later changed his middle name to Anikulapo) was born into an elite Yoruba family in 1938. His grandfather was the first African to record music in Europe, and his mother was a well-known nationalist leader.
In 1958, Fela’s family sent him to London to study medicine, but instead he spent four years studying music. In 1962 Fela returned to the newly independent Nigeria, and pursued music full time. In 1969 he took his band to Los Angeles and became enamored of James Brown and the Black Panther movement, two things that would radicalize Fela’s sound and vision.
He returned to Lagos in 1970, promptly renamed his band Afrika 70 and opened his own club, the Shrine. There he, along with drummer/arranger Tony Allen, pioneered a new style they dubbed Afrobeat, borrowing Brown’s muscular horn arrangements and slinky guitars and grafting it onto thundering Yoruba rhythms. Over the next three decades he would record over 77 albums with Afrika 70 and their successors, Egypt 80.
Fela’s broadsides against the military government made him some enemies, and he suffered repeated harassment. In his lifetime Fela would undergo 356 court appearances and three separate imprisonments.
Yet for all his badboy behavior, Fela’s legend continues to grow long after his death from AIDS-related complications in 1997, and his son Femi carries on the family franchise with his band Positive Force.

Recommended Recordings:
Koola Lobitos 1964-1968: The ’69 Los Angeles Sections (MCA Universal)
Best Best Of Fela Kuti (Universal MCA)
Live! (featuring Ginger Baker) (Universal MCA)