DAVID BYRNE on Fela Kuti (1999)

DavidByrne

This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), which I was editing at the time, with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia. The piece was accompanied by a set of sidebar interviews and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal [who was finishing his work on the manuscript that would be published as Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon]. The main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick). Main article text is online here: http://www.arthurmag.com/2009/11/02/fela-king-of-the-invisible-art

DAVID BYRNE
by Jay Babcock

David Byrne is a founding member of Talking Heads. When Fela was jailed by the Nigerian government in the mid-’80s, Byrne was one of the well-known American artists who worked with Amnesty International in an attempt to get Fela freed. Today, in addition to his solo career, Byrne runs the New York-based Luaka Bop record label.

Q: You first heard Fela in the ’70s, right?

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FELA: KING OF THE INVISIBLE ART by Jay Babcock (1999)

felasmokes1

This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), which I was editing at the time, with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia. The piece was accompanied by a set of sidebar interviews and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal [who was finishing his work on the manuscript that would be published as Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon]. The main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick).

FELA: King of the Invisible Art
by Jay Babcock

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 77 albums, 27 wives, over 200 court appearances. Harassed, beaten, tortured, jailed. Twice-born father of Afrobeat. Spiritualist. Pan-Africanist. Commune king. Composer, saxophonist, keyboardist, dancer. Would-be candidate for the Nigerian presidency. There will never be another like him. This is the sensational story of Fela, the greatest pop musician of the 20th century, featuring the words of Fela’s friends, fans and the Ebami Eda himself.

“What can I say? I wasn’t Hildegart!”
Fela always knew the power of a name.

If you are African—and especially if you work with music, which shares a link of common invisibility with the spirit world—you must have a spiritually meaningful, beneficial name. Without the correct name, Fela explained, “a child can’t really enter the world of the living.”

He didn’t like the name he was given when he was first born, in 1935: his Nigerian parents had followed a local German missionary’s suggestion. So Fela died and was born a second time, on October 15, 1938; this time his parents called him Fela.

“Bear the name of conquerors?” he asked Carlos Moore, author of Fela: This Bitch of a Life, in 1981. “Or reject this first arrival in the world? The orishas [spirits] they heard me. And they spared me. What can I say? I wasn’t Hildegart! It wasn’t for white man to give me name. So it’s because of a name that I’ve already known death.”

In 1975, at the height of his popularity and power, Fela changed his middle name. “I got rid of ‘Ransome.’ Why was my name ‘Ransome’ in the first place? Me, do I look like Englishman?” Fela’s full name was now Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, which meant in whole, ‘He who emanates greatness, who has control over death and who cannot be killed by man.’

That same year Fela also started to cheekily call himself Black President, eventually releasing an album bearing the same title in the midst of a thwarted campaign. And sometime in 1986, following his release from Nigerian prison after serving 20 months on trumped-up charges, Fela began to call himself the Ebami Eda, which translates roughly as “the weird one,” or more delicately, as “the one touched by divine hand.”

Fela was touched, alright. But he was not only a visionary musician who created a whole new style of music—Afrobeat—and left behind an incomparable body of recorded music. No. Fela also simultaneously spoke truth to power, and then recorded it as a 12-minute dance-funk song, with a title like “Government Chicken Boy” or “Coffin for Head of State.” He endured brutal physical punishment and constant imprisonment. In the end, he died from complications associated with the AIDS virus. His heart was broken: he had sung so much, fought so hard, amassed such popularity, and still, hardly anything changed for the better in his beloved, heart-shaped continent of Africa. So: following is the story of that big generous, humorous, creative, divine heart that Fela had: from its early heartbeats, to Afrobeat, to the beatings it took, to its final, slow heartbreak.

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PDF: Arthur No. 5 (June 2003)

ARTHUR NO. 5 (with David Cross on the cover as crazed jingoist god-blessed S.U.V.-driving soccer mom) IS SOLD OUT.

This was the issue we published back in June 2003 when 90% of the USA was in favor of invading Iraq.

Well Arthur No. 5 is now gone forever, peacenik fanboy.

BUT! you can download the entire issue in PDF (11mb) here:

FILE GONE MISSING

Contents:

Photographer Lauren Klain captures DAVID CROSS on his way to a Clear Channel war rally…

KRISTINE MCKENNA on the Tower of Protest, a Vietnam-era action on Sunset Blvd by celebrated artists. With photos by CHARLES BRITTIN…

Jonathan Shainin speaks with CHRIS HEDGES about the truths not being told about war…

ALAN MOORE comments on what the US and UK governments have been up to lately….

DAVID BYRNE writes about his life during wartime.

Righteous poetry by MICHAEL BROWNSTEIN, CHARLES POTTS and AMY TRUSSELL…

Art and comics by Steve Andersen, Tauno Blisted & Mac McGill, Robbie Conal, John Coulthart, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Bill Griffith, Megan Kelso with Ron Rege, Peter Kuper, David Lasky, Sharon Rudahl, Patti Smith & Jem Cohen, art spiegelman and Carol Swain.

MICHAEL MOORCOCK on the fate of empires

DANIEL PINCHBECK on why he’s glad George Bush is president

Arthur film columnist PAUL CULLUM asks “Is George Bush addicted to cocaine?” as he examines “Horns and Halos,” “Journeys with George,” “Uncle Saddam,” “What I’ve Learned About U.S. Foreign Policy: The War Against the Third World” and “Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election.”

And — the fabulous GLAMericans are spotlit by Steffie Nelson…