MUSIC Musical genius, human rights activist, cultural legend, African icon — late Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti encompassed multitudes, but to his 1980s-era guitarist Soji Odukogbe, he provided not only inspiration but a way into his music.
"The music was written by Fela, so if you were good enough, you could add to it, and he wouldn't say anything. But if you were not good enough, he'd say, 'This is the line,'" explains Odukogbe, 49, by phone from Berkeley where he now lives. "Afrobeat is a written music — you can't add to it. You can add if you know your instrument, and it's sweet enough, then you can go there."
Fortunately the Lagos, Nigeria, native — who as a child was inspired enough by Fela's hits to take a wood plank, hammer a nail into it, and pretend it was a guitar — was good enough to take his liberties on guitar on legendary Fela albums like Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense, Beasts of No Nation, and Underground System (all Barclay; 1986, 1989, and 1992). "[Fela] was anxious to meet me [after he got out of prison], and when he saw me, he was so happy — he said, 'I have a guitar player that's really good!,'" recalls Odukogbe, who joined Fela's band in '85. "One day I said, 'Fela, I want to take a guitar solo. He only allowed horn and keyboard solos, and he said, 'Yeah, go ahead,' and I blew his mind. He was so proud of me." Odukogbe appears with kindred Fela player Baba Ken Okulolo at a "Fela Kuti Extravaganza" dance party at Cafe Du Nord Jan. 28.
The guitarist played with Fela for five years before deciding to take his chances in the U.S. where a so-called world music movement was catching fire with the success of Nigerian juju master King Sunny Adé, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares (Nonesuch, 1987), and Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical (Luaka Bop, 1990). Now, with publications such as The New York Times trumpeting an "African invasion" in indie rock and a fascination with African music takes hold once more — morphed and bent to new ends by performers ranging from Vampire Weekend to Dirty Projectors to this year's Pazz and Jop poll-topping tUnE-yArDs — the time seems right to revisit Fela's legacy.
Long before African outfits like Tinariwen and Blk Jks threaded rock 'n' roll guitar into indigenous rhythms, and hipster-cred comps such as the Ethiopiques and Congotronics series touched down stateside, Fela was hybridizing jazz and highlife with a potent dose of James Brown-style funk, a black power sensibility (not for nothing did he dub himself the Black President), and a driving thirst for justice, even after being jailed some 200 times, suffering at the hands of soldiers (the wounds Fela revealed when he dropped his trousers in the 1982 documentary Music Is the Weapon are heartbreaking), and undergoing a level of government harassment and abuse that would break most mortals. It all appeared to climax in 1977 after the release of his military-mocking 1977 LP Zombie (Barclay) and the subsequent invasion of his Kalakuta Republic commune by soldiers, which led to the death of his mother and the beating and brutalization of the performer, his family, wives, and friends.