Fela Kuti remembered: 'He was a tornado of a man, but he loved humanity' (2023)

He was meant to be a doctor, an upstanding member of Nigeria's elite like his father, an Anglican pastor who had founded the Nigeria Union of Teachers, and his mother, an aristocrat, nationalist and fiery feminist who had won the Lenin peace prize. His two brothers were already committed to the medical profession to which he was likewise promised. At 20 he would study in England, where his first cousin, Wole Soyinka, was already making waves as a literary lion.

Instead, Fela Ransome-Kuti became infamous, an outlaw musician who declared himself president of his own "Kalakuta Republic", a sprawling compound in the suburbs of Lagos that housed his recording studio and offered sanctuary to the dispossessed. At his club, the Shrine, his band played until dawn while dozens of singers and dancers writhed and glittered amid drifts of igbo smoke. Here, Nigeria's corrupt dictators were denounced and ancient Yoruban deities honoured, all to a relentless backdrop of the "Afrobeat" that Fela had distilled from the musical collision of Africa and black America.

His music and outspokenenness made Fela a hero to Africa's poor, but he would pay a high price for his insurrectionary micro-republic, which was repeatedly raided, and he and his followers would be arrested and beaten. In early 1977, the military junta had had enough – Fela's record Zombie, mocking the army's do-as-you're-told mentality, may have been the tipping point for head of state General Obasanjo, who had once been in the same primary school class as Fela. A thousand soldiers overwhelmed Kalakuta, brutalising and raping as they went, then razing the compound to the ground. Fela was beaten close to death, and his elderly mother thrown from an upstairs window, afterwards dying of her injuries.

Fela defiantly established a short-lived political party and continued to spar with the authorities. "ITT (International Thief Thief)", for example, deplored the exploitation of Africa by multinationals. Increasingly, he carried his music and message to an international audience, though the west's media acclaim was never matched by record sales or stadium concerts. Tours that entailed a 50-strong entourage and albums of 20-minute songs didn't help. Nor did his imprisonment for two years on trumped-up currency charges on the eve of a 1984 world tour. Later still, Fela became a student of the spirit, only leaving home to play twice a week at the Shrine.

At his death from an Aids-related illness at the age of 58 in 1997 Fela left behind seven children, 50-odd albums and a musical legacy that has been kept fiercely alive by his sons Femi and Seun, and by his erstwhile drummer Tony Allen, who last month celebrated his 70th birthday with an all-star concert in London. Belatedly, Afrobeat has become a cause célèbre among young European and American music fans.

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Yet the most surprising aspect of Fela's afterlife arrived two years back when the biographical musical Fela! became the unexpected toast first of off-Broadway and then Broadway itself, garnering rave reviews and a string of awards. Never able to conquer the United States while alive, Fela Kuti had finally been taken to its cultural heart, captivating a new generation of black luminaries such as Jay-Z (one of the show's co-producers) and Alicia Keys. Next month the production opens at London's National theatre, with African-American actor Sahr Ngaujah alternating in the lead role with Britain's Rolan Bell.

Fela Kuti is hardly the first rebel outsider to be posthumously embraced, but the success of Fela! is not without irony; the likelihood is that more westerners will enjoy this virtual Fela than ever heard or saw the living man. For Fela's children, this is a cause for celebration: daughter Yeni is unreservedly positive. "It has introduced him to so many people who would been ignorant of him, his life and beautiful music," she told me.

Apart from the show's dazzling choreography and terrific music (drawn mostly from Fela's gilded 70s output), what impresses is the nuanced portrait of Fela himself, who is presented not in the usual militant stereotype, but as a compromised, flawed, even unbalanced soul.

"The show is faithful to Fela's character," says Rikki Stein, who was Fela's manager for 15 years, and who recalls "a tornado of a man who liked to play, eat, have sex and get high. But he was also sweet – he loved humanity, he was principled. He was a lot of fun to be around. He'd show up in the lobby of a five-star hotel wearing nothing but a pair of Speedos."

The extravagance of Kuti's personality is captured cannily by Sahr Ngaujah's onstage incarnation. The actor was raised in Atlanta, the son of a Sierra Leonean father and Cherokee mother, and remembers hearing Fela's music as a child (his father was a DJ). Ngaujah is also a sometime resident of Amsterdam and London; a world citizen with an engaging presence. Asked what he has learned about Fela from his role, Ngaujah testifies first to Fela's courage: "He was fearless enough to be an individual. On another level he's an archetype in modern clothing; a warrior, a trickster, while in his relationship with his mother, Funmilayo, you can see a very old motif – mother and son – at work.

"Technically, it's been a demanding role, because at the very least you want a convincing representation of a real person. Each time we rehearsed I focused on a different aspect of Fela; his walk, the way he held a cigarette, the timbre of his voice, his pronunciation. What I learned is that if you talk like this" – and here Ngaujah rolls his eyes mischievously and goes into a languid Lagos drawl – "then you have to be very cooool!"

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His impersonation offers a flash of Fela's seductive power, and that charisma is the reason why Fela! exists – the show's architects, producer Steve Hendel (an oil trader by profession), writer Jim Lewis and choreographer Bill T Jones were all fans way before they hatched the idea of creating a musical. In retrospect, Fela's life has all the necessary ingredients – a great soundtrack, extraordinary showmanship and dancing, plus a story that involves heroism and martyrdom – but to stage it still required a leap offaith.

Fela!'s success has inevitably awakened interest in its subject – Kuti's sprawling back catalogue has been dusted down and partially reissued – and reanimated the careers of his sons Femi (48) and Seun (28), both of whom bear a striking physical resemblance to their father and whose music likewise follows the Afrobeat mould created by Fela in the late 1960s. Seun, indeed, now fronts his father's old band, Egypt 80.

