Fela Kuti is (or was) an odd figure, to say the least, but his music is other-worldly. The first thing I thought upon hearing it was that it was Latin Jazz. The use of horns, and of a lot of other instruments in vogue during the 1970's (what I think of, probably wrongly, as Latin Jazz's heyday) is what gives the listener that impression. After listening for awhile, though, one detects a few things that distinguish it. One obvious thing is that when the singing starts (usually about six or seven minutes in), there's a distinct call and response (I almost hesitate to use that term, since it's kind of a buzz word in some circles, but it is the correct one) typical of a lot African music. On top of that, though, is a very distinct feature of some traditional African music: There's no movement.
To get a better idea of what I mean, let me tell you about the time I met Habib Koité.
Habib Koité is a famous guitarist from Mali whom I knew when he came to UCSD because I had a song of his I'd ripped from a Putumayo compilation called Mali to Memphis. My good friend from the linguistics department had also heard of him because he had actually been to Mali and studied the kora under a Malian djeli, who, upon the completion of his training, actually made him his own kora. (Same thing, right?)
Anyway, in case anyone needed a reminder as to why it's cool to live on a college campus, Habib Koité came to UCSD and performed a free show in the same auditorium where they had a public debate about the whole controversy with Steve York showing himself having sex on a UCSD-run television station. His show was awesome (and, man, there were about twenty people there. We were in the front row), of course, but afterwards he mentioned that he would be holding a "guitar workshop" the next day, for anyone who was interested. At first I thought this was going to cost money, though later I learned that it, too, was free. Not having anything to do the next day, my kora-playing friend Scott and I decided to go.
When I heard "guitar workshop", what I imagined was a classroom in which about sixty people would be crammed for about an hour, each of us working on some particular piece or series of pieces, and that perhaps he'd come around and help us out. Not so. Scott and I arrived at the top floor of the residence hall next to the linguistics department (I'm not sure which college it's attached to) and walked into a penthouse-type room in which sat Habib Koité and about nine other people.
And that was it!
We all sat down with our instruments in a circle, not quite sure what to expect. Many had guitars, though some had brought other instruments, or none at all. Habib began by introducing himself, and letting us know that in addition to his being a musician, he was also a music teacher at a university in Mali. Before we started, he said he wanted everyone in the room to play something, and that we might as well start with the person to his right.
That would be me.
Whether or not I was the weakest musician in the room is up for debate, but I can say without a doubt that I was the weakest performance musician in the room. Plus, I wasn't coming prepared to play anything: I was coming to learn to play stuff. I kind of froze up, and he saw this, and told me, "Everyone can play a something, even if it's simple", and then he started to pluck the tune to "La Bamba", which made everyone chuckle. (And, my, what an odd thing: Here's a musician from Mali, who had never met me, who's playing a song by Ritchie Valens, a distant relation of mine [true story (or so I'm told)], to try to encourage me to play something on the guitar.) Since he was plucking, as opposed to playing chords, I thought I should do the same, but the only song I could think to play was "La Bamba". Perhaps because he's also from West Africa, I thought of Baaba Maal's song "Miyaabele", whose main melody is all of six notes long. I played those six notes, and...that was about it. We all kind of laughed, since I was sweating, and he moved on.
(And, of course, there's always the guy in there who's the semi-professional musician who just happened to bring along a CD of his, and, if he could, he'd just like to give it to you, so you can give it a listen, and perhaps pass it along to anyone you know in the music biz...)
As it turns out, the reason he wanted us all to play was so that he could judge our level of expertise. This would prove important later on. And it's probably a good idea my ability was underestimated (as opposed to the opposite), so I didn't screw up (which is something I do a lot).
What we did, then, was this. Habib would play something on his guitar—just a little pattern, usually no more than a few notes—and he'd ask someone in the circle to play it. He'd continue to play it with them for a few bars until they got it, and then he'd listen for a second, and turn to someone else, asking, "Can you play this?" Then he'd play another little pattern, and repeat it until the player got it, and then he'd go again to someone else, and so on, until everyone was playing a pattern, and the whole thing started to shape into a song. Then after we were all going, he'd play something on top of that—a kind of solo—and what we were doing, was, essentially, getting a private concert where we weren't just listening, we were performing.
It was awesome. Easily one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
And we didn't just play for an hour. We were there for three hours, easy—maybe even four. We played about ten songs, each about ten or twenty minutes long. And in between he would tell us stories about touring, about Mali, etc. And such a nice guy. At the end, we all took pictures with him, and he put his arm around me, and said something like, "And this guy is my hero." I'm sure he and everyone else could see how much I was sweating throughout. I tend to screw up simple patterns a lot, and needed to concentrate. There were times where I would kind of think to myself, "Wow, this sounds great!", and I'd try to just listen for a second, and then I'd screw up my pattern, so I'd have to refocus. Here's my picture with him, me grinning like a fool, and he right in the middle of saying something:
The reason I bring up Habib Koité and my experience playing with him is because that style of music, while not jazz, is just like Fela Kuti's. When each of us were contributing a pattern, and playing it throughout, the music was complex, in that there were a number of instruments playing a number of different things, but schematically, there was one chord. It's like a drone, but you don't notice it. Instead of looking for movements the way you do in traditional pop music (or even classical Western music), you listen for instruments. This is precisely how Fela Kuti's music "moves", even though it remains static.
Typically, his songs begin with a guitar pattern. You hear the guitar pattern three or four times, until you get it, and then the other instruments start coming in. Usually the bass will come, or the saxaphone. Then come the trumpets, and then the percussion.
