For those unfamiliar with Paul McCartney’s former bosom buddy the late great Fela Kuti, he is rarer than a Chinese cheese sandwich and wilder than a one-inch hospital. In fact, he is probably music’s most definitive one-off. Somehow, he was also a masterful musician who spawned a genre entirely of his own.
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.
While at the famed school, it was clear that Kuti was coming at music from a different perspective to most. He was proficient on the drums, keyboard, guitar, saxophone, singing, and jived about like a Lemur with a runaway 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 existence and the views he had collected along the way. Thereafter his life was like some manic acid-soap opera, but it was one that undoubtedly changed the world of music.
When they met in 1973, Paul McCartney was looking to gear down following the maddening maelstrom of everything to do with The Beatles and the fallout of the breakup. As the Wings track ‘Band on the Run’ suggests, he was thinking of giving it all away, just to quaff tea, and enjoy a pint a day. Thus, the image of ‘Macca’ supping a hearty brew and relaxing into his laidback 30s whilst rubbing shoulders with Kuti – who was prone to strutting around five-star hotels in nothing but the skimpiest speedo’s so that you were greeted with a sight akin to two boiled eggs in a cycling sock – is a remarkable image in of itself.
It was also a relationship that got off to an equally peculiar start. “Roundabout the time when I was recording Band on the Run I went down to Lagos [Nigeria],” McCartney explains. “The first thing that happened to me was that I was accused of stealing the black man’s music.” This was a recurring theme throughout his previous tenure with The Beatles, and whilst a degree of appropriation was definitely occurring, it was much more so a celebration that sought progress than anything demeaning.
As Nick Cave once said: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”
Thus, when McCartney was met with disparaging claims when he arrived in Nigeria, he was quick to investigate. He heard the figurative shouts of “He’s come here to steal the music!” and he wanted to see who was yelling it. “So, I said ‘Who’s doing that?’ Because it was in the newspaper and it was Fela, of course! So, I got his number, and I rang him up and I said, ‘Hey man, come on. I’m not here to do that I just love the idea of it. I love African music. I just want the kind of atmosphere, but I’m certainly not stealing any of your stuff,” McCartney recalled.
So Fela went to the studio and McCartney played him his stuff and Fela agreed that it was nothing like African music after all and they became very good friends. Kuti invited ‘Macca’ “out to the African Shrine, which was his club, just outside Lagos and I had this fantastic evening, really quite a wild experience there,” McCartney says. “Talk about the black experience! We were the only white people there and it was very intense, but when this music broke, I ended up just weeping.” After a musical handshake like that, the pair were bound to keep in touch.
Thereafter, Kuti became a central figure of McCartney’s African excursion. “He would come over with like 30 wives and fill the studio full of ganja. He was one wild cat. He used to have a bottle of whisky in which was marinated a pound of pot. But we turned out to be real good friends.” Naturally, he also had run-ins with Kuti’s favourite drummer Ginger Baker who also brought about some experiences that pushed the boundaries of wild, but all in all, it was a time that McCartney clearly looks back on fondly and he remained a friend and admirer of the late Kuti forevermore.