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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fela Kuti and The Afrika 70, "Zombie"

Fela Kuti and The Afrika 70
Coconut Records (1976)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Preaching a message that flies in the face of government control is relatively easy in a first-world country where freedom of speech is guaranteed. A band like Rage Against the Machine, which we looked at earlier, might have packed a radical message, but its safety was rarely in question as a result. Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musical icon, suffered mightily for his messages.

In 1976-77, Kuti and his band, The Afrika 70, released 18 albums. The number is difficult to come to grips with, regardless of how many songs were on each. The most relevant of these, and perhaps the most relevant of Kuti’s career, was “Zombie.” The title track was a reference to the military of Nigeria, which Kuti referred to as acting brainlessly, following the whims of the government that Kuti disapproved of. The military did not appreciate the commentary, razing the commune that Kuti founded, beating the vocalist and throwing his mother out a window, causing injuries she would eventually succumb to. When those are the potential consequences, an artist can be described as “sticking his neck out” for commenting on social ills.

Kuti is also credited as being one of the founders of afrobeat, a genre taking traditional African musical elements (in this case, percussion and the ethnic vocal accents of Kuti and his background singers) and combining them with more Western fare.

Kuti became a sensation with those in the music business and musicians themselves, but he never caught on in mainstream American radio play. Of course, Kuti’s tracks tended to be nearly ten minutes too long for pop radio, with the two tracks on “Zombie” both more than 12 minutes in length. The song “Zombie” begins with a nearly five-and-a-half minute instrumental introduction. Kuti would play piano and saxophone live with the band, but whether he is one of the sax players at the beginnings of “Zombie” or “Mister Follow Follow” is something I’m not sure of. The presence of saxophone can be associated with Kuti’s key theme of African separation from European influence. The saxophone may be a European instrument, but in 1976, the names Coltrane and Davis were still revered. They, more than anyone, defined jazz as primarily a black form of music. Kuti was more than happy to expand upon the thought.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Zombie” is that Kuti did not take his foot off of the gas as a result of his punishing by the Nigerian military. The events only solidified his status as a people’s hero in Africa and increased his appeal to an awed Western audience.

INTERESTING FACT: Those not interested strictly in Kuti’s musical and historical significance should know that he was a ladies man, who was married to up to 27 women at one time.

"Zombie" (note: this version is about two minutes short, but you should get the point)

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