Fela’s brief but eventful life and musical legacy are well documented in books, documentary films and exhibits. indeed, Afrobeat Rebellion, an ongoing nine-month celebration of his legacy at the Philharmonie de Paris includes concerts, performances, exhibitions and workshops.
He is often remembered as a thorn in the flesh of the military ruling class in the early to mid-70s when he forged Afrobeat, a unique sound that was practically more than the sum of its parts, to ridicule their rampant anti-populist. policies, massive corruption and a lavish lifestyle.
However, his early work is often dismissed even by Fela in his larger-than-life account of himself.
just another musician
Listen to Fela in Carlos Moore’s biography, Fela: this bitch of a lifetime“I was just another musician, playing with Koola Lobitos and singing love songs, songs about rain, about people… What did I know?”
Fela’s depiction of his younger self as high life musician may have been dismissive, but historians and scholars have approached his formative years with a similar attitude.
Hardly would you find a book-length account that devoted more than one chapter to characterizing what was the earliest and perhaps most energetic phase of Fela’s career.
The fullest account of this time is that of his former manager, friend, veteran journalist and broadcaster Benson Idonije in his memoirs, Say Fela Sef! where it characterizes Fela’s five-year development as a musician after leaving Victor Olaiya The cool cats in 1958 to continue his studies in Great Britain.
Five years after leaving for Britain, Fela returned to Nigeria in 1963, a married man with three children and a jazz-obsessed trumpeter.
An accomplished jazzman
“When he left for Nigeria in August 1963, Fela was already an accomplished jazz musician. He found worthy of emulation: Thad Jones and Miles Davis as his trumpet influences, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane and Harold Land as favorite tenors; Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, Red Garland…as inspirational jazz pianists…” writes Idonije.
It was very different from the teenager Idonije had described earlier in the book who couldn’t get into college.
I was just another musician, playing with Koola Lobitos and singing love songs, songs about rain, about people… What did I know?
In Fela’s own words, “…When I left school, I couldn’t do things and they told me I couldn’t make music a profession in Nigeria. I was just a boy from Lagos. I wasn’t going to do anything… England didn’t interest me.
After returning to Nigeria in 1964, Fela worked as a music producer with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, a job he considered dull and boring, according to John Collins in his book, Notes from Kalakuta.
Music being his true vocation, Fela then inaugurated the Nigerian version of Koola Lobitos in 1965.
Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet Group
While living in London in 1959, his band was previously called The Highlife Rakers, but eventually the band’s name was changed to Koola Lobitos.
Similarly, the Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet formed in 1963 while in Nigeria was renamed Koola Lobitos, a move Tejumola Olaniyan stated in his founding book, Stop the Music: Fela and His Rebellious Art and Politics as “a kind of tactical descent… to the popular domain”.
Most Fela books note that Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mother, urged him “to start playing music that your people know…”
Dance against revolution
Fela’s political conscience was awakened in Los Angeles, America during his nine-month tour in 1969, when he and his bandmates went to bed with Black Panther member and his lover, Sandra Smith (now Izsadore).
Between 1963 and 1969, when the signature Afrobeat song my lady’s frustration was written, Fela played Highlife-Jazz, often on empty dance floors if the account of fellow musician and Fela contemporary Joni Haastrup is to be believed.
Tejumola Olaniyan’s consideration of Fela’s highlife jazz hybrid as lots of jazz and barely enough highlife is an apt description of Fela’s discography through this era collected in Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-69, a compilation of three CDs reviewed by Janne Oinonen, as “music that makes you dance rather than a revolution”.
But the real character of Fela’s Afrobeat was that it was both danceable and revolutionary music, a tendency that eluded his highlife-jazz hybrid.
If this hybrid had any ambition, it was purely aesthetic.
According to Micheal Veal in his scholarly book, Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Iconmusic recorded by Koola Lobitos between 1965 and 1969 conformed to three stylistic types, “…early songs conform to highlife conventions while introducing a number of jazz elements.
The songs of the middle period gradually reflected the growing influences of rhythm and blues and Afro-Latin styles, especially Cuban salsa music. The latest songs… show Fela attempting an explicit fusion of highlife and rhythm and blues.
Fela’s preoccupation with musical forms led the Koola Lobitos to play complex rhythms compared to the haunting, simpler rhythms of his highlife contemporaries Rex Lawson, Victor Olaiya, Eddie Okonta and OJ Ekemode.
Quirky and humorous love
Highlife music was de facto dance music in high demand by West African elites with its lighthearted lyrics on contemporary themes of love, rivalry, monogamy and societal issues.
Fela’s highlife jazz had similar lyrical concerns to the music of its day, but trust Fela to provide a bit of a difference. His love songs, sung mostly in Yoruba, were fleeting, quirky and humorous.
Compared to his contemporaries Rex Lawson whose vocal delivery communicated soulful longing in songs like Anah I never get tired and Love mu Adure; Eddie Okonta, whose signature song Bissi spat adulation on his eponymous love interest and OJ Ekemode, the masterful lyricist of the love song, who communicated tenderness and urgent sexual desire, Fela’s lyrical composition seemed like fillers to preserve the presence of the lyrics in the architecture of his songs.
take the lyrics Oruka, for example. It dwells more on the rivalry than on the tenderness often associated with love songs and Oruka here (the ring) is more a totem to mark territory than to declare devotion.
Egbin is dedicated to his love, Aduke, whom he likens to a gazelle in the first verse, but the second verse pays homage to Marina’s party bosses and revelers while the rest of the tune is an extravaganza of laden instrumental solos.
Lover Where Ololfe mi succeeds in conveying the tenderness and urgency of physical love, but the song’s highlife jazz structure prioritizes instrumental solos. It’s no surprise that Lover is the most popular song of this era.
My lady frustration
It is ironic that My Lady Frustration Often referred to, Fela’s first formally distinct Afrobeat song was written for Sandra, his Los Angeles-based lover at the time.
Idonije describes the song as a “tribute to…a woman who went to great lengths to set him on the right cultural and political path for her music…”
The definitive His Afrobeat was at least a dozen records and two years old when he wrote this song on a grand piano in Sandra’s living room, but arguably Fela political consciousness and musical evolution in post-Civil Rights America was a consequence of his soulful affection. While writing his first true love song, Fela found his true self, a man whose love for humanity trumped his love for himself.