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Fela Anikulapo Kuti And Handel: Bed Fellows?

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Fela Anikulapo Kuti and George Frideric Handel might look like strange bedfellows to a careless observer. The one lived in the 20th century and succumbed to a deadly illness in 1997 while the other composed his way off the streets of Hamburg and London, got blind and died on Good Friday in 1759. The one was lionized by British aristocracy and composed for the English royals while the other built the Kalakuta Republic, a commune, a recording studio and home for people connected to his band, from where he belted out harsh criticisms against the military regime in the most populous black nation on earth. But let’s take a curious look at a piece composed by each of these musical giants: Fela’s “Zombie” and Handel’s “Zadok the Priest.”


A startling comparison, one would say. But I am not surprised. Fela Anikulapo Kuti studied music at Trinity College of Music where he could never have evaded Handel no matter how far his interests in jazz could have led him. Apart from the surface comparison of the pieces starting with the letter Z, there is a lot going on beneath. The first, and one of the most striking, is the symphony, which works like a remarkable formula in Fela’s music and is common in Handel’s choral compositions. “Zadok the Priest” has a long symphony that is melodious and feels as if one were climbing a flight of stairs, makes a descent as if one remembers something left behind and goes down to pick them up, and thereafter continues the ascent where a choir at heaven’s gate is waiting to scream. That’s Handel. He’s always dramatic. He craves impact almost all the time. Thanks to learning to play a musical instrument early.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Same as Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Anybody who’s read a bit of Fela or gorged on his music will agree to this: he breathed drama and impact! Was it through his painted face or tight-fitting trousers? Was it through his bare torso or his strutting on stage? Or was it through his drums and brass and guitars and the discordant bacchanal on keyboard? Can we ever forget his female dancers, the painted maidens – or shall we say wives – who swayed their hips this way and that, sweat on their supple skins, belting out repetitive lines into microphones in the typical African call-and-response style?

Fela Anikulapo Kuti Vrs Handel

Handel was no African. Fela Anikulapo Kuti was no European. Where Handel, thanks to his now famous portraits, sat or stood cocooned in aristocratic wig, coat, waistcoat and breeches, Fela bared his torso to free his body and soul because comfort was often alien to him. He wasn’t performing for the bourgeoisie; he was performing against it. And so, like a wrestler or boxer ready to hop into the ring, he pulls off his shirt, wears the saxophone like boxing gloves. He plays his long frothing lament on the sax, without voices, and climbs his own stairs. His stairs are the stairs of the military government in power in Nigeria, notorious for grotesque brutality and mindless obedience to inhumane orders. That’s where he parts ways with Handel.

Fela’s Reality

For Fela, there are no angels singing at heaven’s gate. It is the suffering masses, the poor that are humiliated by years of colonization and miserable independence that wail and writhe. It is the large and malicious boots of the oppressor that is kicking this way and that up there, kicking and crushing. And one can understand why Fela– the King of Afrobeat – is bare chested, railing abuses on the brainless boots that, for a huge chunk of his life, fell heavily on him for daring. 


But beside those, Fela and Handel aren’t too different. Whether it is to sing to waiting angels or to rail against monstrous tyrants, both great musicians loved these two things: drama and impact. And they were so good at deploying them.

This piece was written by Nnamdi Oquike

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