Sep 1, 2011

Fela Kuti - Unknown Soldier (1979)/ Coffin For Head of State (1980)


Lyrically, 1980's "Coffin For Head Of State" is in two, interlocking sections. The first half of the song deals with the harmful impact of Islam and Christianity on Africa. To the backing singers' chorus, "waka waka waka" ("walk walk walk"), Kuti sings that he has witnessed the harm done to indigenous culture by both these imports, during his walks—by which he means journeys—around Nigeria. The second half of the song commemorates a more particular, and in this case, literal walk Kuti made, accompanied by his family and members of the Young African Pioneers, in October 1979, on the day before General Obasanjo was to retire from the Nigerian presidency for the first time. Kuti held Obasanjo responsible for his mother's death, citing the trauma caused her by the army's 1977 destruction of his Kalakuta Republic commune, during which, aged 77, she was thrown from an upstairs window and badly injured. She died the following year.

Before Obasanjo left office, Kuti determined to remind him publicly of the outrage by depositing a symbolic coffin outside Obasanjo's residence at Dodan army barracks. Outwitting the army's attempt to cordon off the area (Kuti had announced his intention to the press days earlier), he succeeded. On leaving the barracks, Kuti and his party were beaten by soldiers and thrown in jail. But they'd made their point.

1979's Unknown Soldier also refers to the 1977 sacking of Kalakuta, through the prism of the government enquiry which pronounced the army institutionally innocent of causing the fire which destroyed all the buildings on the site (along with most of their contents). An "unknown soldier" was blamed for starting the fire, when the evidence—including the army's well documented obstruction of the fire brigade—pointed to coordinated, pre-planned arson. To the chorus of "government magic," Kuti sings: "Them go turn red into blue (government magic), Water dey go water dey come (government magic), Them go turn electric to candle (government magic)...." and finally, he observes, the magic whitewashes the government's violence against its own citizens.

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These masterpieces were pivotal accomplishments for Kuti, as they solidified his rise from mere social commentator to fiercely determined cultural leader. Recorded after the brutal raid of his Kalaluta compound and the consequent death of his mother, they comprise two of the most personal statements Kuti ever made. "Coffin for Head of State" denounces the corrosive effect of Christian and Muslim influence on African life and takes to task the leaders that perpetuate the "Bad bad bad things/Through Jesus Christ our Lord." It takes its name from a protest in which Kuti and a group of supporters laid a coffin on the steps of Christian leader Olusegun Obasanjo's Dodan Barracks, the headquarters of the military government. An epic 31-minute tribute to his fallen mother, "Unknown Soldier" is one of the most ambitious recordings of Kuti's career which describes in frightening detail the events that transpired on the eve of the Kalakuta raid, including the rape of several women, beatings, mutilation, and the throwing of his mother ("the Mother of Nigeria") out of a window. The official police report after the raid blamed the attack on "unknown soldiers," and in response to this fantastic cover-up, Kuti gives a tortured, powerful performance of some of his most vivid and incendiary music -- music that was in many ways the ideological equal of the physical torture that Kuti and his company had endured.


Fela Kuti made some frantic albums in his career--ones that popped with his enthusiastic political disobedience and ones that roared with fury at the Nigerian system and Africa's disadvantaged position in the late-20th century. But Coffin for Head of State is a different tiger. It's a downturned, sad, melancholic 22-minute work that signaled how Fela would make his previously general criticisms of Nigerian politics very specific. He recorded the album in 1981, several years after the Nigerian military's destruction of his self-declared Kalakuta Republic (a residential compound, in truth) and the ensuing, relentlessly violent assault on its residents, including his mother, who later died as a result of her injuries. Coffin finds Fela castigating Muslim and Christian leaders for idling while the government raped and pillaged, and it boasts a visionary quality in the antiphonal "Amens" that gets bounced through the band. Filling out this double-length CD is Unknown Soldier, a pointed musical assault on the government's position that "unknown soldiers" had perpetrated the Kalakuta attack, when Fela well knew that the 1,000-man rampage was officially sanctioned. The 30-minute track that comprises Unknown is still Fela in a keyed-down mode, railing against the attackers with his customary electric keyboard, a battery of percussionists, all of it stewing for 15 minutes before he bellows in with bright backing vocal chants. After Coffin's melancholy, this is uplifting enough to make you share in his indignation. These sessions mark an unparalleled peak for the musical display of fury and political criticism.

Andrew Bartlett


Amazon reviews:

This CD is a powerful combination of great music and civic dedication. In the 1970s, the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti created a new genre called Afrobeat, where funk and jazz instrumentation were wedded to local traditional rhythms with vocals in Nigerian pidgin English. Everything takes its time--few of Fela's songs were under the 10 minute mark and many far surpassed it--and the listener quickly feels at ease in the gradual buildup. Fela was the ultimate maker of chill-out music, but far from being a lightweight like so many contemporary acts in that genre (Thievery Corporation, for example), he had a huge amount of musical integrity and was always looking to extend his sound.

But besides being a genuinely hip musician, Fela was a voice against the misdeeds of the Nigerian government. He had a number of small brushes with the state as the years went by, but when he released a song called "Zombie" in 1977 that painted the Nigerian military as a bunch of mindless puppets, the powers that be sought to put him down for good. Over a thousand soldiers stormed his neighbourhood, arsoned his home, raped local women, beat Fela to within an inch of his life, and threw his mother to her death from a second-story window. When the people demanded an investigation, the government kept a lid on it and claimed that the murder was done by an "unknown soldier".

