Fela Kuti is one of music’s true enigmas. Born in the Western region of Nigeria among the country’s elite in 1938, he ventured away from the blue skies of home to the rather grey climes of London in the mid-1950s to be trained up as a doctor. He was already musically inclined when he arrived in the capital, but soon he’d be so intoxicated by the spirit of American Jazz that he was essentially unfit to attend school. He downed his scalpel, picked up his shaker, and entered the Trinity College of Music.
Kuti was coming at music from a different perspective to most. He was proficient on the drums, keyboard, guitar, saxophone, singing, and jive about like a Lemur behind a jackhammer. However, he was far from the only multi-instrumentalist with character on the scene. What made him stand out was the wavering path of his eventful life and the views he had collected along the way.
During his time invigorating the London scene with the vibrant African rhythms of home and a profoundly spiritualised viewpoint, he somehow stirred the angriest man in music into the groove, in the form of Cream’s superstar drummer Ginger Baker. By the end of the 1960s, Baker was in the grips of grief and heroin addiction following the death of Jimi Hendrix and his own faltering career.
The drummer sought solace in a long drive, but rather than escape down the rural roads of England to some pastoral countryside retreat, he took his trusty Range Rover and hightailed it across Algeria before ragging it around the Sahara towards Kuti’s spiritual and sonic pot of gold on the other side. He arrived in Lagos, shook hands with his fellow musical iconoclast and began crafting Afrobeats.
The drumming credentials of Baker have never been in doubt. He innovated new raucous rhythmic perversions of the four stoke ruff, blitzed through brand-new snare styling and combined thunder and complexity like no other, all while smoking a fag that somehow remains perfectly perched on his slack-jawed bottom lip throughout. He used all these techniques and a thousand other innovative nuances in his long and varied career as he traversed genres from Cream to Hawkwind and the short-lived Blind Faith.
However, at no point did he enamour the wider masses quite as he did in Nigeria. Upon his arrival, he set up the continent’s first 16-track recording studio that would later be the model centre of Kuti’s ill-fated separatist republic. And while performing in front of 150,000 strong crowd his rock ‘n’ roll ways were eulogised by adoring fans who dubbed him ‘Oyinbo’, which translates to “white drummer”, so quite a straightforward nickname all in all, but I’m sure they added an inflexion of reverence when it was chanted aloud.
As the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who played alongside Baker, would attest: “If Ginger wants to play jazz, he plays jazz. If he wants to play rock, he starts Cream. If he wants to play Afrobeat, he moves to Nigeria. Whatever he plays, he brings his own pulse and sound. He understands the African beat more than any other Westerner.” In short, he didn’t do things by half, and with Kuti, he had met his match because nobody in music history has gone the full hog quite like Fela.
This, in part, was the beauty of the manic album Live!. It was entirely uncompromising and driven by some mad bohemian utopian design. However, given the fact that nothing so heady can be carefully orchestrated, it just unfurled in a kaleidoscopic music melee of which everybody was a part and Kuti himself only helmed in a spiritual sense. The result is a mania that somehow changed music, and in many ways, the politics of Africa at large.