Fela Kuti’s Zombie—his 1976 album release—is perhaps his most exciting and provoking record. The original LP is made up of only 2 tracks, each over 12minutes. The second edition which was re-issued in 1977 includes two bonus tracks which bring the whole project to about 1 hour of listening. It’s a hypnotic, refreshing listen but it doesn’t spare us Fela’s ingenious political rhetoric, his pidgin-uttered musical blows.
Together with percussionist Tony Allen, Fela Kuti is credited for having invented the Afrobeat genre, that groovy sound that’s now ubiquitously playing on African radios and beyond. You hear it in the mix of instruments, the way Fela swings his saxophone, the gentle strokes on piano keys, and the unforgettable performance of Tony Allen on the drums. A whole generation of African artists has been influenced by Fela’s music, whether they know it or not. Fela had the unique ability to draw from Jazz, a relaxed American Funk and combine it with traditional African rhythms. The result was the sound we now recognize as Afrobeat. It’s instantly recognizable today and it’s thanks to Fela Kuti and Tony Allen.
‘Zombie’ is a significant record precisely because Fela Kuti had mastered his sound at the point it was released which meant that the instruments didn’t get in the way of what he had to say. The album’s titular first track ‘Zombie’ had the most impact. It is was a blunt and humorous attack on the Nigerian military’s methods. Fela used this track to criticize how the military followed the country’s corrupt leaders’ wishes as though it was inconsequential. “Zombie no go go unless you tell am to go// Zombie no go stop unless you tell am to stop”. He expected more from the military, he thought it had to stand for the country’s people, the common good, but this was far from the reality. Contextually speaking, Nigeria saw enormous economic growth in the 1970s due to the oil boom. This was both a blessing and a curse because it wounded the country with corruption and left a mark that’s visible even today.
Fela’s music is in essence revolutionary music. In the Documentary ‘Finding Fela’ by Alex Gibney, Fela states concisely what he intended to do with his music. “As far as Africa is concerned, music can not be for enjoyment, music has to be for revolution. Music is the weapon.” Fela was right, in fact he was speaking from experience. The government’s reaction to ‘Zombie’ was proof of just how powerful Fela’s music was. His home was attacked and burned down and to Fela’s grief, his mother was thrown out of a window and left her injured severely. She would die later from the injuries. You would think then that this would discourage Fela Kuti but it only filled him with more passion for his cause.
Finding Fela Trailer
Fela’s vocals were almost always sung in pidgin, a technique he used to appeal to the Nigerian masses. With ‘Zombie’, Fela not only warned about the inaction of the military—essentially the inaction of the country’s official force—but he also warned the Nigerian people about conformity, about being victim to collective illusions. He expressed this in the second track “Mr. Follow Follow”. Lasting almost 13minutes, this track begins soothingly with Fela’s jazzy saxophone and Tony’s drums. It’s not until the last quarter of the track that Fela delivers his powerful rhetoric which is echoed back by the Afrika ‘70 backup singers. “Some dey follow follow, dem close dem sense // I say dem close sense, Dem close sense // If you dey follow follow // Make you open eye, open ear, open mouth, open sense”. This track is also an attack on foreign religion. He alludes to this when he sings “If you dey follow follow dem book// Na inside cupboard you go quench.” Fela Kuti was a militant pan-African. He was so focused on rejecting everything associated with western culture that he became polygamous and married 27 women. Christianity therefore couldn’t fit his vision of what it really meant to be African. Fela was powerful, he was rebellious, and maybe he was too rebellious.
Today Fela is a musical legend. His music is played in jazz lounges, video games, and films. Music aficionados world-wide regard him as a musical genius. His sons Femi and Seun Kuti have carried on his legacy. Nigeria even has a special day on which Fela Kuti is celebrated and it has been appropriately called ‘Felabration’. Fela’s music is timeless because his words carry universal truths which were expressed through a mix of instruments and genres to create Afrobeat, almost as if to say that the African spirit forever renews itself. You simply can’t put it in a box. Fela’s music plays like liberation.