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Controversial Kuti : He's Philosopher, Rebel & Passionate Musician

November 12, 1986|DON SNOWDEN

NEW YORK — Fela Anikulapo Kuti will make his first Los Angeles appearance since 1969 at the Olympic Auditorium on Saturday . . . but the performance by the charismatic Nigerian bandleader and his Egypt 80 troupe is actually two years behind schedule.

In 1984, Kuti was preparing to kick off his first U.S. tour in 15 years when he was arrested on currency smuggling charges at the airport in Lagos. The incident was the latest chapter in the Nigerian government's running, sometimes bloody, battle with the politically outspoken musician. Kuti was sentenced to five years in prison.

The conviction sparked an international outcry that mushroomed when Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. Following a coup in Nigeria, Kuti was pardoned by the new regime last April.

"The punishment was bad, but the result was good," Kuti, 47, said here last week, just before the start of his 10-city tour. "I came out much more aggressive in that I have now added time to my weapons. Music is my first weapon and now time is my second weapon."

Clad only in beige bikini briefs, the wiry singer-saxophonist-keyboardist sprawled comfortably across a couch in his Waldorf-Astoria suite and chain-smoked cigarettes.

He often paused to search for the precise word or phrase to convey what he considers the spiritual underpinnings of his music and philosophy.

"I don't complain--I prefer to take these punishments because it gives me a reason to struggle," he said.

"That means what I'm saying has an effect because if the government thought I was not making sense, they would leave me to behave like a madman. They wouldn't worry (enough) to bother me, so the harassment is a positive part of my struggle."

Kuti is an unlikely candidate for the role of political rebel. His mother was the prime mover behind the campaign to give Nigerian women the vote, but music was Kuti's early passion. He studied at the London College of Music and played keyboards and saxophone in various bands in England in the early '60s.

The politicization of his music began after his Nigerian group came to the United States for 10 months in 1969. Sandra Isidore, a Los Angeles member of the militant Black Panthers, introduced him to many of the Pan-African political concepts that have since shaped his musical and lyrical stance.

Kuti returned to Nigeria and formed the Afrika 70 band, a large, trailblazing ensemble that blended traditional African forms, jazz-influenced horn lines and gritty funk grooves with his newly politicized lyrics.

The Afro-beat sound (Kuti has since discarded the term) was an immediate sensation, and many Western observers touted him as the first Third World musician capable of building an international pop audience.

But his records were rarely distributed outside Africa, and Kuti's public derision of official corruption led to frequent--and increasingly violent--run-ins with Nigerian authorities.

In 1977, an estimated 1,000 soldiers and policemen burned his home and severely beat Kuti, raped the women dancers and singers in his group and fatally injured his mother by tossing her from a second-story window, according to news reports.

After a year in exile in Ghana, where he flouted convention by marrying all 27 of his singers and dancers in a single ceremony, Kuti returned to Nigeria to campaign for the Nigerian presidency in 1980 before his candidacy was banned. He still hopes to attain that goal.

"It is part of the confusion of this world that people don't see that artists are the real leaders of society," said Kuti. "There's no reason why people should feel so uncomfortable when a musician wants to be president. Artists should be able to handle affairs of society because they are humane."

Some have questioned whether Kuti himself fits that description of the artist. He has been derided for his political ambitions and branded as an unregenerate sexist. He sparked more controversy by claiming a new spiritual slant in his music was caused by a "visitation" from his mother's spirit.

His musical journey hasn't been any easier. Kuti became a major European concert attraction in the early '80s, but he was unable to capitalize on the American foothold for African music created by King Sunny Ade. Capitol released three of his albums in this country in 1984, but dropped him from the roster shortly after his arrest.

The independent, New York-based Celluloid Records subsequently released additional albums, but Kuti was infuriated during his prison stay when producer Bill Laswell re-mixed and re-recorded portions of his "Army Arrangement" album.

Kuti's concert last weekend at the Felt Forum here was a three-hour-plus affair that confirmed that his incarceration hasn't diminished his force as a performer. An extremely charismatic figure who quickly established an easy rapport with the audience, Kuti directed the 30 musicians and dancers through extended grooves that often reached spectacular, horn-accented peaks.

He plans to hunt for a new American company to release the double album he recently recorded in Paris, but Kuti takes issue with those who characterize him as difficult to deal with.

"I don't want to be adamant sometimes, because people translate negativity to my being adamant about things I want to do," he explained. "They always say, 'Fela doesn't listen to advice.'

"Well, I do, but any time I listen to advice, I get into trouble. I had already canceled my American tour in '84 and after I listened to advice to set it up again . . . I went to prison."

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