Nov 30, 2011

Fela Kuti - Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (1980)

During the latter half of the 1980s, Fela Anikulapo Kuti's international star waned a little, as Congolese rumba and Malian desert blues became the new world music flavors of the moment. And in 2010, even a portion of the Afrobeat audience tends to underestimate Kuti's later work. But 1986's Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense, along with albums such as Beasts Of No Nation (Kalakuta, 1989) and Underground System (Kalakuta, 1992), demonstrates that Kuti's genius never left him, and that Egypt 80 was as limber and hard-hitting a band as its predecessor, Afrika 70.

Kuti only infrequently employed outside producers on his albums. Sometimes the results were good: British dub master Dennis Bovell's Live In Amsterdam (Polygram, 1983) and the ex-Cream drummer, Ginger Baker's psychedelia tinged He Miss Road (EMI, 1975). On another occasion it was spectacularly bad: Bill Laswell's extensive remix and overdubbing of Army Arrangement (Celluloid, 1985), done while Kuti was in jail in 1984 on trumped up currency smuggling charges. Listening to it was "worse than being in prison," Kuti said.

Best of them all was Wally Badarou's Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense. It adopted a markedly different aesthetic to the one Kuti typically used, and it was a triumph. The album was recorded shortly after Kuti had been released from jail, where he'd served 20 months on the smuggling charges (son Femi had kept Egypt 80 rehearsed during the incarceration).

Badarou's production is richer and more burnished than was the norm for Kuti. Indeed, it's almost orchestral. The sound is smoother, the beat more chilled, and the arrangement denser, with layers of keyboards, a serpentine horn chart, and the backup choir placed well forward in the mix. In the lyric for the title track, Kuti tells the oyinbos (white men) to stop foisting sham versions of democracy on Africa, allowing "democratic" rulers to line their own pockets at the expense of the people, just so long as foreign-owned multi-nationals are permitted to strip the continent of its natural resources for a pittance. This isn't democracy, says Kuti, it's "demo-crazy." Give us back our traditional rulers, he says, they are infinitely preferable.

Ironically—and probably unknown to Kuti at the time this album was recorded—Badarou was during the mid 1980s sometimes engaged as a keyboard player on Laswell's productions (saxophonist Manu Dibango's 1985 Celluloid album, Electric Africa, was outstanding). But Badarou's modus operandi was eons away from Laswell's heavy handed approach. Years later, explaining how to produce Kuti, he said, "You don't. You keep the tape running, you have a second machine standing by, you make him feel comfortable, and you are wholly transparent throughout the process. Fela knew very little of me—I can't recall ever being formally introduced—and I clearly felt his reluctance to the having a 'producer' on board....But Fela loved the sound." Indeed, Kuti told Badarou, "You know how to mix my music, man"—a real compliment from an artist who always knew exactly how he wanted his music to be presented on disc.

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I saw Fela Kuti live. It was in 1989, toward the end of his career (his final studio album, Underground System, was released in 1992, and he died in 1997), at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. The show was astonishing. Obviously, it was over 20 years ago, so my memories are blurry and impressionistic at this point, but I remember a staggering number of musicians and dancers on the stage, all being conducted by this one shirtless, made-up, strutting man, who barked out lyrics and occasionally played long, honking saxophone solos. The music poured out and into the night sky, flowing and seemingly endless. Fela was known for never playing a “greatest hits” set; his songs tended to be nearly a half-hour long anyhow, but he never played anything he’d already recorded. When you saw him live, you were guaranteed to hear something you couldn’t get on an album, at least not yet. Once he laid something to tape, it was retired.

I wasn’t at all familiar with his music at the time I saw the show. I knew he had dozens of albums, but they weren’t available on CD, and I’d only heard one—this one. I’d bought it after reading a review of one of his New York concerts in Rolling Stone, and even though I knew about the lengthy live jams, I was still somewhat astonished to see that the cassette only had one song per side. I played it over and over that summer and for a couple of years after, though eventually it got purged, along with most of my other cassettes. Now it’s been reissued, along with all of Fela’s other albums, on CD and MP3.

