Fela and Afrika 70: Zombie (1977)


The original “F— The Police”.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1977 the government of Nigeria was thick with corrupt brutish thugs, the type who denied civil rights to its populace as a matter of principle. Of the many activists who spoke out against the regime none was more popular than bandleader Fela Kuti, who released numerous top-selling albums criticizing the governments’ wide-ranging incompetence, peaking with the incendiary Zombie.

Over a twelve-minute percolation of tart guitar skanks, brisk funk beats and hard horns bleats, his band Afrika 70 tightly rages through the title track, in a sound Fela dubbed “Afrobeat”. Muscular as a bicep yet deft as a finger, the song pulses large and small, hot and cold, sometimes reducing down to a mere guitar pluck and a shaker that sounds like sizzling rice soup.

The frenetic, danceable humanity of the music sets up the dispassionate precision of Fela’s voice, coolly spitting out his opinion of the puppet-like Nigerian military:

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

Eventually he begins barking orders like a power-drunk drill sergeant:

Quick march/Slow march/Left turn /Right turn
About turn /Double time/Sa-lute /Open your hat
Stand at ease/Fall in/Fall out/Fall down

At twelve minutes long and the entirety of Side One, ”Zombie” is a energetic full-body release of frustration, from the legs to the brain, simultaneously an exhortation and an exorcism.

THE FALLOUT: Due to its relentless negative critique of the current government, a new Fela album would usually result in a police interrogation of his crew, followed by a totally illegal beatdown. With Zombie, however, he had really pissed off the military, who somehow took offense when civilians would continually point at them in the street and shout “Zombie!” As payback for his mockery, over one thousand soldiers stormed his private compound, beat every man, woman and child they could find and burnt his house to the ground, but not before tossing Fela’s mother out the window to her death. (No, that’s not acting like a zombie at all…)

In retaliation he delivered his mother’s coffin to the main army barracks in Lagos, then wrote about the experience in the title song of his subsequent album Coffin for Head of State. Even in mourning, Fela was uncompromising about the nature of right and wrong.

Zombie is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

American musicians, even with their freedom of speech under attack, have it pretty easy, “Cop Killer” got Ice-T dropped from his label, but 15 years later he’s made millions playing a cop on a television. The 15 years following Zombie found Fela surviving additional police beatings, plus a two-year jail sentence on trumped-up currency fraud charges. He consistently put his livelihood and his life on the line with each album, and Zombie was his fearless masterpiece.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Rufus Harley and his electric…bagpipes?