The Music Blog: The Fela you never knew is not who you’d expect


As Afropop and all other African sub-genres continue to battle the generic defination of every African sound as Afrobeats, we are reminded that Fela was inherently so larger than life that easy to attest him as the father of modern African music. During the singer’s extraordinary lifetime, Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Afrobeat, a Jazz upgrade of Ghanian high life became Fela’s medium for music about social justice and all things authentically black and African.

But for many who are unaware of Fela’s beginnings, the late singer started his career primarily doing highlife music. He was the lead singer of a group known as Koola Lobitos. At the tim, most of the music the group made was an epic lossless fusion of highlife, jazz and soul, almost like a stand alone breakdown of the Afrobeat path Fela would take on in the coming years. Koola Lobitos was not only a deviation from Fela’s culturally-sensitive Afrobeats, their style and presentation also had many Westernized influences Fela scrapped from his artistry in his later years. The group even performed dressed in ivy-league college attires complete with suits and side partings in their hair on British talk shows.

It’s nearly impossible to picture the same Fela who had an averse to anything Western until his last days but Kool Lobitos did not only use aesthetics that appealed to a Western audience, the sound was also different. African instruments like Konga drums and the shekere that were later transfered to Fela’s Afrobeat compositions were not a major part of the act. Plus, Fela mostly played the trumpet, in comparison to the saxophone which he picked up when his later reign began.

Thematic narratives, primary language and subject matters of Fela’s Koola Lobitos was also quite disparate from the socio-politically charged Afrobeat. According to Afrobeat historian Chris May “Fela, still singing mainly in Yoruba (with lyrics dealing mainly with family, romantic or moral issues), had yet to adopt the broken English lyrics which would allow his music to be understood throughout Anglophone Africa (an inspired initiative), and Afrobeat’s naggingly mesmeric tenor guitars were also a couple of years off. But the tracks introduce several of the key characteristics of Fela’s mature style of the mid-1970s.”

For the sake of the cultural importance of Fela’s non-political high-life career, it is noteworthy that the world “high life” was coined as a name for white people enjoying African music. Usually, the few bands that existed at the time played for a white majority and anyone in the vicinity of the live show, could be said to be enjoying the “high-life”. There is no doubt that this detail will do very little to dent Fela’s illimitable legacy as a cultural hero. In fact, to a large extent, his reinvention of sound and brand just further highlights another reason why his Fela’s phenomenal career is still referenced by popular culture till date.

You can hear what Fela before Afrobeat sounds like on Highlife Time below

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