The first song on this disc, "Unknown Soldier" (1979) has Fela recounting the whole sad story after 15 minutes of smoking development. While he keeps an even tone of restrained anger for most of his narration, once he gets to the matter of his mother's death his voice movingly breaks. His lyrics end with a clever metaphor of the government investigation as so much smoke and mirrors: "Dem start magic: Dem seize my house, wey they there born. Dem seize my land, dem drive all the people wey live in area: two thousand citizens, dem make them all homeless now. / Dem start magic, dem start magic. Dem bring flame, dem bring hat, dem bring rabbit, dem conjure, dem bring smoke, dem they fall, dem conjure, spirit catch them. Dem they say: 'Unknown Soldier 921'".

In "Coffin for Head of State" (1981) Fela attacks religious authorities in Nigeria for keeping silent in the fact of all this violence. The title refers to a publicity stunt where Fela had his mother's coffin carried to the gates of the Nigerian military's headquarters. Here the chorus of "Amen" resounds among the chorus of Fela's wives as he mocks the vacuous rhetoric of both the Christian priests and Muslim imams of his country.


I would agree with the other reviewers but I think they have it the wrong way round - while "Unknown Soldier" as a title is more famous, the better song is "Coffin For Head of State". His chorus would actually make you think this was a Christian religious song if you didn't know better. It is quite stirring to hear how Fela describes one of the problems most people have with the apparent contradiction between the Christian philosphies of ascetism and giving and the actual behavior of Christian leaders, who are in many case affluent beyond belief.

He also accuses the leaders of Nigeria of using religious authority to back up thier statements, thereby getting people to agree with them not by reasoning, but by yielding to the authority of God.

Kind of sad that Obasanjo outlived this man.

If you are interested in Nigerian history, both songs are related to events surrounding the destruction of Fela's home and the murder of his mother. IT was beleived that the attack on the hous, carried out by armed soldiers, was an order from the higher ranks of the military, whose leader was General Obasanjo. "Unknown Soldier" is a reference to the murderer of his mother ( she was thrown down a flight of stairs and died from multiple injuries) and "Coffin for the Head of State" is a dirge like song that describes the droping off of a mock coffin by Fela and his followers at the official residence of the Head of State of Nigeria, who was then General OBasanjo.

You have to like Jazz to have an appreciation for the music, but if you are a Fela fan, this is a CD you can buy without any regrets. IT is kind of sad that these songs were written in the late 70s and early 80s and are still relevant to the Nigerian situation today.


Like the previous reviewer mentioned, you can hear the raw emotion in Fela's voice as he sings Unknown soldier. What am I saying? You can feel it! There is even a part in Unknown soldier when his voice actually cracks like he's trying to repress tears. I love Coffin for head of state though. It has a very tight bassline and when the rhythm guitars kick in, men....he disses Obasanjo ( then Nigerian head of state and current Nigerian President) in the song too. You can't help but enjoy the humor even though he is singing about something so sorrowful.


I would say this is Fela's best piece of work, were it not for C.B.B., a 26-minute lush jewel filled with unusual horn harmonies and haunting rhythms. This is a great example of how Fela was able to threaten and frighten the "government-of-the-week" of Nigeria using only music, and why his music was such a force. I was lucky enough to hang with his band backstage at Kilimanjaro in Washington one night in the 80s, as I was doing some work with the opening band. What a beautiful scene they created, wherever they went. Of all the works listed on Amazon, this is the one to buy, unless C.B.B. appears.


Fela Kuti was more than just a musician, he was a spokesman for the people of his native Nigeria. He brought their concerns to light and gave them a voice on the world stage. "Coffin For The Head Of State" and "Unknown Soldier" are stirring pieces of Afrobeat jazz with intricate arrangements and experimental sounds. But they also provide a scathing commentary on the Nigerian leaders of state. These two songs are compelling on a musical and thought provoking level.

Unknown Soldier (1979)

One of Fela’s response-pieces over the events of the infamous Kalakuta Republic raid, “Unknown Soldier (Parts 1&2)” is Fela’s vivid and chilling description of the events which took place that day. Reports came days after the invasion that the works of “unknown soldiers” were responsible for the raping, beating and torturing those on the premises and throwing Fela’smother out the window. The song, which spans over two album sides and plays over 30 minutes in length, is Fela’s detailed account of all that he witnessed. The A-side is an instrumental Afrobeat groove, while the B-side carries over into Fela’s gruesome and pointed attack against the Nigerian government and their militia attacks on his home. “Unknown Soldier” is one of Fela’s sharpest and brutally honest attacks on the Nigerian ruling class.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu

Coffin For Head of State (1980)

After the sacking and burning of Fela’s Kalakuta Republic in 1977, Fela wrote several musical responses attacking the culpable Nigeria government, including this mournful tribute to his mother. During the raid, Fela’s mother Funmilayo was thrown out of a second story window, sustaining multiple severe injuries. She eventually passed away due to medical complications, and Fela, his wives, and his followers, in a bold act of grief and defiance, carried his mother’s coffin to the front gate of the army barracks, asserting that his dead mother in the coffin should assume the position of president of Nigeria. Musically The song’s slow, steady beat and repetitive structure mimics the march up to the barracks, while the lyrics and tone reflect Fela’s overwhelming sadness over the loss of his mother and the state of his beloved Nigeria. “Coffin For Head of State” is Fela’s somber excoriation of those that, “through Jesus Christ our Lord”, corrupt, steal and rob the African people.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu

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