Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
During his lifetime, Nigerian musician and singer, Fela Kuti, established the Afrobeat music genre; repeatedly defied corruption in his country's governance; built a commune (eventually destroyed by the army), which he declared independent of the State; and married - and divorced - multiple women.
Fela Kuti died in 1997, but his birthday continues to be celebrated worldwide, and on Tuesday, October 15, will be marked with the event, Olufela 75 - The Birthday Tribute at Redbones Blues Café, New Kingston.
Put on by GW Jazz, the celebration of Fela Kuti's 75th birthday is subtitled 'A Celebration of Music Inspired by Fela Kuti'. It starts at 7:30 p.m.
Gordon Wedderburn of GW Jazz pointed out that the title of the event uses Fela Kuti's first name (his full name is Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti). The tribute, Wedderburn said, "is largely music-led, but before that, there will be a documentary on Fela".
At 53 minutes long, Wedderburn described it as covering some of Fela's life and music. And, he said, there is footage of Fela Kuti "in his natural habitat, his underwear" - which was how he was often dressed at his home.
After the documentary, Wedderburn and Michael Edwards will take the evening into strictly music, playing not only Fela Kuti's music, but also artistes and genres he inspired.
"Fela's musical legacy is powerful and far-reaching. That legacy and body of work was actually the medium through which his sociopolitical view was channelled," Wedderburn said, noting that Kuti's worldwide renown is mostly posthumous as his impact while alive was mostly in Nigeria and other African countries.
Among his famed recordings are the 1977 album Zombie, speaking out against the Nigerian army, and the anti-apartheid Beasts of No Nation.
Leading successive large bands, The Afrika 70 and Egypt 80 among them, Fela Kuti was known for recording long songs, including extensive segments without vocals.
With those songs to draw on, Wedderburn is sure that there will be no shortage of Fela Kuti music at Olufela 75. However, he emphasised that there are many 'disciples' of Fela Kuti, including his sons Femi and Seun, as well as former drummer with Africa 70, Tony Allen. In addition, there are Afrobeat bands like Antibalas (which has done a cover of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Rat Race).
Music genres such as Hi-life are also part of the repertoire for Olufela.
Wedderburn said Fela Kuti's music is "very relevant (to Jamaica), especially in these times when you hear the word corruption being bandied about. He hit out at the regimes in Nigeria. They were coming into Independence, breaking away from colonial rule. In the immediate post-colonial period, corruption was rife".
The Gleaner asked Wedderburn if there was another connection, this time physical, between Fela Kuti's Kalakuta Republic (which he declared independent of Nigeria, and was destroyed by the army in 1978) and the 'states within the state' in Jamaica.
"You can't compare Kalakuta with a garrison here. It was, in essence, a commune - studio, free health centre - and housed those associated with him," Wedderburn said.
Those persons included musicians, dancers, and Fela Kuti's mother, who was thrown through a window during the army raid and died about two months later. Kuti delivered his mother's coffin to an army barracks in Lagos and wrote two songs about the attack: Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier.
Wedderburn is also clear about his intentions in staging Olufela as there is no obvious ready market. "I am stimulating demand. There are people who know about Fela. I think they are in the minority, or I do not know where they are," he said.
In addition, he said, "It is a matter of putting GW Jazz on the map." (The company staged a trio of events at Puls8 last year.)
"It is bringing something different, an alternative to what you hear."