By the time Fela Ransome-Kuti changed his name to Anikulapo — “he who carries death in his pouch” — he had already built a fence around his house in Nigeria and declared it an independent state: The Kalakuta Republic. His records began to sell in the millions throughout Africa and the colonial government of Nigeria played an incessant cat and mouse game with Kuti for the rest of his career: arrests, beatings, and imprisonment were perennial events in the musician’s life. When Kuti sang his classic attack against the military, the frightening, melancholy “Zombie”, at the Festival for Black Arts and Culture in Lagos in 1977, the Nigerian Army attacked the Kalakuta Republic where hundreds of Kuti’s followers were living. The army burnt it to the ground and severely beat the occupants, throwing Kuti’s mother out of a window and killing her.
The story is compelling, and 2009 was the year of Kuti with the popularity of the only slightly absurd Broadway musical Fela! and a future biopic already in the works. Thankfully, Fela: The Best of the Black President, a new compilation filled with nearly three hours of Kuti’s best epic Afrobeat songs, focuses on the music. The dramatic biography is not nearly as fascinating as Kuti’s brooding, meditative musical style.
With an arsenal of virtuoso musicians, Kuti created what he called Afrobeat music, pulling his influences from LA psychedelia, free jazz, the Black Panther movement, and the traditional African music of his youth. We take for granted today the presence of West African rhythms in pop music, but Kuti brought the synthesis of the traditional and experimental foreground. His dissonant trumpet blares like a machine gun on opener “Lady”. On “Gentleman”, after learning the tenor saxophone after only a matter of months, Kuti mingles a smooth melody line with a propulsive drumbeat that reaches an impossible apogee before Kuti belts, “I no be gentleman at all!” his voice pained and scarred. “I be African man original.”
Each of the 13 songs here rests between ten and 20 minutes, allowing Kuti and his band to reach a trance-like state, with syncopated rhythms combining into a delicate cacophony. Kuti plays and sings as if his life depends on it. In many ways, it did. The more records he sold, the more the Nigerian government tried to wipe him out. In 1984, around the time Kuti had released “Army Arrangement”, a slow dirge guided by a lanky guitar arrangement and funereal electric organ, Kuti began a 20-month prison stay for exaggerated currency smuggling charges. His venom is evident in every word: “Whether you like or no like, after you hear this shit you’ll talk. If you like it good. If you no like you hang. If you hang you die.”
Music was a matter of life and death for Kuti. By the time of his funeral in 1997, the crowd of over a million people included as many of his detractors as his fans. Through music, Kuti received redemption and power. The Best of the Black President gathers his best singles in one place. Here are the strongest moments of a musician that never played a single unnecessary note.