Jun 27, 2011

Fela Kuti - Zombie (1976/77)


he Nigerian military regime's reprisals against Kuti moved from relatively low level harassment to outright bloody brutality in November 1974, following the release of the album Alagbon Close. But this was as nothing compared to the vengeance the army, enraged beyond reason, took on him following 1976's Zombie.

Over a choppy, quick-march accompaniment from Afrika 70, Kuti begins the song by calling out, sergeant-major style, "Attention! Quick march! Slow march! Salute! Fall in! Fall out! Fall down! Go and kill! Go and die! Go and quench!" Each phrase is followed by the women singers' taunting response, "Zombie!." There's much more to the lyric, but this passage, revisited at various points in the lyric, wound the army up massively. Crowds chanted it at soldiers in the street, and like never before, the military sensed the growth of popular resistance. The response was terrible...

On 18 February, 1977, around 1,000 soldiers, most of them armed, swooped on Kalakuta. They cordoned off the surrounding area, broke down the wire fence around the community's buildings, and kicked their way into the central structure. Occupants were stripped and barbarously abused: particularly unfortunate men had their testicles beaten with rifle butts; particularly unfortunate women were raped (one also had her nipples crushed with stones). Kuti himself was beaten close to death, sustaining a fractured skull and several broken bones. His mother, then aged 77, was thrown from an upstairs window, fracturing a leg and suffering deep trauma. The army then set fire to the compound and prevented the fire brigade reaching the area. The ensuing blaze gutted the premises, destroying six Afrika 70 vehicles, all Kuti's master tapes and band equipment, a four-track recording studio, all the community members' belongings and, for good measure, the free medical clinic run by Kuti's brother, Dr Beko Kuti (also severely beaten in the attack). The first journalists to arrive on the scene were assaulted by soldiers. Inquisitive passers-by were similarly set upon. The army didn't want any witnesses. (They were unsuccessful at least in that: Kuti sent several dozen photos of the immediate aftermath of the attack to Black Music magazine in London, which published them along with the testimonies of Kalakuta residents).

Although Kuti won the war of words which followed, he sensibly decided to leave Nigeria for a while, and in October went into voluntary exile in neighbouring Ghana. But his political stance didn't endear itself to the Ghanaian authorities either, and after a few months he was deported back to Nigeria.

This edition of Zombie includes two valuable, previously unreleased tracks, "Observation Is No Crime" and "Mistake." The second, a medium-paced, conga-rich tour de force by Afrika 70, with an excellent solo by trumpeter Tunde Williams, was recorded at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival. Incredibly, the gig was frequently accompanied by cat-calls from the audience, some of whom appear to have gone along only to heckle Kuti for his perceived attitude to women. But Kuti and Afrika 70 had faced much worse than this the previous year, and continue cooking up a storm, unfazed.

Read the full article at allaboutjazz.com


Zombie defined Fela’s legacy more than any other album he recorded. The album was a direct insult to the Nigerian army, “Zombie no gon Go, less you tell him to go. Zombie no gon think less you tell him to think.”

As a result of the Biafran War, Nigeria had the largest standing army on the continent. Although they may have liked Fela’s grooves, they did not enjoy being mocked.

At the time, Fela, his wives, extended family, bandmates, and entourage, somewhere in the range of 150 people, all lived at the Kalakuta Republic, a compound that was also home to a recording studio and health clinic protected by an electric fence. One thousand soldiers surrounded the compound and set fire to the generator, powering the electric fence. Once the fence was totally powerless, they charged the compound and terrorized everything in their path.

The soldiers were ruthless. They took broken bottles and shoved them into the private parts of the women. They threw Fela’s mother out of a second story window and beat Fela within an inch of his life. By the time they were finished, the entire compound had been burnt to the ground, and any journalists, emergency responders or onlookers were also beaten.



