Musician, composer, human rights activist, political maverick… these are all well fitting titles for Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the man who (albeit not alone) put Nigeria's Afrobeat music on the global map.
So unique and far reaching was, and is, his distinctive fusion of American funk, jazz, Ghanaian Highlife and traditional West African music, that despite his passing in 1997, his spirit is alive and kicking and easily imbibed through a legacy of musical manifestations of Afrobeat-influenced hip hop and hip life that regularly bursts out of Nigeria.
The spiritual home of the Afrobeat sound is the New Afrika Shrine, a Mainland-based club and performance venue where Fela’s sons – musicians Femi and Seun Kuti – take to the stage whenever they’re in town. With its high energy, late night gig crowd, the Shrine is a homage to the club that Fela set up in the 1970s, and is one of the sites that hosted the raw-energied FELA! the musical, during its 2011 international tour. Rare Fela photos and music tracks can be picked up at the Jazzhole, a one-stop shop for sound and literature, where much-coveted prints of the musician at work or at play are on display, but are also for sale for Fela aficionados.
The musician’s sound and image – which has always been strong – was ramped up further in 2010, when quick-off-the-mark Nigerian publishing house, Cassava Republic, struck an impressive deal to be the first to republish close friend and ethnologist Carlos Moore’s book about Fela Kuti 28 years after its original 1982 publication. A warts-and-all insight into the life and inner thinking of a musical master, the mini tome can be picked up at the Jazzhole, or the nearby Quintessence gallery and gift shop or Glendora Books (a Jazzhole partner), both located at the nearby Falomo Shopping Centre in Ikoyi on Lagos Island.
In essence, Fela is still today a symbolic embodiment of a guy who – along with oil and Nollywood – is Nigeria’s biggest cultural export. This is something that’s not taken lightly, and the annual Felabration festival of music and arts, which takes place in Lagos every October is testament to this. Conceived by Fela’s oldest child, Yeni, Felabration commemorates the life and times of her father, with a growing roster of grassroots and international artists who gather at Lagos venues every year to perform the musician’s songs and ultimately sing his praises.
Hugh Masakela, Les Nubians and King Sunny Ade are some of the powerhouse players that have graced the Felabration stage. It’s a definite end of year date for the diary, but until that time you can explore the man through his music on our Get Your Fela On Spotify playlist, where tracks include the political ‘Zombie’, ‘Viva Nigeria’, ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’, the playful ‘Funky Horn’ and seductive ‘Lover’, all providing deep hits of lyrical, undiluted jazz and soul-infused Afrobeat bliss.
Header photo: Original Suffer Head CD cover © Tom Brandt
Do you love the music of Fela Kuti? What’s your favourite track? Let us know in the comments below.
Written by Nana Ocran
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About the author: NanaNana Ocran
Nana Ocran is a London-based writer and editor specialising in contemporary African culture. She was Editor-in-Chief for the Time Out Group’s series of guides to Lagos and Abuja and has consulted on and established publications on West African culture for the Danish Film Institute, the Arts Council England and the Institute of International Visual Arts. She was a nominee for CNN’s African Journalist of the Year (2011), and curatorial advisor for the Afrofuture programme at La Rinascente during Milan Design Week 2013. Nana is a regular features writer for Arik Airline’s in flight magazine, Wings, in which she writes about art, lifestyle, innovation and enterprise issues relating to Arik’s African, European and US destinations. She has been a jury member for Film Africa (London) and the Festival del Cinema Africano, d'Asia e America Latina (Milan).