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.

Fela Kuti Zombie 01

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.

Fela Kuti Zombie 03

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.

Fela Kuti Zombie 04

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.

Fela Kuti Zombie 02

‘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.

Fela Kuti Zombie 05

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.

411 Down.

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)

27 thoughts on “Very Bad Man Indeed

  1. How was I not following this blog sooner? Keanu Reeves re-enactments, an ambitious amount of albums to get through (on vinyl no less), counted down (up?) in blog form! I’m glad to finally join the party.

    I recognized the name of the record (it’s among the 1001 ‘you must hear before you die’) but had no idea of the very different versions of the history.

    Nice post & nicely done on the first 411!

    1. Thank you Stephen that’s very kind indeed. I had hoped the Point Break re-enactment would be a crowd pleaser!

      Now if I could only sort my MF broadband out I could get on with some more posting!!

  2. Leeds University? Isn’t that where fellow-Nigerian Wole Soyinka started on his path towards political persecution (and Nobel prize)?

    It’s odd listening to this music and imagining it as dangerous. There’s so much context required. Similarly, Elvis’s pelvis doesn’t disturb me either.

    1. Oh boy, you’ve got some seriously political grooving to catch up on. Try and get hold of Open & Close (by hook or by crook) if you can. I swear you won’t regret it.

      Nah, I have very open-minded parents, so I picked up on this type of thing purely by osmosis – no credit to me.

  3. Fascinating and sobering post, well done. I have some Fela Kuti taped from the George Collinet AfroPop Int’l program that I enjoy, but knowing the story now gives it impact. Awesome tale.

    Another 9 ft African musician I actually got to see perform is Mzwakhe Mbuli, came to Toronto straight from a S. African prison cell.

    1. Thank you – if you can get hold try Open & Close, my fave Fela album. I’ve never heard an average track from him by the way, all excellent.

      I don’t know Mbuli at all, but I’ve always loved the South African music I’ve come across.

      1. As a WOMAD brat I’ve seen ’em all, AFT was I think the best guitarist I ever saw live, he played a set with Taj Mahal. I don’t know if his stuff exists on vinyl though and financially I’m really best not knowing. CD comps of good African stuff are usually pretty cheap too. I just love most of it.

  4. I need to listen to this one. I’ve read about the incident at Fela’s compound and how he sent his mom’s coffin to the Army headquarters. He was certainly a bold individual, which is probably what led to his undoing in the end.

    “Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go go”….”Wake me up before you go go”….Does Wham owe any royalties to the Fela Kuti estate?

    1. Almost – I’m eBaying my way through a few of the older sets of figures now. There’s a lady in a Statue of Liberty costume that I’m desperate for.

      1. Genuinely no idea, the minifigs I want go from £3.50 – £6 – I’m a big spender! Not sure which LP I could use Uncle Owen for …

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