Fela Kuti And London’s “Underground Spiritual Game”
, October 21st, 2016 11:55
Attending London's recent Felebration — a fairly Ronal portmanteau celebrating the life and work of Fela Kuti — Lottie Brazier finds a performance rightly reverent of history even as it creates new meaning for all involved, and an event which, in our current Right-lurching climate, is both necessary and in danger of disappearing
International travel in the 1960s had the advantage of novelty. It was luxurious and beyond ordinary experience, associated with the original clean-cut, modish Pan Am image that is hard to picture in the 21st Century when you’re on a Ryanair flight to Spain. But, in the early 60s, Fela Kuti flew from Nigeria to London, doing something which, over the years since, has become less and less unfamiliar to the luckier students of today. Kuti moved to London originally in order to study medicine but ended up studying music instead at Trinity College London. Here, he recorded Fela’s London Scene in 1971 at Abbey Road Studios with Ginger Baker, who he met and jammed with on several occasions during this period and while at college in the early ‘60s. In 1973 Kuti also released another album he recorded in London: Afrodisiac — an LP that would go on to influence Brian Eno and David Byrne while producing Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.
Having spent many years living in London, Kuti became interested in the English take on R&B, playing at jazz and soul friendly venues like the 100 Club, the Cue Club and The Four Aces. It was at these clubs that he was in turn exposed to the jazz and the beat music on rotation in England at the time. On Fela’s London Scene, anti-colonialist sentiment comes through in ‘Buy Africa’, flipping between Nigerian Yoruba and English in order to communicate with Nigerians in their original language and also to address English colonisers:
"Because unless we buy our own thing
Unless we do our own thing
We’re not gonna make money
To build like the other countries outside Africa…
I’m asking the question in my OWN language…
So, although Kuti engaged with the London music scene - and in turn the culture of the country who colonised his own - he was not resigned to accepting of Nigeria’s colonialist past, following with ‘Colonial Mentality’ in 1977 on Sorrow Tears And Blood: the relationship that Kuti had with London shows the possibility of an alternative to a mere reversal of the cultural seizing and domination that British colonialists inflicted on Nigerian society. According to post-colonialist philosopher Frantz Fanon, this would be a false deliverance; a continuation of oppression as a concept, albeit with a different elite class on the basis of race. Kuti in a way avoided this in having made the decision to play and learn in Britain, without denying the past history that it has had with Nigeria.
During the 19th and early-20th century, Britain used Nigeria for cheap labour and as a trading post in Africa with other European countries, only useful to Britain as a colony if it could provide some economic benefit to Britain itself. Nigeria gained independence in 1960 and, again, the lyrics to ‘Buy Africa’ haunt here: Fela Kuti did not accept without regard the treating of his home as a means to a financial end. Instead, he used his time in London to absorb cultural influences in the form of Britain’s own music scene, and in turn influenced it greatly.
Through making these albums in London, Fela Kuti created something different to the kind of album he would have made back in Nigeria, not to mention introducing a whole new culture of drumming to Ginger Baker. But on Fela’s London Scene, Cream’s drummer is not credited for playing on ‘Egbe Mio’, which in itself is an interesting albeit ambiguous gesture, and one can hope that it was symbolic of Baker’s acknowledgement of the creative skill of Kuti and his band.
It has been 19 years since the man’s death, now marked yearly by Felabration, a day of respect organised by his daughter Yeni Anikulapo-Kuti. In recent years the festival has become internationally known, inspiring Rikki Stein, Kuti’s old tour manager to establish a London-based Felabratioin, fitting, considering the time he spent working there. Stein was pleased that Felabration had once again, “attracted a diverse audience in every respect (age, gender & nationality) to hear those marvellous songs…” and that “…these Felabrations are held together by audience participation; what Fela called ‘the underground spiritual game'”. Artists included Afrikan Boy, Tiggs Da Author, Dele Sosimi, Yolanda Brown, Temi DollFace amongst others. All of whom cavorted onto stage to accompany the unwavering machine that was the Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra, veering in and out of Kuti tracks throughout the night.
