Review Summary: Zombie is the quintessential Afrobeat recording.
Born to a middle class family in the most southwestern corner of Nigera in 1938, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a musical pioneer that laid the groundwork for, and perfected, Afrobeat. His first foray into music was in 1958, where at the age of 19 he was sent to London to follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers and become a doctor. Upon his arival, he became enamored by the British music scene and enrolled in the Trinity College of Music. There he formed his first band, Koola Lobitos. With Fela at the helm, Koola Lobitos played a rhythmic mix of swinging jazz and groovy funk, later to be bestowed the title of Afrobeat.
As the 60's rolled around Fela took his new Afrobeat sound across the pond. It was at this time where the young Nigerian discovered the blossoming Black Power movement, whose political ideals he would carry with him throughout the rest of his career. In the end of 1969 he was deported back to Nigera due to his political affiliations, and when he returned to his homeland he gathered musicians to form his backing band, dubbed the Afrika 70. Throughout the 1970's Fela's highly politicized recordings drew the ire of the Nigerian government, resulting in dozens of raids on his Kalakuta Republic compound. In 1975, one of these raids resulted became immortalized on his album Expensive Shit
, that tells the story of how the Nigerian military planted marijuana on the band leader, who promptly swallowed the spliff and was then monitored while in prison by a guard waiting for him to let loose a deuce. He walked out of jail two days later after swapping shit
with another inmate.
In 1977, Fela continued with his anti-militaristic message with the scathing Zombie
. Musically, Zombie
is the pinnacle of Afrobeat. Combining traditional african rhythms with bouncy post-bop jazz and the sweaty, down low vibe of American funk, it swings like no other album before it or after. Zombie
's centerpiece is its self titled track. Fela and his Afrika 70 band, led by famed percussionist Tony Allen, have their funkified fusion down to a science. Fela's swingin' sax blends with the African beat of the congas and Tony Allen's kit, getting hips shaking from the moment he puts his lips to the reed. Lyrically, "Zombie" portrays those in the Nigerian army as faceless automatons who have sold their souls for orders. Sung in Pidgin English in order to be accessible to his lower-class fan-base, there is no way Fela's view of the enlisted man could be misinterpreted when he croons, "Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go/ Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop/ Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn/ Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think." He ends the Afrobeat classic by barking out, "Get ready! Halt! Order! Dismiss!" like a drill sergeant as his background singers call back with chants of "Zombie!."
The government's reaction to Zombie
was swift and violent. Troops set his compound ablaze; destroying his music studio, all of his recordings, and the makeshift club at which he regularly performed. Also during the raid, Fela's mother was thrown from a window, and later died of the resulting injuries. Fela continued to stir up controversy with his politcal music and larger than life persona until his death from AIDS in 1997, most notably marrying twenty-seven women, mostly his background singers and dancers, in a massive ceremony in 1982.