Zombie was the most popular and impacting record that Fela Anikulopo Kuti and Africa 70 would record -- it ignited the nation to follow Fela's lead and antagonize the military zombies that had the population by the throat. Fela is direct and humorous in his attack as he barks out commands to the soldiers like: "Attention! Double up! Fall In! Fall out! Fall down! Get ready!" Meanwhile, his choir responds with "Zombie!" in between each statement. Since the groove was so absolutely contagious, it took the nation by storm: People in the street would put on a blank stare and walk with hands affront proclaiming "Zombie!" whenever they would see soldiers. If "Zombie" caught the attention of the populous it also cought the attention of the authority figures -- this would cause devastating personal and professional effects as the Nigerian government came down on him with absolute brute force not long after the release of this record. Also included are "Monkey Banana," a laid-back groove that showcases drummer Tony Allen's mastery of the Afro-beat, and "Everything Scatter," a standard mid-tempo romp. Both songs are forgetful in relation to "Zombie," but this is still an essential disc to own for the title track alone.



Zombie is often cited as Kuti's finest or most essential album, and its title track is also one of his most notorious compositions. It's one of his most upbeat and deeply funky, with horns blazing in a frenzy. Yet the lyrical content of the song, which compared Nigerian soldiers to zombies, pissed off the government something fierce, to the point that Kuti's commune, the Kalakuta Republic, was raided and burned. Fela was brutally beaten, his band's instruments and master tapes were destroyed, and his mother suffered fatal injuries after being thrown out of a window. Yet, while the history makes the song intriguing, it's the furious rhythms that make it an enduring and hotly grooving piece of music.



"Zombie" is without a doubt Fela's most important political song, and probably the best synthesis of his composing strengths -- pulsating march-like grooves, funky backbeat rhythms, and great, catchy horn riffs. "Mr.Follow Follow" is not far behind, though it has more of a P. Funk vibe. Unlike the other Fela discs from this massive reissue project, "Zombie" does not couple two original LPs on one CD (what other Fela album could possibly stand up to this!), and instead offers two previously unreleased performances. This is essential music for anyone who considers themselves a fan of jazz, funk, African or international music.

If you are unfamiliar with Fela this is a great place to start. I own just about everything the man recorded, and if I had to pick just one album, I'd start here. This is some of the most powerful and funky music ever made, and if you had to give just one musician the title of "The Rhythm King", Fela Kuti would be the only man standing tall next to James Brown.

Miles Davis once said that Fela's music was the music of the future, and in more ways than one I think he was right. Afrobeat are on the rise again, with bands like Antibalas, Karl Hector & The Malcouns, Nomo, Vampire Weekend, The Budos Band and Fela's own son Seun Kuti, doing their spin on afrobeat. Some of these bands are very good, but Fela will always be the Undisputed King Of Heavy Heavy Afrobeat, and even though he is loved and recognized amongst funkateers and musicians alike, the man is still criminally underrated. A true genius.

I'm not sure how to say it, but there is something majestic about Fela's sound. Especially in the horn sections. And it's music for all occasions. Are you meeting your friends for a drinking session at a smokefilled nightclub? Play Fela. Late night dancing? Fela. A funeral? Fela. Weddings? Fela. National anthem? Fela.
It's strange that a country like Italy, for instance, doesn't have a Fela song as their national anthem. Songs about corruption, dictatorship, media-control and bad ledership should be perfectly suited for Italy.

If you want to pick up other classic albums by Fela, try these first, as they are just as good as "Zombie": "Roforofo Fight/Fela Singles" and "Shakara/London Scene".

The title, "Zombie" is perfect medicine for any militaristic or military-ruled country. Perhaps it is the most potent military satire ever put to music. It is tempting to narrow it down to Fela's continuous feud with the Nigerian military governments in the mid to late 70s, but it is a universal antidote to the militaristic virus. The other antiauthoritarian piece here is Mr Follow Follow.