These artists positioned themselves against xenophobia in a direct, verbal way: a couple announced that they were pleased to see so many nationalities in the audience, and that - to paraphrase - they would like to see it come to an end. Again, this idea permeates the proceedings: the notion that there is no one elite culture, no opposed cultures unendingly seeking to topple the other; though with absolute respect and full attention on this occasion, however, given to the Nigerian artists who performed at the London Felabration. Xenophobia and ethnic tension is core to history within Nigeria, and not just in the old colonialist relationship with Britain: once Nigeria had been, in a sense, ‘decolonised’ in the ‘60s after ongoing protests for independence since the ‘20s, it was taken over by two military Juntas — once in the ’60s and then again through the ‘80s into the ‘90s. The human rights abuses inflicted by the first Junta were genocidal in scale, mostly towards southern Nigerians, in particular those affiliated with the Igbo tribe.
Alongside this sense of shared, collective horror present in Nigerian history you also have the fast-intensifying right-wing rhetoric of England’s politicians, with Theresa May’s strange sloganeering during the Conservative party conference speech this month: “if you consider yourself a citizen of the world, then you are a citizen of nowhere”. Citizenship can mean two things - citizenship as legal national identity and more ambiguously as belonging to an ethnic group. If May is going for the latter conceptualisation of citizenship, which seems to be the applicable version here, one cannot exist in a sense of Cosmopolitan ‘rootlessness’; to her, citizenship involves the prioritising of one’s relationship to their birth country, rather than it being comprised of several lived-in, experienced ethnic identities. It certainly disallows the idea that asylum seekers can forge a new ethnic identity in their refuge country. Though this kind of strong nationalist language is not just particular to England in contemporary society: the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany has become increasingly popular in the otherwise left-leaning Berlin, with Forschungsgruppe Wahlen predicting the party winning 14 percent of the total vote in the city’s election. Marie Le Pen, the right-wing French president candidate expressed her own burning desire for the French equivalent of the UK’s EU membership referendum, back in June. This new right-wing politics with added nationalism plants the idea of an ‘authentic’ type of national identity which is more valuable, legitimate and more entitled to welfare than others. Felabration this year seemed like its own islet of opposition in Europe to the ideology behind these anti-immigration, anti-Cosmopolitan stances.
Unlike Fela Kuti, whose time in London was marked out in a few years, the grime MC Afrikan Boy (aka Olushola Ajose) considers himself to be second-generation Nigerian, born in London: Theresa May can put that in with whatever shit she was apparently smoking in her idiomatic pipe during that last Conservative Party conference. Kuti’s music was an important influence on Ajose in his development as an artist, and gives back in his performance at Felabration. In a 2012 interview with Saskia Chanel in Dreamsofconsciousness, Afrikan Boy discussed the subject of African diaspora, his alias, and his struggle to main-tain a British identity in the eyes of others: “I had like a very big culture clash from the be-ginning with school children calling my name as Ollie instead of Olushola. Even just the title of my name, Afrikan Boy, its like a guy that‘s trying to find his identity, trying to stay as close to home as possible, Africa being the home, and also trying to integrate here in London society.” History, then, being not just something through which you interact with the culture of the country you were born in but also, in some negative circumstances, the way in which people with little knowledge of that culture might reduce you to stereotype. So even though Olushola Ajose was born and grew up in London, his Nigerian background will always feature and play a role in his experience of London.
