Fela: Kalakuta Notes

By John Collins. 2015. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 344 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8195-7539-5 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Paul Schauert, Metropolitan State University of Denver

[Review length: 975 words • Review posted on March 9, 2016]

[Cover ofFela: Kalakuta Notes]

Fascination with Fela Kuti, and his music, has exploded exponentially in recent years, despite his passing in 1997. There is no shortage of re-issued albums along with books, films, articles, cover bands, festivals, plays, and even monuments dedicated to commemorating this Nigerian pioneer of Afro-beat. While cataloging and reporting on this legacy, John Collins’s book offers unique and candid perspectives on Fela’s life and musical work. Collins—a scholar, bandleader, musician, archivist, and studio engineer/owner—perhaps best known for his writing on Ghanaian highlife music, here examines the enigmatic and iconic trickster inventor of Afro-beat with stark sincerity, journalistic rigor, and intellectual depth.

This book has several qualities that set it apart from others on the subject. First, this chronicle provides a particularly Ghanaian perspective on the Nigerian superstar; this is not surprising given the author’s background as someone who has lived most of his life in Ghana, and has become a naturalized Ghanaian (despite his British heritage). Second, this portrait draws heavily from Collins’s firsthand experiences with the artist, including anecdotes and extensive journal entries written in the mid-1970s, when Fela was arguably at the apex of his power. Both engaging and informative, these entries are supplemented by numerous transcriptions of interviews conducted by the author over the past several decades. Together these various perspectives weave a raw, intersubjective, diachronic, yet somewhat fragmented, narrative of an artist filled with flaws, eccentricities, contradictions, genius, and wit.

After a spirited forward by scholar and founder of Afropop Worldwide, Banning Eyre, Collins lays out Fela’s personal background, particularly situating it within the history of Ghanaian highlife, which the author knows so well. Although deep historical and social analysis is minimal within this text, Collins initially discusses Fela’s emergence within the context of post-war colonialism and African independence struggles. Chapter 1 begins with the well-known narrative of Fela’s education in England in the late 1950s and his return home in the early 1960s to form his first, modestly successful, highlife band –the Koola Lobitos. Collins continues the story with numerous extensive and insightful interviews that describe personal accounts of Fela’s early days, focusing on the artist’s Ghanaian connections. After ending in the early 1970s, Collins includes the first of many chapters that focuses solely on an interview with an individual who knew Fela well. These interview transcriptions are prefaced with brief biographies of the interviewees; the body of these interviews offers unfiltered access to entertaining and incisive narratives regarding a wide range of topics including Fela’s mother and father; his chance meeting with Chubby Checker; artistic collaborations with Ginger Baker, Paul McCartney, and Hugh Masekela; trouble with authorities; domestic disputes and antics as well as various perspectives on the meaning and impact of Afro-beat itself.

The book’s centerpiece, as indicated by its title, is a series of Collins’s diary entries made while staying at Fela’s Kalakuta Republic compound in 1977 as he participated in Fela’s ill-fated film project, The Black President. These entries give a visceral sense of the frenetic activity within Fela’s camp at the time, detailing the artist’s scuffles with the law, his wives, and his entourage, as well as the somewhat chaotic yet methodical artistic processes of this African genius. Subsequently, the narrative continues with a particular Ghanaian perspective on the aftermath of the film as well as Fela’s late career, imprisonment, and death.

After a few more chapters of interviews with band members and others who were close to Fela, Collins moves to a more musically technical analysis of the artist’s oeuvre. Collins discusses the work of Willie Anku, the late Ghanaian ethno/musicologist and theorist, who particularly applied structural set analysis to Fela’s “Shuffering and Shmiling”; a full musical score and analysis is included as an appendix. Similarly, Collins includes a discussion with Nana Danso, a classically trained composer and conductor who founded the Pan African Orchestra in Ghana. This conversation is highly technical, touching on the polyphony, polyrhythm, auditory illusions, tonal centers, and modal harmony found in Fela’s music.

Chapter 16 oddly backtracks a bit, discussing other early afro-fusion pioneers, such as Nigerians Orlando Julius and Segun Bucknor along with the legendary Ghanaian afro-jazz progenitor Kofi Ghanaba (aka Guy Warren). Similar to previous sections, this discussion includes long passages of the author’s interviews, which are both entertaining and educational. Next, the reader finally hears from Fela himself, in a short interview with the author from 1975. Fela doesn’t reveal too much of himself here, but it is interesting to have others’ perspectives corroborated by the terse, quirky, yet poignant responses by the artist.

The final few chapters of the book deal with Fela’s lasting legacy. Collins describes how Fela lives on in his musical sons Femi and Seun as well as in one of the primary ambassadors for Afro-beat, drummer Tony Allen. The author also explores the continuing musical influence of Fela, briefly examining the major contemporary Afro-beat stars from Africa, Europe, and North America. Collins then quickly returns to an update on, and some plans for, the Black President film footage. The concluding chapter focuses on the “Felabrations” that have taken place since the artist’s passing; Collins particularly examines the ones that occurred in 2013 by offering a play-by-play analysis of the scholarly discussions and performances that took place at the one in Nigeria, which he attended.

Following the main body of the text, the author includes a detailed chronology of Fela’s life, which counteracts the somewhat fragmented nature of the book’s organization. Also of note in the back matter is an annotated discography by historian Ronnie Graham, who offers an analysis of Fela’s lyrical evolution, musical development, and relationships with the record industry.

In all, this book is a must-have for both Fela fans and scholars, offering a treasure trove of amusing anecdotes as well as a myriad of intimate perspectives and analyses of this legendary artist.

Paul Schauert, Detroit Institute of Music Education

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.