We tend to ascribe false divinity to genius. Brilliance isn’t always a rite of passage right out of the womb. The truth is more sinuous. Before he became Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie was Davey Jones, a Marc Bolan manque. Before Hendrix became Hendrix, he spent a half-decade in anonymity, honing his style on the road with the Isley’s and other 60s soul groups. Genius is often something earned, not bestowed. Even Nabokov, arguably the greatest prose stylist of the 20th Century didn’t find the most singular version of his voice until a decade after his first novel. Such is the case with Fela Kuti, maybe my favorite musician of all-time, who took ten long years to forge a unique vision.
One of the most beautiful things about the pre-Internet era is that we didn’t watch artists grow up in the public eye. It allowed them time to practice in seclusion, or more accurately in nightclubs and on tiny labels, cutting acetate 45s and 78s that were rarely heard. The body of Fela’s biography really starts in the Lagos of the early 70s, but the early years show an artist in apprenticeship.
Schooled in London, his first records bear a heavy Highlife influence, you can hear the Iberian-influenced brass of the Congo, you hear jazz, mambo and calypso. A fledgling musician in thrall to the traditional. He had to learn the rules to know how to break them, ultimately conceiving Afro-Beat after hearing James Brown in LA in the late 60s and returning to fuse it with the sounds of his native, Nigeria. Almost everything original comes as a result of happy accidents and synthesis. Fela was no different.
Recorded by Melodisc in the pre-Mod London of 1960, “Fela’s Special” mouldered until its recent excavation. It was one of two tracks recorded by Fela Ransome Kuti and his band, The Highlife Rakers. He had recently ditched pre-Med to make music for a living and struggled to find his way, cutting record after record until he became radical. Soundway Records gets the credit for issuing the find. You can pre-order it now, stream it below. Fela lives forever.
Stream: Fela’s catalogue at Bandcamp: