Dancing to the sound of Afrobeat in Lagos, Nigeria

To be recognised as the father of a musical style is no small matter. In Lagos, the economic centre of Nigeria, they can boast about it. For this reason, and because the occasion arose, we went to spend a couple of nights at the centre of Afrobeat’s origins in Lagos: the Kalakuta Museum.

Sleeping at the Kalakuta Museum: the home of Afrobeat in Lagos

A day before arriving in Lagos, Alonso informed us that he had managed to book rooms at the Kalakuta Museum. “We’re going to sleep in a museum, what do you say?

I couldn’t imagine what the experience would be like, what kind of accommodation our bones would end up in. I didn’t really know what Kalakuta was or what Lagos was like, a big city that made me a bit lazy. Until we arrived

The Kalakuta Museum is the heart of musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti, better known as Fela Kuti. It was he who coined the term Afrobeat, a musical genre that emerged in the prolific 1970s, in this case in Nigeria.

kalakuta museum of lagos
Kalakuta Museum – Afrobeat in Lagos

Afrobeat is a style that mixes Yoruba music, Ghanaian highlife and funk. Some summarise it as a mixture of jazz and African music. With lots of improvisation, rhythm, repetitive sounds, piano, winds, percussion and bass, it is often played by big bands. In fact, Fela played surrounded by 70 to 80 musicians. His pieces can last up to half an hour.

I said that the Kalakuta Museum is the heart of Fela Kuti, and I mean that both symbolically and physically. His tomb is there (he died in 1997), and the museum is the building in which he lived his last twenty years. Today it has several exhibition halls dedicated to his figure, records and work, and a rehearsal room where the musicians who continue to play Afrobeat in Lagos meet.

There are also five rooms ready to accommodate anyone who wants to sleep there, as well as a restaurant-terrace on the roof. A place as curious as it is interesting, where, by the way, we slept very well.

foyer and lift of the kalakuta museum with images of fela kuti in many colours
Kalakuta Museum Foyer – Afrobeat in Lagos
afrobeat musicians in lagos at the rehearsal room
Kalakuta Museum – Afrobeat rehearsal room in Lagos

The corridors and halls of the Kalakuta Museum appear quiet, somewhat dark and full of photographs of Fela Kuti. Playing in big concerts or in his recording studio. Surrounded by his 27 wives (a symbolic marriage, he said). Smoking weed. Composing. Fela Kuti is everywhere and, somehow, you feel his spirit.

wall full of photos of fela kuti at concerts
Fela Kuti
colourfully painted saxophone and african prints at the kalakuta museum, afrobeat in lagos
Kalakuta Museum – Afrobeat in Lagos

Kalakuta is a word which, according to what we were told there, comes from the name of the cell where he was imprisoned: Calcutta.

The museum is a four-storey building with a courtyard and is located in the Ikeja area, a quiet place with a lot of neighbourhood life, north of the centre of Lagos. It is the same place where Fela Kuti lived since 1977, after the military raided his production company Kalakuta Republic.

Lagos neighbourhood from the terrace of kalakuta museum
Views of Ikeja from the terrace of Kalakuta Museum – Afrobeat in Lagos

The story goes as follows: following the release and success of the album Zombie, which contained a fierce critique of the Nigerian army, the military government went after him in no uncertain terms. In the same year of its release, the police harassed Fela Kuti with raids on his production company and residence, until the final one came. The big raid.

1,000 soldiers entered Kalakuta Republic, breaking down doors and attacking anyone who got in their way. They seriously wounded Kuti and killed his mother by throwing her out of a window. The building was completely destroyed. Thousands of original recordings were lost.

This personality’s bedroom is preserved as it is, as well as the toilet and a room with “relics”: his collection of coloured slippers, some pants, a couple of mannequins with some of his seventies clothes. Here and there, in rooms and corridors, there are phrases in pidgin English (simplified English, created by people whose mother tongue is not English).

fela kuti's coloured shoes, afrobeat in lagos
Fela Kuti’s shoe collection – Afrobeat in Lagos

Fela Kuti, much more than a musician

Fela Kuti’s life is like something out of a movie. This was the first thing I thought of when we went on the guided tour of the Kalakuta Museum, led by a young woman from the centre.

Kuti created the musical structure of Afrobeat, and he was also the ideologue of the political movement surrounding this musical genre. Because yes, as I have already pointed out, we are not only talking about music here. We are also talking about social resistance, class consciousness and the fight against the capitalist powers that are leaving many people in the gutter.

Fela Kuti’s ideology was twinned with Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, whom he visited, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, both socialist and pan-Africanist presidents.

  • His ideal: African unity to bring peace to the continent.
  • Its battle issues: the fight against discrimination and racism, against poverty, in favour of women’s rights, education, the right to decent housing and health care, etc.

Although activism runs in his family, in 1969 he travelled to the United States with his band, where he became acquainted with the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party. This was the starting point for his political commitment. However, the US government deported him precisely for this, so he returned to Nigeria.

We can say that the persecution of Fela Kuti began in the 1970s. When he decided to sing in English so that his lyrics could be understood in as many places as possible. He used to sing in Yoruba, a language that is only spoken in one part of Nigeria.

It was also at this time that he set up his own cooperative music production company: Kalakuta Republic.

afrobeat in lagos: fela kuti playing saxophone on the wall of the kalakuta museum
Fela Kuti – Afrobeat en Lagos

Their popularity grew greatly, and with it their visibility in the eyes of the authorities. The songs were more than uncomfortable, they contained clear and combative messages. They could not be tolerated. They began to persecute him. They accused him of drug trafficking to discredit and prosecute him. Attacking him for his ideas was not such a popular option. He had to testify more than 350 times in his life and was imprisoned four times.

But they did not succeed. They did not silence him.

On the ground floor of the Kalakuta museum, or house of Afrobeat in Lagos, the eloquent covers of their albums are on exhibition. Each one has its own story, a protest, a message against power, machismo and many other problems. Of course there is Zombie, but also other albums and songs such as:

  • Expensive shit (1975): the story goes that the police “planted” marijuana on his clothes to incriminate him, and he ate it. They arrested him and waited for him to defecate in order to analyse the faeces, but Kuti managed to hand over a sample from another prisoner and of course, they found nothing. In response to the police stunt, he released this album.
  • Yellow fever (1976): a song about black women who use skin-lightening creams to get rid of all kinds of skin problems.
  • Beast of No Nation (1989): on this album he harshly attacked the military government of Nigeria, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
album cover single ikoyi blindness de fela kuti
Portada de Ikoyi Blindness, canción sobre las élites nigerianas y su obsesión por el prestigio social.

In Fela Kuti’s discourse, in his way of life, in his response to life… there is political activism.

Political activism begins with the choice of his name. Ransome was his surname on his father’s side, but he decided to give it up as a colonial inheritance and take back his mother’s name: Anikulapo (meaning “the one who carries death in his pocket”).

Fela Kuti never gave up his demands. The son of a feminist and anti-colonialist activist, and of a reverend who was a talented pianist as well as President of the Union of Nigerian Teachers, it can be said that he was inspired by respect for human rights and the need to work for the social struggle.

Kalakuta Republic, by the way, was more than a production company. He declared it a “micro-nation” and lived there with his family and the musicians of his band. Among other initiatives, he opened a free health centre there.

front of the rehearsal room at kalakuta museum in lagos
Kalakuta Museum – Afrobeat in Lagos

One of the most curious chapters in his biography is when, in 1978, he married 27 women. All of them at the same time. He was already officially married to one woman, the mother of his children, but he made this “performance”, according to him, to commemorate the first anniversary of the Kalakuta Republic attack. A few years later, he divorced 20 of these women, most of them singers and dancers. I do not know what happened to the remaining 7 wives. It was a symbolic act that, to our eyes, may seem contradictory to his feminist discourse. But whoever is not free of contradictions, let him cast the first stone.

Shortly after this “great marriage” he founded his own party, called the People’s Movement, with which he ran for the presidency in 1979. This candidacy was rejected, and although he tried again in 1983, he was imprisoned for 20 months the second time. Again for drug trafficking.

Another chapter is the meeting with Paul McCartney. There, in Lagos. The famous Beatle went to Lagos to record his third solo album, and while there he phoned Fela Kuti. Kuti is said to have replied that he didn’t know who Paul was. He told him that with all the intention in the world. He thought McCartney was going to appropriate African sounds and flatly refused to sing with him. However, there is a photo that testifies that they got to know each other in 1973, although no, they didn’t record anything together. And if they did record anything, it may have been lost in the subsequent raid on Kalakuta Republic.

Fela Kuti died in 1997 at the age of 57. The official version is that he had a heart attack due to complications from AIDS, and that he denied that he had the disease because it only affected “whites”, thus refusing medication.

His followers deny this version. They say it is a story told by the authorities to further defenestrate their idol and the message that occupied him all his life. They claim that he simply died of a heart attack as a result of all the mistreatment he suffered in prison and police stations.

Fela Kuti's Tomb
Fela Kuti’s Tomb – Afrobeat in Lagos

Afrobeat in Lagos is not dead

Fela Kuti is dead, but not Afrobeat. Nor his ideas. Two of his sons are also musicians and continue his legacy. Precisely in Lagos there is a concert venue called New Afrika Shrine. It is the successor to the one Kuti opened and called Afrika Shrine.

There, his eldest son Femi Kuti, who started out playing with his father and has been nominated for a Grammy four times, performs every Thursday, Saturday and/or Sunday. We went on a Thursday, but on that very day he had cancelled the concert in protest at the results of the local elections that had just taken place. Afrobeat does not seem to have lost its vindictive character.

Although there was no concert, the place is fantastic. It is a garage-type venue, with a huge, well-equipped stage. Afrobeat and other music is played, the walls are decorated with phrases and paintings of protest, billiards and table football are played, there is an altar dedicated to the Yoruba gods, you can eat and of course drink. We’ll have to go back to see a performance

revolutionary aesthetic mural at the afrika shrine
New Afrika Shrine – Afrobeat in Lagos

Returning to the Kalakuta Museum, there is a rehearsal on Fridays. It is held in an annex building that is decorated with graffiti and Kuti’s image. On the ground floor, in a large room full of instruments, the musicians gather to play. They arrive little by little throughout the morning. They greet us, drink beer, smoke marijuana, and at a certain point they start to play. Their music takes shape, slowly but surely. Here is a short video:

While they play, it’s time to set off for other horizons. The heirs of Afrobeat in Lagos stay there with their routine, which is not routine. Because live music, even more so if it is improvised, is never routine.

It is clear that the spirit of Kuti and Afrobeat lives on, and not only in the graffiti, T-shirts, posters and great phrases on the walls of the New Afrika Shrine.

From Kumakonda it is clear to us that we will return to Nigeria, Lagos and the Kalakuta Museum, if only to see the concert that the election results denied us. .

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