I’ve heard almost all of Fela’s discography at this point—not just the albums, each one monumental in its own way, albeit with some clear masterpieces (“Zombie,” “Gentleman,” “Roforofo Fight”) standing out from the pack—but also early singles and shorter tracks that crop up on all the compilations of Nigerian music that have been released in recent years. Most of his albums have a raw, rattletrap quality, the intricate polyrhythms and strutting horn charts recorded under relatively primitive conditions, the arrangements loose and choosing immediacy over sterile perfection. Calling Fela “the James Brown of Africa” is not only reductive, it’s actually kind of insulting to both men, glossing over each one’s individual strengths. That said, a lot of Fela’s studio albums from the 1970s all the way up to the early 1980s remind me of the work Brown did with the JBs on albums like Sex Machine and Hot Pants in 1969 and 1970, and the 1971 live album Love Power Peace. The aggression is the same, the determination to get the message out no matter what, to lecture the audience directly and let the driving funk carry it home.

This album, though, was made in 1986, and had a real producer—Wally Badarou, an Island Records-affiliated keyboardist and composer from Benin who played on Grace Jones‘s Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life albums when she recorded at Compass Point Studios in Jamaica, in addition to working with Talking Heads (on Speaking in Tongues and Naked), Robert Palmer and the Power Station, and many, many others. Badarou brings a polish to the music and the arrangements that vaults Fela’s music into a higher tax bracket, sonically speaking. The guitars and bass are rich and full; the drums, while sounding mechanistic at times, are slippery and hypnotic; the horns punch at the air. Fela himself sounds at ease, like he’s recording in a real studio instead of a tin-roofed shack with military police battering at the door, and yet his call-and-response exchanges with his female backup singers have a vibrancy that’s utterly infectious, especially during the passage midway through the title track where he commands them to sing back the phrases he plays on the saxophone.

The second track, “Look and Laugh,” is slower to get rolling, setting up a jazz-funk groove that almost has the lilting feel of Nigeria’s other primary musical export, juju, and letting it simmer. Hot trumpets blare atop the keyboards, and the rhythm gradually picks up speed and gathers force until Fela launches a biting tenor saxophone solo (it starts in Dexter Gordon territory, but heads Archie Shepp-ward before it’s over) at around the eight-minute mark, with the other horns commenting behind him. There’s a Herbie Hancock-esque keyboard solo after that, then more sax, and only then, about 13 minutes in, does the vocal section of the song begin. The track continues to simmer as Fela talks about how long it’s been since he wrote a new song, but eventually he begins to comment about how, as the track title indicates, he just watches the way people act and laughs. The track ends with Fela and the whole band laughing loud and long.

This reissue contains a bonus track, the 22-minute, politically engaged “Just Like That.” It’s as polished as the original album cuts, but nowhere nearly as relaxed, lyrically speaking (Fela talks about his memories of Nigeria’s civil war, and much more), and it’s a great addition to the disc. Almost the entire Fela catalog is worth hearing, but this album has special resonance for me, as it was my entry point.

Phil Freeman


With production help from Wally Badarou, Fela Anikulapo Kuti offers up an interesting mix of songs (well, two to be exact) in both vocal and instrumental versions. Most compelling is the track "Look and Laugh," which details the attack by Nigerian soldiers on his Kalakuta compound. With simple lyrics, Fela runs down the horror of that attack in a detached, almost journalistic manner: "Till dem come/burn my house/burn my house/all my property/burn burn dem/beat beat me/kill my mama." Badarou's production help gives Fela his most full-bodied sound; the horn section is much hotter and brassier than ever before. The problem with this record is that with following an instrumental track with a vocal version of the same song, there's a certain lack of drama that blunts the impact of songs as powerful as "Look and Laugh." That said, this is very good mid-'80s Fela. The 2001 reissue on MCA adds a 22-minute bonus track, "Just Like That," which was originally released on 1989's Beast of No Nation album.

John Dougan

Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (1980)

Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense
Fela explains the role of the teacher in any society with the concept that: all the things we consider as problems, and all the good things we accept from life as good, begin with what we are taught. The individual teaching begins with when we are children – our mother is our teacher. When we come of school age, our teacher is the school-teacher. At the university, the lecturers and professors are our teachers. After university—when we start to work, government becomes the individual’s teacher. When then is government’s teacher? ‘Culture and Tradition’ says Fela. This is the order of things everywhere in the world. However, it is the problem side of teacher and student that interests Fela in this song. Because every country in this world except in Africa, it is the respective culture and tradition of that country that guides the government on how to rule their people. Going for specifics, Fela mentions France, Germany, England, Korea, Japan, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Etc., it is the culture of these countries that shapes and guides their respective government’s decisions. The culture and traditions of these countries serve as a teacher to their respective governments. Turing his attention to Africa and her problems. Problems which he had sang about: corruption, inflation, mismanagement, authority stealing, electoral fraud, the latest addition which even makes him laugh is –austerity. Fela says if you ask him why ‘austerity makes him laugh? The answer is that it is beyond crying. The government steals money from the country, the same government is introducing austerity measures—forcing the poor people to pay for their own greed and calling it ‘austerity measures’. How funny if to say the least. Who taught African ‘leaders’ to rule the way they do today? ‘Na the oyinbo’ (meaning in Yoruba language: ‘it is them white folks’) referring to ex-colonial ruler of each country. Take electoral fraud, which is a true test of our democracy. Many African leaders rig elections with impunity and their respective ex-colonial rulers say nothing against this form of ‘democracy’. While the same ‘white folks’ are quick to claim credit for Africa’s ‘civilization’—which Fela disputes in this song. Is this democracy? , he asks. Turning to other problems like the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor. Particularly, since the rich are the rules, and also the people stealing the country into poverty. Is this democracy? Or dem-all-crazy? In conclusion, as an African personality, Fela says he is not in the same league as those who believe in dem-all-crazy, so he calls on the Western powers who claim to be Africa’s teachers not to teach him nonsense—Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense.

Look and Laugh
By 1981 when Fela wrote and started to perform live the song Look And Laugh, he was living a life that could be described as a recluse. Fela, who loved to go out in public places, clubs, etc. Suddenly, was always found sleeping or playing sax at home with women around him, or performing at the Africa Shrine. His old attitude of keeping abreast of events, giving lectures at universities and institutions of higher learning stopped. He rarely gave press conferences or press releases, like he used to do. Finally he wrote the song to explain what was going-on with him. He sang: ‘…many of you go dey wonder why your man never write new song! wetin I dey do be say…I dey look and laugh.’ Meaning: …many of you must have been wondering why, your man has not written new songs!…what I am doing is just look and laugh! Fela went on to explain his contributions and sacrifices for the cause of black emancipation, the countless beatings and arrests from the Nigerian police and army, his trials and tribulations, his ultimate sacrifice being the burning down of Kalakuta by the Nigeria army. But despite his sacrifices and sufferings like millions of other Africans, it was obvious that things were not getting better for the average man on the street. There is still injustice everywhere, no freedom, no happiness. All these made him feel disillusioned and all he could do about the situation is to Look and Laugh.

Just Like That
This song is a call to arms from Fela to all Africans to rise up and do something about the political, economic, social and cultural retrogression that has plagued Africa since independence. For more than three decades of independence, there is glaring mismanagement of people’s lives, corruption in the highest echelon of government—all these carried out with impunity—‘Just Like That’ he sings. Using the Nigerian experience as an example of the ‘lack of maintenance culture’, in Africa’s present day neo-colonial administrations, he says: ‘White man ruled us for many years, we had electricity constantly, our leaders take over! No electricity in town—Just like that!’ Fela explains that the attempt to transplant ‘Western style democracy’ in an African society is the cause of all the problems. Despite calls for African Unity from leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, who said: ‘..Until all foreign institutions and culture are removed from the African land, that is when the African genius will be born and African personality will find its fulfillment..’. Instead of heeding Nkrumah’s call, Nigeria’s political founding fathers, like most African leaders at independence, chose the option of fashioning the constitutions of their respective countries after those of the departing colonial ‘masters’—Just Like That. The ambiguity of such decisions can be seen in the poor imitation we make of our attempt at ‘Western style democracy’. Persistent political gangsterism, military coups, and sometimes wars, are means used to enforce the already compromised constitutions. As another example of enforcing a fragile constitution, Fela stresses the face that in 1966, Nigeria for a civil war to keep the country ONE. General Gowon, the military head of state, divided Nigeria into twelve administrative regions, subsequent administrations divided the regions into more—Just Like That. He adds that if the idea of the civil war was to keep the country ONE, sub-dividing Nigeria into more regions would separate rather than unite the country. Turning to the position of traditional rulers in the mess called government, Fela sings: ‘…nothing good for town to give the youths good examples, how our traditional ruler they do, them come make youths look-up to Europe and USA, in those places them don lose them common sense, na the number of Nuclear weapons you get, na him give you power pass! Right now! Fight now! Suffer must stop! Just Like That”. Therefore, calling on the people to fight now for a better society.

Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu


1. Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense
2. Look and Laugh
3. Just Like That

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