As a new film raises the late Fela Kuti’s profile even further, Peter Culshaw recalls meeting the controversial – and contrary – Nigerian star in a cloud of dope smoke, surrounded by some of his 26 wives and wearing just a pair of red underpants.
Fela Kuti’s crossover into the western mainstream has been gaining momentum ever since his death in 1987. His profile was boosted by the musical Fela!, which ran in London and New York in 2010; now there’s a feature film, Finding Fela, directed by Alex Gibney.
Barely a month goes by without a rerelease of his music. This month sees yet another collection, this one curated by Brian Eno, a musical pioneer himself who says he has played Kuti’s music more than that of any other artist. He thought it was “the music of the future” in 1972 and still does today.
Jay-Z became one of the backers of Fela!, and plenty of greats, from Miles Davis to Paul McCartney, have endorsed his genius. McCartney features in the new film, describing how a performance by Kuti’s band in the early 70s brought him to tears. More recently, artists such as Vampire Weekend, Franz Ferdinand and Damon Albarn have acknowledged a musical debt to him.
Local hero … a scene from Finding Fela. Photograph: Dogwoof
As a musician and social activist, Kuti is increasingly compared to Bob Marley: both were men of the people with a strong political agenda. Starting in the early 70s, Kuti and his band, Africa 70 – and, later, Egypt 80 – built up an audience in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. Fights for social justice – featured in songs such as International Thief Thief, an attack on multinational corporations, and Zombie, which parodied military types who mindlessly follow orders – were seen as revolutionary. Over the years, Kuti was arrested more than 100 times, imprisoned and beaten.
There were numerous reasons why Kuti didn’t make it outside Africa during his lifetime. One was his own complex, sometimes self-destructive personality. After McCartney asked Kuti and his band to guest on Band on the Run, which he was recording in Lagos, Kuti got up at his Lagos nightclub, The Shrine, and said: “The white man has come to steal our music.” (Band on the Run became the bestselling album of 1973, and appearing on the record would have put Kuti on the world map immediately.)
When Motown wanted to set up an African label called Taboo in the early 80s, it offered Kuti a deal. Rikki Stein, his manager and friend, says that Kuti’s response was to contact the spirits via his “personal magician”, Professor Hindu. The spirits refused to let him sign for another two years. “Even then, Motown went along with it,” Stein says. “But, in April 1985, the very month that Kuti was about to sign, the Motown guy got the sack and the deal was off.”
Kuti received other offers from US record labels in the 80s, but the problem was that he was producing pieces lasting 60 minutes. “Can’t you do a three-minute song for the radio?” Stein recalls asking. Kuti replied that he wouldn’t know how to, adding that you wouldn’t expect Beethoven to knock out three-minute numbers.
In the film, Kuti says that, in his mind, he was composing African classical music. When I met him in the mid-80s, the self-styled “black president” was in a London hotel, wearing only a pair of red underpants, smoking a massive joint, and accompanied the notorious Professor Hindu and three of his wives (he notoriously married 26 in one day and said he was “proud to be called a sexist”).
Complex character … on stage in Finding Fela. Photograph: Dogwoof
It was the first interview I ever got published, and when I asked him, cub reporter-style, who his favourite musician was, I thought he might say James Brown or perhaps one of the highlife greats such as ET Mensah. Instead he said: “Handel. Western music is Bach, Handel and Schubert. It’s good music, cleverly done. As a musician, I can see that. Classical music gives musicians a kick. But African music gives everyone a kick.”
Kuti studied classical music at Trinity College in London in the early 60s. I told him my father was a Handel freak and we discussed, amid clouds of dope smoke, Dixit Dominus and the Concerto Grossi.
Thinking about it, I decided a comparison wasn’t improbable. In his music there is the same mix of solidity and transcendence, and I thought I could detect echoes of the composer in Kuti’s organ lines.
As it happens, there is a new pop star from Nigeria, D’Banj, who has described himself as a cross between Fela Kuti and Michael Jackson. He scored a global hit in 2012 with Oliver Twist and has an album due for release soon. He may well achieve the pop success that Kuti never did.
Still, a million people saw the Fela! musical and, with the endorsement of figures such as Jay-Z, a lot of younger people are now aware of him. That awareness will only increase with the release of Finding Fela. But perhaps the way to think of Fela Kuti is not so much as the African Bob Marley and more as the figure he imagined himself to be – the African Handel.