Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie)
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop (Zombie)
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie)
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)
Want rebel music? You like your music provocative, punk? Just how much? Poor baby, you being hassled by the norms and the pigs? Think punks got street hassle in ’76? well, they did but try being Fela Kuti in Lagos in 1977. Only months after his provocative 1976 album Zombie was released Fela found out just how much music mattered to the government.
Zombie was a 26-minute LP with, ‘Zombie’ on one side and ‘Mr Follow Follow’ on the other. Both tracks mocking the establishment and in particular the army, not a safe course of action under the Obasanjo administration in Nigeria. Definitely not a safe option when your law suit against the government for attacks on your person in 1974 was front-page news and double definitely when you refused to play ball with their official FESTAC festivities. Fela mocked the military administration’s promise to hand power back to the people on stage at his club, The Shrine, saying
Tell me what African man in a uniform with shiny brass buttons has ever done that?
Both tracks are, as you’d expect extended jams featuring all the electric piano you could eat and swing with all the genius that Tony Allen can drive through his drumming (rather a lot as it happens) and Tunde Williams could conjure with his trumpet. ‘Zombie’ mocks the military remorselessly for being unthinking robots and includes a hilariously cheeky appropriation of a military reveille at the end. It is the more frantic of the two tracks and the skittering rhythm contrasts so well with Fela’s take on the zombie soldiers. Entirely true to form, Fela doesn’t utter a word until 5 minutes in and when he does he makes it count. Both tracks are the usual, but wonderfully unusual, marrying of Afrobeat with more conventional African-American influences.
It was a smash hit in Lagos and youths began mocking the soldiers with it, tensions surfaced between Fela’s anarchic Kalakuta Republic commune and the local Abalti barracks. It turned violent on February 18 1977, 1000 troops surrounded the commune, stormed the compound and all hell broke loose. Members were beaten, Fela very badly so and dragged by his genitals from the building, his 78 year-old mother was thrown through a window, breaking her hip and hastening her later death, there are stories of rape and sexual mutilation attributed to the attacking soldiers. The commune was burnt to the ground.
The official public enquiry in April 1977 heard from 183 witnesses and found that the commune was unintentionally destroyed and set on fire by an unknown soldier.
Cowed? Beat down? no. Fela arranged for his mother’s coffin to be delivered to the main army barracks in Lagos, the residence of General Obasanjo and wrote the song ‘Coffin For Head Of State’ and eventually marked the anniversary of the attack by marrying 27 women, his dancers, singers and composers. The state was messing with the wrong man.
I was entirely ignorant of all this, thinking music was just music, when I met a Nigerian student in Leeds University a couple months after getting there, he was lost and I helped him find his way back to where he was going. I remember that it was snowing and it was the first time he’d ever seen snow, his initial joy was lapsing into the stony-cold reality that his sandals really weren’t equipped for it. After asking him where he was from I remember saying, ‘Nigeria! Ah, Fela Kuti!’, after a brief look of astonishment at his baby-faced, long-haired, flowery-shirted guide he said ‘No, very bad man, very bad man indeed!’. This surprised me a little at the time. Thinking about it now it’s entirely understandable why this student, undoubtedly funded by the Nigerian state to pursue his studies would react this way.
‘Mr Follow Follow’ on the second side of the LP is, I think, a better track. It’s more of a slow burner and uses the contrasting woman’s chorus vocals to great effect as the 13 minute track swells and builds. the message? as always, it is think for yourself. The classic African call and response vocals are in full-effect and the horns are just perfect. Listen, if you’ve never heard this, imagine James Brown, well imagine him being 9 foot tall, even more potent and all his band 65% groovier than they were (even) and you are halfway there.
Protest music has never been groovier than this and the repercussions rarely more draconian. But this is no mere historical curio, this is living, breathing, sweating rebellion; it hasn’t eaten in two days, it hasn’t shaved in a week and wants to take you with it on the back of a bike to go fight in a losing cause.
Sign me up.
P.S – proper historical details cribbed from Michael Veal Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon.
P.P.S – pains me to say it, but the CD version is much better value for money over the LP version here. Damnit! (falls on floor, empties gun into sky in empty rage, Point Break style)