Unlike a song with verses, choruses, bridges, interludes, etc., the chords don't define the musical regions. Instead, the instrumentation does. The guitar is the constant thing running throughout the song, and then the different combinations define each region. First, perhaps, the trumpets will play a regular pattern, with a saxophone solo over the top. Then all will cease but the guitar, bass and drums. That's how you know something new is coming. And then pretty soon a trumpet solo starts. Then that too goes quiet. And usually the final major region comes as Fela Kuti introduces his voice. Even that, though, is divided into regions. First his voice starts out solo, like the guitar in the beginning, then he defines a call and response pattern. This he'll do for a bit, until he introduces a new pattern. And all of this, remember, is played over the same short, simple guitar pattern. And most of his songs are like ten or fifteen minutes long.
If that were it, that'd be enough. But Fela Kuti himself is an interesting, rather controversial fellow. He was influenced by the Black Panther ideology when he visited America for the first time in the late sixties, and went on to form his own commune, the Kalakuta Republic (which he declared an independent state in 1970, and which was rather brutally destroyed by the Nigerian government a few years later [this is catalogued, in a way, in the song "Sorrow Tears and Blood"]). The main theme running through his songs and ideology is Afrocentrism, and, in a way, conservatism. He despised the Westernization of African society, and opposed much of what the Nigerian government did. He also believed in polygyny, and had, at one time, something like seventeen wives—in fact, they're all on the cover of one his albums, bare-chested, giving the black power salute:
It seems that his philosophy is somewhat reactionary: Everything about European society is bad, which means that everything about traditional African society is good—or, at least, authentic. Consider his comment about his polygyny:
"A man goes for many women in the first place. Like in Europe, when a man is married, when the wife is sleeping, he goes out and [sleeps] around. He should bring the women in the house, man, to live with him, and stop running around the streets!"The thing he seems to be objecting to is the secrecy and deceit, not the act itself—or, more generally, inauthenticity.
He breaches this subject several times in the lyrics of his songs. Two of my favorites are the pair that I think are intended to be companion pieces "Gentleman" and "Lady". In "Gentleman", for example, he challenges the European notion of "Gentleman". Here are some of the lyrics:
Them call you, make you come chopIn other words, the gentleman says he's full, even though he's only eaten a small portion. Fela Kuti rejects that, saying if that's what it means to be a gentleman, "I no be gentleman like that".
You chop small, you say you belly full
You say you be gentleman
You go hungry
You go suffer
You go quench
Me I no be gentleman like that
The companion piece "Lady" is much more problematic. I'd like to put up all the lyrics, but a lot of it is repetition, so I'll edit it a bit. You can see the lyrics and hear the song by going here.
In "Lady", Fela Kuti is, again, challenging the European notion of what is "civilized", this time focusing on "lady". How he does it, though, is rather interesting:
If you call a woman(Just a note, Fela Kuti decided to sing primarily in what he called "Pidgin English", so that people all over Africa could understand. It seems to be a lot like standard English with some pidgin-like features. So, for example, here you can get that "no go 'gree" means, "doesn't agree".)
African woman no go 'gree
She go say
She go say, "I be lady o"
This is repeated several times. If you know where Fela Kuti's coming from, it's probably a safe bet that this is negative (a woman calling herself "lady"), but if not, it's, at worst, a neutral statement. Here's how it continues:
I want tell you about lady (3x)
She go say him equal to man
She go say him get power like man
She go say anything man do
Himself fit do
She go say him equal to man
She go say him get power like man
She go say anything man do
Himself fit do
I never tell you finish (3x)First, in most English pidgins and creoles, there's usually one gender neutral third person pronoun (em), so here "him" and "himself" refer to the lady. (And you can see why I said this isn't pure, basilectal creole English.) Here again, even if this was intended as disparaging to women, it could simply be turned right around and used to champion feminism. Evidently he says "She go say him equal to man" ironically, but those in favor of equal rights can turn it right around and say the very same without irony. The same goes for the following:
I never tell you
She go want take cigar before anybodyThis, however, is where only the ironic interpretation is possible:
She go want make you open door for am
She go want make him man wash plate for her for kitchen
She want salute man, she go sit down for chair (2x)
She want sit down for table before anybody (2x)
She want piece of meat before anybody (2x)
Call am for dance, she go dance lady dance (2x)
African woman go dance, she go dance the fire dance (2x)
She know him man na master
She go cook for am
She go do anything he say
But lady no be so (4x)When you hear the second line here, there's a chance that "na" could sound like "now", but if you compare it to the line, "She know him man na master", I think it's pretty clear it's standing in for "not".
Lady na master (3x)
So the song is intended to be a radical, reactionary chauvinist statement. This much is clear from Fela Kuti's life, and also from those two lines there (and if he was ever interviewed about the song, I'm sure he said as much. I'd love to read more about his life, but that would probably require me to visit a library...). But I find it fascinating that if you're coming at it from a different point of view, then, less those two lines up there, this could be a kind of feminist anthem—and a very jazzy, diggable one, at that.
(How's that for a pair of cuts, by the way?)
Edit: A friend of mine from UCSD linguistics pointed out something that alters the interpretation of two lines. In the lines "She know him man na master" and "Lady na master", the particle /na/ apparently functions as a copula. In my experience with English-based pidgins and creoles, the equivalent of this /na/ has always been a strictly locative copula (and the fact that another copular, "be", exists in the same song makes that interpretation at least suspicious), but if you treat /na/ as a copula, I think the lyrics actually make more sense—especially the first line quoted. In that case, the idea is that women know that man is the master, and know they should act in a certain way, but, in fact, they don't ("But lady no be so"), and they maintain that women are the masters.
If anything, I guess this problematizes the potential feminist interpretation of the lyrics. Oh well.