Afrobeat was essentially a synthesis of Ghana's jazzy highlife with Yoruban polyrhythms and James Brown funk. Brown, enormously popular in west Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, provided Fela with a model for a stage show that included dancers, extended instrumental workouts and lengthy call-and-response vocals. The influence may have been mutual; when Brown toured Nigeria in 1970 he and his band visited the Shrine. Yet Fela's musical roots are more tangled than might appear. When he came to London as a 20-year-old he had been sent to study medicine. Instead, he enrolled at Trinity College of Music and studied piano and composition. Asked, in 1984, which musician he most respected, Fela declared it was George Frideric Handel and said that he particularly admired Dixit Dominus and was making "African classical music".

Music ran in the Kuti family; Fela's Anglican father was a gifted pianist, while his grandfather had recorded hymns in Yoruba for a forerunner of EMI back in 1925 (one of which is used in Fela!). In London, Fela visited R&B clubs and formed a band, Koola Lobitos, that played highlife and jazz. Fela first called his music "Afrobeat" in 1967, but it was a visit to Los Angeles with his group in 1969 that completed Afrobeat's alchemy. Fela met black power activist Sandra Smith, who introduced him to the politics of black militancy, to the rhetoric of Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and LeRoi Jones, to the sight of dashikis on the pavement, to the "black and proud" mood of soul music. While Smith tried to learn what being "African" meant, Fela suddenly perceived the process of neocolonial control that reigned in his homeland.

"Being African didn't mean anything to me until later in my life," he said in the mid-80s. "When I was young we weren't even allowed to speak our own languages in school. They called it 'vernacular', as if only English was the real tongue."

On his return to Nigeria, Fela renamed his band Africa 70 and started writing the strident, satirical numbers that would make him both hero and renegade, always using pidgin English to cast his message wide. "Gentleman", for example, questioned why Africans aped western dress: "Him put him shirt put him tie put him coat… him go sweat all over him go smell like shit."

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Musically, the early 70s was Fela's golden era; the peerless Tony Allen left following the Kalakuta raid – "I'm a musician, I didn't sign up to be a fighter," he told me, and other musicians disliked the "hengers on" that proliferated at court.

Fela changed his name to Anikulapo Kuti at this point, rejecting Ransome as a "slave name"; his new title meant "One who holds death in a pouch". His advocacy of African tradition extended to religion, running contrary to his father's Christianity, though it's tempting to see Fela's "Shrine" as a version of his father's pulpit. His denunciation of corruption and support for the underclass tied in with his mother's crusading, though her championship of women's rights must have been affronted by her son's sexual politics. On "Lady" Fela castigated modern womanhood for thinking itself equal to men, while his infamous 1978 marriage to 27 "wives" – mostly his singers and dancers – has often been brandished against him. For his part Fela declared polygamy an African tradition and claimed that by marrying them he was protecting his wives against charges that they were prostitutes. Ever the contrarian, in 1986, he divorced them all, saying that no man should own a woman's body.

His daughter Yeni has ambiguous feelings about this. "I learned at an early age that men were polygamous, so I just accepted it. For me, as a kid, it was fun having so many stepmothers, though now, at 49, I wonder how my mother Remi, who was born and raised in England, really felt."

The paradoxical character of Fela was there even at his death. His last record, "Condom Scallywag and Scatter" deplored condoms as un-African. Aids, he declared, was a white man's disease. Yet confirmation that it had indeed laid waste to Fela – news delivered by his brother Beko, a noted doctor and public health campaigner – jolted Aids awareness in Africa.

Aside from Fela! – which threatens to become a yet more international phenomenon – it is hard to gauge Fela Kuti's long-term impact. Afrobeat has never been more popular among westerners; Rikki Stein estimates that there are some 100 Afrobeat bands around the globe, yet only two of them – Femi's Positive Force and Seun's Egypt 80 – are in Nigeria. These days the country's charts are made up mostly of R&B crooners and hip-hop acts.

"The Afrobeat heritage is still there," says novelist and commentator Diran Adebayo. "Femi is very popular for starters, and the hip-hoppers will use Afrobeat loops in their music like their American equivalents will use old funk records.

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"But across Africa there has been an MTV-isation, with a lot of mid-Atlantic radio stations that have promoted a consumerist lifestyle… America is still the land of dreams."

Fela himself is no longer the bête noire he was once painted, reckons Adebayo. "He has a cuddlier image, he's become something of a national treasure. Nigeria respects money, and he's become bankable. Plus Femi is clean-living; he's in the tradition of the Kuti family as cultural leaders."

Both Femi and Seun maintain the political outspokenness of their father, albeit in more general terms. "Musicians have a responsibility to motivate the young," Seun tells me by email, "though I don't appreciate western celebrities coming to Africa saying they are here to help. They never come without a camera. We don't want handouts.

"Life here is so hard, people don't have time to think about anything but survival, which is why I say, 'Stand up and think', rather than 'Stand up and fight'. I don't think African art, in general, is representing the cause of the continent. The corporations push commercial things: cars, clothes… it's a brainwash. People here respect Afrobeat artists because they know we are trying to give the people some kind of voice."

Seun was raised for many years by his uncle Beko – "His conservative lifestyle was the perfect foil to my father's eccentricity" – and doesn't share Fela's religious inclinations, though he does talk of Fela being "in a Godlike state" at the end of his life. "He had been through so much. He was a man on knowledge."

Given his early demise, Fela seems to have tempted fate when he gave himself the title of Anikulapo, the holder of death. For the moment, however, through his sons and his music, Fela lives.

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Fela! starts previewing at the Olivier theatre, London SE1, on Saturday (6 November); to coincide, Wrasse Records are releasing a series of box sets spanning his career as well as Fela! Original Broadway Cast Recording. wrasserecords.com


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