When Paul McCartney was recording Band on the Run in Lagos, Nigeria it was only right that his path would cross with the legendary Fela Kuti who ruled the music scene like a spiritual numen back in the 1970s. After a shaky start during which Kuti had accused the former ‘Fab Four’ phenom of travelling to Africa to steal the black man’s music like some cultural neo-colonialist, he soon heard McCartney’s music and was happy to accept that clearly, that wasn’t the case.
Thus, with the hatchet buried and an odd musical kinship in the air, McCartney became bosom buddies with music’s most eccentric character, a zenith that earmarks the late Afrobeat pioneer as a presence rarer than a Chinese cheese sandwich. Over the course of Kuti’s life, he inspired countless musicians, songs, and genre off-shoots, but he also brought about communes, government revolts and found himself incarcerated over 200+ times. Naturally, this was a man who, in the words of Frank Drebin, like a midget at a urinal, you had to be on your toes around.
However, perhaps the biggest oddity of Kuti’s wild character was that he was indeed a musical genius. As Oscar Levant once said: “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” Kuti is not a million miles away from living up to that same quote. Thus, when McCartney met him, he felt that same intoxicating mix that most people were allured by, including Kuti’s favourite drummer Ginger Baker, who seemingly wasn’t enamoured by any other living soul like he was by his Afrobeat cohort.
With a friendship blossoming, 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.
However, one song that evening had a particularly lasting impression on ‘Macca’. But before we get to that it is worth noting one amazing aspect of McCartney’s musicianship. As the British comedian Vic Reeves recently denoted on the Adam Buxton podcast: “Paul McCartney is one of those people who will know the tune and the words and be able to play anything!” This unique skill was pushed to the limits on the first night that he saw Kuti perform.
As it happens, McCartney’s favourite Fela Kuti track is one that he has never heard anywhere outside of the African Shrine. Although McCartney believes the song on the evening was called ‘Shakara Woman’, he attests that the recorded version of that track is absolutely nothing like the wondrous cacophony he heard performed that evening. Fortunately, due to his computer-like musical brain, he was able to transpose what he heard into the memory bank and can still recite the song to this day despite succumbing to the “strongest” marijuana he had ever had in his life that night.
You can check out McCartney explaining the back story to the evening and rattling off a quick rendition of the evocative cover below. Albeit we hear only a snippet of the fabled ‘Shakara Woman’, McCartney paints such a kaleidoscopic picture and recaptures the rhythm with so much groove that you can almost imagine being in the heady throng of Kuti’s wild club as Baker waltzes around with a pound of weed marinading in his whisky bottle and Kuti’s 27 wives strut their stuff.