Fela Kuti, Zombie

31 December, 2011


By Red


It's not often that the release of an an album leads to the murder of the artist's elderly mother by government officials, and the destruction of a village by the army. It's even rarer for the artist to commemorate the one-year anniversary of that event by marrying 28 women, simultaneously. But Nigeria in the 70s was no ordinary country, and Fela Kuti was not an ordinary man.


It is difficult to overstate the importance that Fela had on Nigerian music, politics, and culture, and even harder to sum up his life in an album review. He was a musician, a singer, a human-rights activist, a political prisoner, a nightclub owner, a presidential candidate, a freedom fighter, a murder suspect, possibly an aids victim, and, as you might have noticed, a polygamist. He released over 50 full length albums, and his music became the flag-bearer of a new genre: 'Afrobeats', a mixture of jazz, funk, rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms.


'Zombie' is probably the quintessential Fela album, politically and musically. Running at just under an hour, and divided into four songs, it is a direct, full-frontal attack on the ruling Nigerian dictator and army. Its lyrics are scathing, subversive, and yet often imbued with a keen sense of irony and humour. The percussions and rhythms are punctuated by swinging saxophones, regimented by the congos and the reeds, and given depth by the dozens of powerful female backing singers (hence the 28 wives).


Like a good lover, the music is playful, teasing, irrepressible and, in the end, irresistible. At over 12 minutes long the tracks have time to indulge in build-ups, gather in crescendos, get lost in solos, before being brought back into line by Fela's Pidgin English vocals. Despite its political connotations, 'Zombie' is bursting with energy, ideas, instruments, and rhythms. Its musical qualities are timeless and have transcend its era, as demonstrated by the recent so-called 'Fela revival'. Which, by the way, was partially caused by the musical and commercial success of one of his (many) sons, Femi Kuti. Probabilities and all that, I hear you say. Still, there is something quite raw, pure, and primal about the music of Fela, which reflects his own personal and political life.


The eponymous first track, 'Zombie', uses the living-dead metaphor to mock the Government's obedient, soul-less, bloodthirsty soldiers, an accusation that proved eerily well-founded in light of subsequent events. The album was a massive success, not only in Nigeria, but across the whole of Africa. Fela spoke to generations of poor, voiceless, oppressed, and yet desperately common and ordinary people. This success infuriated the government, who ordered a violent attack against the 'Kalakuta Republic', a village/commune that Fela had established in Nigeria and lived in with his elderly mother. Over a thousand soldiers took part in the attack, and Fela was beaten within an inch of his life. His mum was defenestrated, and died, the commanding officer allegedly defecating on the elderly woman's face shortly after. Fela responded by delivering his mother's coffin to the army barrack in Lagos, and writing two songs, "Coffin for Head of State" and "Unknown Soldier", a satire on the official inquiry that claimed the village had been destroyed by an 'unknown soldier'.


I've often heard that Fela Kuti was 'the Nigerian Bob Marley'. But the more you read about it, the more obvious it becomes that it's really Bob Marley who's 'the Jamaican Fela Kuti'.


And finally, for those of you wondering about the practicalities of having 28 wives, Fela apparently shared your concerns. He adopted a complex and strict rotation system, consisting of keeping only twelve wives simultaneously. Smooth.





Primary Genre: International

Subgenre: Afro-Beat

Release Date: 1977

Label: MCA

Influences: James Brown, Miles Davis, John Coltrane

Like This And You'll Probably Also Like: Femi Kuti, Bill Laswell, Roy Ayers

Album Highlights: Zombie









"I first heard of Fela when my buddy Eric came back from a trip to Nigeria and played me some tunes. Suffice it to say all it took was once listen for me to get into it, it's just one of those things that makes you want to move your whole body, awesome stuff, and this is probably his best known album"


Fela Kuti, Zombie




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