But my favorite piece on this CD is "Mistake", which was recorded live at the Berlin Jazz Festival of 1978. I had watched this on video many years ago, but now it is issued on CD. This demonstrates the prowess of Fela's large band. This particular piece is a strange and unique creature indeed. The drumming is big and expansive with the seeming chaos of an overloaded mamiwagon, seemingly untidy, but with an inner, buoying coherence that floats the listener like a boat on gentle waves. This only becomes apparent after repeated listening. You now know why Fela's master drummer at the time Tony Allen, is still considered the best drummer in popular music.

Then, there is Fela's solo lyrical saxophone evoking echoes of highlife, jazz and Lagos life. It also has the least incendiary lyrics of all the songs in the album, socially conscious but almost pleading and gentle. Although the lyrics are in pidgin, I consider this to be one of his most Yoruba pieces in its sensibility and the dignity of its flow.

It is long and leisurely- classical fela. Fela did not do short records. He wringed the music out of any tune in a pop symphonic fashion.

When you ask someone who Fela Kuti is, a lot of people may tell you how he was a Nigerian musician who studied music in England and returned to Africa to explore and create his own style. Others might talk about how he believed A.I.D.S to be a fabricated illness that didn't really exist, and how ironic it was that he died from it. Some may talk about how he turned his house and a small area of land into his own Republic inside the nation of Nigeria.
Still, others may tell you about his music. People will tell you that he created that elastic Afro-beat style you may have heard other musicians using as an umbrella for their styles of music.
But the problem today is that we love to categorize and box things off into a corner, and while he did invent Afro-beat and he should get credit, it needs to be mentioned that there is also an intangible quality about Fela Kuti's music.

Zombie has to be one of my favorite albums of Fela so far. This album, like all of his other albums, require a lot of patience and stamina and acquired taste, but for those of you who find meaning in Jlo, Ludacris, or pretty much most things that people are told to like, then you can still appreciate Fela's music, but it will take time.
Pop music is instant gratification music, and that's why I've always hated it. Fela's music is more like real life, and that's why it conjures up more powerful images and feelings then "I'm still Jenny from the bloke."

This album is charged with political satire. The rhythms build up steam, as does the horn section, the singers, and Fela Kuti, and the songs explode into melodic progressions which are lengthy and get reapeted in a hypnotizing way. As a result, the songs can sound wistful, angry, un-well, or anything else that a human feels like. All of the songs have an urgent and agressive feel, and they can completely hypnotize you, while at the same time (and with Fela's lyrics) can heighten your awarness.

I'de write more, but I would simply advice you to get this album. In my oppinion, the best songs are the first and last--"Zombie" and "Mistake".
If you are already a Fela Kuti fan, then why haven't you bought this album yet? And if you're not, this is one of the best. Plus, the inlay has a lot of information on him. It's a good idea to read all of it before you listen to any of the songs, because then you'll have a greater understanding and a deeper appreciation for them.
Very Powerful album.

My seven year old son who is heavily into monsters etc. is absolutely obsessed with this record. He tells me it's because the big Fela is singing about zombies. What really hooked him in though, is the phat grooves laid down by Afrika '70 on this superb platter. The relentless funk delivered here is very much five-star Afrobeat. Others may point to the big mans purple patch in the early '70s as the place to start.Yet the commitment to the material from Fela and co. lifts it up there with the likes of Confusion and Shakara. If you like having your booty moved whilst raising your consciousness then snap up this lil' treasure. It's an excellent place to board the Afrobeat boat.


Zombie (1976/77)

Fela in his life time was never ‘a good bed-fellow’ of the military institution. As a political activist, he believed the army should operate under the mandate of a civil government. If national interest compels the armed forces to intervene in government, the army is obliged to hand over power to a new civil government elected by the people and enjoying their mandate. To do otherwise is to usurp power particularly since a soldier’s duty is not to seek a political mandate. For emphasis in the song, he narrates the military in motion comparing their orientation to the Zombie, without minds of their own. Fela paid a big price for this bold condemnation of the military institution. One thousand members of the Nigerian army attacked and burnt down his house after the release of the record. The tribunal set up to investigate the cause of the attack as a result of the public out-cry against the army, heard, as part of the evidence presented, an example of the Zombie album cover with the military uniform and boots displayed boldly. The army justification of the attack was that Fela treated the military institution with levity.