Afrikan Boy is not the only artist who brings his Nigerian identity under light at Felabration. In fact, many of the artists here share the conflicted coupling of the British-Nigerian experience. Temi DollFace (Temi Phil-Ebosie) grew up in England, spending time in flea markets and there gaining inspiration for her surname alias DollFace. She shows up twice to front the Orchestra, with her vocal performance on the band’s version of ‘Zombie’ being especially noteworthy. She commands the audience to dance, which here involves the repetition of a salute in a kind of swaggering syncopation to the music of the song. This original piece by Kuti was a response to the brainwashing of Nigerians by the military government back in the ‘70s. Here, Kuti sings of the ways of making a person complicit in the denial of their own freedom, presented through fiercely overwhelming imperative in its lyrics of:
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie)
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think
This song then, is about leaders who, through instigation of fear and the threat of instability, can control and manipulate populaces into fighting. It’s close to the dangerous idea that by sacrificing control in some aspects of life, one can be free from that which causes fear. Temi DollFace’s second round on stage is also shared with Tiggs Da Author. Juxtaposed with Temi’s stern expression, there is something slightly jeering and mocking about his take on the dance, as if to ridicule that Nigerian government. The lack of solemnity in this performance, and in fact the whole of Felabration, seemed to say “Fuck you: I’m alive and enjoying it and I won’t give you the satisfaction of keeping me down”. Though the recording of the original track had serious consequences for Kuti, resulting in the government murdering his mother and threatening his own life.
During her cameo, saxophonist YolanDa Brown expresses what looks like a brief reluctance to play — one that, ironically, some extremely talented musicians seem to have. Saxophones live are as it happens pretty loud, and they are less high-pitched than they can sometimes be on record. From the first bar onwards, her expressive, dynamic playing seemed to effortlessly pull the attention and focus on to her. Brown only makes a brief appearance, like many names on the Felabration lineup, but in this time she has no trouble in adopting the momentary role of frontwoman. The rhythm of her stabs seems to imitate the cadence of Fela Kuti’s lyrics as it trips over the beat. And, amidst this, the Orchestra continues incessantly, seemingly symbolic of a refusal to die or fade. Felabration is definitely more strenuous on the muscles than a night’s worth of electronic music.
So how often will we get to see something like this Felabration, now that the UK is set to leave the EU with a ‘hard-Brexit’? And besides this even, a major issue lies in the rapid closure of London venues and ones around the UK. Felabration organiser Rikki Stein himself thinks that it is much harder than ever before for Nigerian musicians to play over here, “…particularly if it’s any kind of major ensemble with the draconian and expensive system of obtaining work permits and visas… in the Eighties and Nineties [he] was carting around the National Dance Company Of Guinea (42 people) Fela (up to 70 people) the Pan African Orchestra (35 people), L’Ensemble Symphonique De Guinea (40 people)…”. It also must be remembered that attitudes towards what constitutes Britishness and national identity has undeniably changed since Fela Kuti’s arrival in London in the ‘60s, coinciding with the first major wave of immigration to the UK from Nigeria. Fela Kuti himself dropped Ransome from his name, answering that with “Do I look like an Englishman?”. Now there is no ‘looking like’ an English person. Afrikan Boy (to pick only one artist here) was born in London but considers his Nigerian heritage just as integral to his sense of identity. But of course in a legal sense, he is a British citizen, and so under no circumstances would anti-immigration laws even begin to stop him from being able to work as a musician in the UK.
Home secretary Amber Rudd’s comment at the Conservative Party conference regarding a crackdown on international students taking “lower quality courses” (whatever those are) is the main new threat to future Fela Kutis. Rudd’s comments themselves are vague, meaning that it’s hard to tell where to draw the line with this clamping down of international students at this point. What sort of “quality” is she referring to? If, as a result, international students can no longer take music courses in the United Kingdom, the British people can only become more inward looking towards culture and music, finding fewer experiences outside of the immediacy of their own version of British life to be either relevant to their own or interesting. If British music students are surrounded by fewer international students, will they be as exposed to different kinds of music, ones even less well known than those taught on the curriculum?
The reverse too is applicable. If there was to ever be a new Fela Kuti, arriving into London with new ideas from Africa, it’s hard to say whether he’d been given the same nudges in those crucial directions, as Ginger Baker did with getting him gig spots at London clubs and certainly the prospect of recording at somewhere like Abbey Road Studios. But still: these are all speculations. With demonic landlords and rising rent prices cupped under its Victorian gloom, the fare zones of London are gradually looking more and more like the Circles in Dante’s Hell. Despite all this, and maybe it’s sad, but I can’t imagine something like Felabration happening with the same scale and enthusiasm behind it anywhere else in the UK.