Fela’s brief but eventful life and musical legacy are well documented in books, documentary films and exhibitions; indeed, Afrobeat rébellion, an ongoing nine-month-long celebration of his legacy at the Philharmonie de Paris includes concerts, shows, exhibition and workshops.
He is often remembered as a thorn in the flesh of the military ruling class from the early to mid-70s onwards when he forged Afrobeat, a distinctively unique sound that was practically more than the sum of its elements, to lampoon their rampant anti-populist policies, massive corruption, and lavish lifestyle.
However, his early work is often dismissed even by Fela in his larger-than-life narrative of himself.
Just another musician
Hear Fela in Carlos Moore’s biography, Fela: This Bitch of a Life, “I was just another musician, playing with Koola Lobitos and singing love songs, songs about rain, about people…What did I know?”
Fela’s portrayal of his younger self as a highlife musician may have been dismissive but historians and scholars have approached his formative years with a similar attitude.
Hardly would you find any book-length narrative that has dedicated more than a chapter in characterising what was the earliest and possibly most energetic phase of Fela’s career.
The most comprehensive narrative of this era is by his former manager, friend, veteran journalist, and broadcaster Benson Idonije in his memoir, Dis Fela Sef! where he characterises Fela’s five-year-long development as a musician after he left Victor Olaiya’s The Cool Cats in 1958 for further studies in Britain.
Five years after leaving for Britain, Fela returned to Nigeria in 1963 a married man, a father of three children and a trumpeter obsessed with jazz.
An accomplished jazz musician
“By the time he was departing for Nigeria in August 1963, Fela was already an accomplished jazz musician. He found worthy of emulation: Thad Jones and Miles Davis as his influences on trumpet, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, and Harold Land as tenor favourites; Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, Red Garland…as inspiring jazz pianists…” Idonije writes.
This was hugely different from the teenager Idonije had described earlier in the book who could not 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 were telling me I couldn’t make music a profession in Nigeria. I was just a Lagos boy. I wasn’t going to do anything…England did not interest me.”
Following his return to Nigeria in 1964, Fela worked as a music producer at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, a job he considered dull and boring, according to John Collins in his book, Kalakuta Notes.
Since music was his true calling, Fela then inaugurated the Nigerian version of Koola Lobitos in 1965.
Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet band
While living in London in 1959, his band had been previously called The Highlife Rakers but ultimately the band’s name was changed to Koola Lobitos.
Similarly, the Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet band formed in 1963 while in Nigeria was renamed Koola Lobitos, a move Tejumola Olaniyan declared in his seminal book, Arrest the Music: Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics as “a sort of tactical step-down…to the popular realm”.
Most books on Fela note that Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mother, admonished him “to start playing music your people know…”
Dance vs revolution
Fela’s political consciousness was awakened in Los Angeles, America, during his nine-month-long tour in 1969 when he and his band members shacked up with Black Panther member and his lover, Sandra Smith (now Izsadore).
Between 1963 and 1969 when the signature Afrobeat tune My Lady’s Frustration was written, Fela played Highlife-Jazz, often to empty dancefloors if the account of fellow musician and Fela’s contemporary, Joni Haastrup, should be trusted.
Tejumola Olaniyan’s consideration of Fela’s highlife jazz hybrid as a lot of jazz and hardly enough highlife is an apt description of Fela’s discography through this era collected in Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-69, a three CD compilation reviewed by Janne Oinonen, as “music that’s fit for dancing rather than a revolution”.
But the true character of Fela’s Afrobeat was that it was music fit for both dance and revolution, a tendency that eluded his highlife-jazz hybrid.
If that hybrid had any ambition, it was a purely aesthetic one.
According to Micheal Veal in his scholarly book, Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, the music recorded by Koola Lobitos between 1965 and 1969 conformed to three stylistic types, “…earliest songs conform to highlife conventions while introducing a number of jazz elements.
The middle-period songs gradually reflect the growing influences of rhythm-and-blues and Afro-Latin styles, particularly Cuban salsa music. The later songs…show Fela attempting an explicit fusion of highlife ad rhythm-and-blues.”
Fela’s preoccupation with musical forms led to the Koola Lobitos playing complex rhythms compared to the entrancing and simpler rhythms of his highlife contemporaries Rex Lawson, Victor Olaiya, Eddie Okonta and OJ Ekemode.
Quirky and humourous love
Highlife music was a de facto dance music in high demand by West African elites with its light-hearted lyrics of contemporary themes of love, rivalry, monogamy, and societal issues.
Fela’s highlife jazz had similar lyrical concerns to the music of its era, but trust Fela to bring a little bit of difference. His love songs, performed mainly in Yoruba, were fleeting, quirky and humourous.
Compared to his contemporaries Rex Lawson whose vocal delivery communicated soulful longing in songs like Anah I don tire and Love mu Adure; Eddie Okonta, whose signature tune Bisi sputtered adulation on his eponymous love interest and OJ Ekemode, the masterful love song lyricist, who communicated tenderness and urgent sexual desire, Fela’s lyrical composition seemed like fillers to preserve the presence of lyrics in the architecture of his songs.
Take the lyrics Oruka, for instance. It dwells more on rivalry than the tenderness often associated with love songs and Oruka here (the ring) is more a totem for marking territory than declaring devotion.
Egbin is dedicated to his love interest, Aduke, whom he compares to a gazelle in the first verse, but the second verse pays tribute to party heads and revellers of Marina while the rest of the tune is an extravaganza of busy instrumental solos.
Lover or Ololufe mi succeeds in conveying tenderness and urgency for physical love but the song’s highlife jazz structure prioritises instrumental solos. It is not surprising that Lover is the most popular tune from this era.
My lady frustration
It is ironic that My Lady Frustration often called Fela’s first formally distinct Afrobeat song was written for Sandra, his then-lover based in Los Angeles.
Idonije describes the song as a “tribute to…a woman who has gone to great lengths to put him on the right cultural and political path for his music…”
The definitive Afrobeat sound was at least a dozen records and two years away when he wrote this song on a grand piano in Sandra’s living room but it is arguable that Fela’s political consciousness and musical evolution in Post-Civil Rights era America was a consequence of his moving affection. In writing his first true love song, Fela found his true self, a man whose love for humanity trumped his love for himself.