Mister Follow Follow
Mr. Follow Follow is about those who allow themselves to be led blindly by others. Since nobody can live in isolation, Fela sings about those who follow with their eyes wide open and those who follow with their eyes closed. Saying if you have to follow, it is better to follow with your eyes and ears open. For if you follow blindly, you will always remain in the dark: ‘…if you dey follow them book! Na inside cupboard you go quench!…cockroach dey! Rat dey!…na inside darkness you go dey! If you have to follow them books, you have to read with some sense, see with your eyes and hear with your ears’, he concludes.

Observation Is No Crime
For the first time, Fela’s listeners have the pleasure of a bonus UN-released track. Unlike all other works from these ‘Best Of’ compilations, ‘Observation Is No Crime’—is one of the few tracks Fela performed live but never recorded in the studio or released. Recorded live at the November 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival, Fela is singing about those who would like to stop him from giving his opinion on issues that involve the individual life: ‘Na oild I dey carry! Sand sand man no come spoil my own! (Meaning he is carrying a barrel of oil on his head and he does not want any sand-carrying man around him.). Literally comparing the delicate nature of individual life to a delicate barrel of oil, when oil falls into a heap of sand, it is difficult to recover the oil from the sand. Fela says he is given a mouth to say things he feels like saying, same thing for his eyes which are for him to see with. Turning to the government in Nigeria, who have always tried to silence him, he concludes by saying: ‘…Observation Is No Crime.’.

Mistake, another bonus UN-released or recorded track in a studio by Fela was recorded live at the Berlin Jazz Festival November 1978. The Listener could hear Fela say to the booing crowd: ‘I am sure you are still sitting down to hear more from us…to the Berlin audience who sat through a two and half hour concert performance of Fela and his band with boos and calls of ‘No Disco! No Travolta’. Fela was booed for being what they assumed to be a potentate and misunderstood as a jazz musician. Most of his critics could not understand how a man like Fela who campaigns against racism, at the same time travels and lives like a monarch, with harem and personal aids. Some critics of his performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival claimed he could not play the piano, was a poor saxophonist, and a jazz-festival is not the right place for him. These critics were there to express their own opinions, just as much as the young man at the stage entry who, in the last third of the well-disputed concert, shook his young head and said: ‘we’ll have to kill him or he will never stop.’ Can anyone imagine killing a man because a concert lasted longer than expected, and he does things his own way and, in so doing, gets the people excited to the point one feels like committing murder? That was how much Fela could touch people. In Mistake, Fela says: ‘When everything is all right—it means That’s good! When everything is not right—it means That’s bad. Nobody likes things to go wrong, but it is always a mistake that causes things to go wrong. There are two kinds of Mistakes, Fela explains in this song: Good Mistake—that is UN-intentional mistake, and Bad Mistake—that is deliberate mistake. Good mistake he sings: ‘…you fit repair! Bad mistake you cannot repair’. The mistake you make people laugh at you!, but you stand like man! After they come to apologize for laughing at you—that is good mistake. But the mistake you make, you cannot stand like man – that is bad mistake. Mistake is about government policies in Africa. The leadership when they make policies, and things go wrong, they fail to accept their wrong. Since no one is perfect, Fela calls on African leaders to take credit or blame for their policies whichever way the result. Putting soldiers in schools or burning down peoples homes are not right. The government should admit and take responsibility for their wrongs.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu


1. Zombie
2. Mr. Follow Follow (Mister Follow Follow)
3. Observation No Crime
4. Mistake

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