Fela Kuti was born into the Yoruba tribe in southwest Nigeria, where his father, like his grandfather, was a protestant minister, and his mother was a prominent feminist political activist. Against his father's wishes, Fela sang in highlife bands at age 16. During the '60s he studied music in London, where he formed a highlife band called the Koola Lobitos. In 1969 he spent a year in the USA, where he linked up with the Black Panthers and others, broadening and radicalizing his political sense, which embraced Kwame Nkrumah's pan-Africanism.
His early work is sampled in Koola Lobitos/The '69 L.A. Sessions, where the early cuts sound like an odd mix of Trinidadian calypso with highlife ryhthms, but the 1969 sessions unveil the unique musical and political conception that Fela called afrobeat. Rhythmically simple by west african norms, sung in English to broaden the audience, spiced with jazz and funk licks, afrobeat was a musical platform for political activism. In "Viva Nigeria," Fela ends with a message: "brothers and sisters in Africa/never should we learn to wage war against each other/let Nigeria be a lesson to all."
Nigeria was full of lessons. At the time, it was just coming out of a civil war which had killed over a million people, mostly by starvation. Nigeria was one of those artificial colonial creations, merging some 250 tribes into a nation of constant turmoil, long impoverished by the slave trade and colonialism, full of corrupt politicians plied by foreign interests. For more than two decades Fela chronicled, heckled, stirred up this turmoil. But Fela was not just a critic, he formed a whole counterculture. His band was huge, putting as many as 80 on stage; they lived together, with Fela marrying many of his singers. Fela further challenged the Nigerian establishment by building a fence around his compound and declaring it the independent Kalakuta Republic. The Nigerian authorities, in turn, repeatedly harrassed, arrested, beat, and tortured Fela, at one point sending a thousand soldiers to burn Kalakuta to the ground.
While this oppression eventually took its toll, it worked mostly as fodder for Fela's songs, which early on tended to be sarcastic attacks on neocolonial manners (the "Gentleman" who dresses like Europeans in hot, muggy Nigeria, and stinks) and the incompetence of the officials ("Go Slow" takes off from Lagos' endless traffic jams), but later became increasingly strident attacks on the military ("Zombie") and corruption (Fela explains that "V.I.P." means "vagagonds in power," "I.T.T." means "international thief thief"). In the end, Fela's last record, Underground System, was as unflinching as "Viva Nigeria" was hopeful. He claimed that artists were the true leaders of society, and he lived with the consequences of that conviction.
Fela recorded over 50 albums, which have been heroically remastered and released on 25 CDs, as comprehensive a picture of a major artist as any, and especially unique for Africa. Typically, one CD combines two LPs, where the original LPs typically had one long song per side, or occasionally a song would be split into two parts, one for each LP side. The songs themselves are structured uniformly: a typical song starts out with a drums and bass rhythm, adding funky guitar and keyboard figures that could go on for several minutes, then the horns come in to develop a melody; maybe there's a sax solo, and more horns; then anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes into the piece Fela comes in with his vocal, short lines often in a patois of English and Yoruba, answered by female chorus. Sometimes the horns cut in sooner, sometimes the keyboard leads off, but it's all pretty much the same.
As popular music goes, Fela's songs are long, but as someone who's sat through evangelical church services, I find his sermons rather concise: he calls the parish together, sets the mood and tone, and delivers his message, smartly orchestrated with his choir. The best of these albums are the ones where the music kicks in hardest, like Roforofo Fight, Excuse O, Kalakuta Show, Zombie, and especially Original Sufferhead/I.T.T., with three powerful pieces that never flag over an hour.
The Best Best of Fela Kuti, with 13 signature pieces on 2 CDs, is Fela for beginners, a marvelous overview. But in order to hold the cuts to an average 12 minutes, most appear only as "Part 2" or have otherwise been edited. The only problem here is that shorter isn't necessarily better with Fela. While his politics may have been urgent, Fela's africanism liked to stretch out and enjoy itself.