Whenever I meet someone who hasn’t heard the music of Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Kuti, I feel a twinge of jealousy. Most people’s first reaction to albums such as Gentleman (1973), Expensive Shit (1975) and Zombie (1977) is one of giddy bewilderment. Elements of funk, jazz and American blues intermingle with traditional Yoruba rhythms, resulting in a danceable and deeply melodic concoction.
Kuti’s musical offerings were embraced with open arms by music lovers worldwide. David Byrne was a huge fan, bringing Afrobeat elements to his work with Talking Heads after Brian Eno introduced him to Kuti’s early records in New York. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger was also something of a Kuti fanatic and was especially fond of the bandleader’s work with former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, who was instrumental in introducing Western audiences to Kuti’s music in the early 1970s.
Opening up about Kuti’s Live! cut ‘Let’s Start’, Jagger said: “As far as I know Ginger was one of the first to get into these rhythms and travel to Africa to actually sit there and play them.” Baker was introduced to the rhythms of West Africa by his mentor Phil Seamen, who was at that time one of the leading jazz drummers in the UK. In Beware of Mr Baker, Ginger recalled Seamen showing him “African records of Tutsi drummers.” He asked Baker to listen carefully and then asked him to locate the beat. “And I’m doing like a three-beat on it, and he said: ‘Nah nah nah, listen.’ And he played this four, the real beat, and it was like a fucking light going on.”
As Jagger later noted: “He might have been influenced by Phil Seamen, the jazz drummer who pre-dated him, but Ginger went to play with Fela Kuti, which must have been a daunting journey in more ways than one. But then he always did want to push things that much further than most drummers who came from England. Fela always had great orchestration and an amazing horn section, as he played horn himself and liked to use two baritones, which is unusual.”
Kuti’s legacy isn’t limited to music. He fought tooth and nail against Nigeria’s military dictatorship and in 1970 founded the Kalakuta Republic commune, which declared itself independent from military rule before being destroyed in a raid in 1978 after an assault by more than a thousand armed soldiers. Kuti later commemorated the sacking of Kalakuta by marrying 27 of his backing singers in a mass ceremony. Some western feminist groups attacked Kuti’s polygamy, backing down somewhat when he explained that he’d married the women after they found themselves out of work following the decimation of the studio in Kalakuta. He explained that, in Yoruba communities, it is the duty of a man to marry a destitute woman to provide support in their time of need.