“Do you really want me to tell you what happened to McCartney?” French screenwriter and musician Loulou Dédola, author of the comic, answers ICON on the other end of the line Fela back to Lagos and, above all, an unconditional fan of the Nigerian. The question of the notorious clash between Paul McCartney and Fela Kuti in 1973 amuses him, and he assures that he knows firsthand what happened. Dédola started visiting Lagos in the late 1980s and has been with Kuti and her children ever since. “Actually, McCartney called him and said, ‘Hello, it’s me, Paul McCartney! I would like to do a duet with you. And Fela…” Dédola interrupts the sentence with a laugh. “That Fela… Fela said to him: ‘Who? I don’t know who you are’.

McCartney was in Lagos recording his third album as Paul McCartney & Wings, band on the run, still trying to shake off the weight of being a Beatle. The recording was at least rushed, but the effort was worth it: it was the best-selling album in the United Kingdom in 1974. A success that did not show signs of success when the British arrived in Lagos, where, according to its producers, there was a of the best recording studios of the moment, and discovered that they didn’t even have the necessary material to record a rock album. A small anecdote compared to the popular reception it got in the newspapers: Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat and a pioneer of African music since the 60s, accused him of going to Africa to steal black music.

“I went to Lagos and the first thing that happened to me was that they accused me of stealing music from black people. ‘He came to steal the song!’ So I asked, who said that? It was in the papers… It was Fela, of course. I called him up and said, ‘Hey man, that’s not what I’m here for, I just love African music and I want to recreate that atmosphere,’ McCartney said in an interview recorded in 2013. On several occasions, McCartney, who has always praised the figure and the influence of Kuti, returns to that anecdote, changing some details and showing off his musical genius: he plays from memory what he remembers of his favorite song by Kuti. A chorus he was unable to identify or find later on the recordings.

It is not surprising: live, a song by Fela could last up to half an hour. But McCartney still remembers that rhythm. It is curious that McCartney begins the interview referring (with a reproach?) to the musician as “Fela Ransome Kuti”. Ransome was Fela’s birth surname, which was changed as it was considered colonial heritage, to recover, along with his mother, the local surname of an ancestor: Anikulapo, which means “the one who carries death in his pocket”.

According to Dédola, who has just been to Cartoon Movie in Bordeaux presenting the project to adapt his comic book into an animated film, McCartney took two weeks to locate Kuti and what he really asked was to do a duet with him. “McCartney told him he’d decided to duet with top black musicians, and Kuti kept hesitating: ‘Yeah, great, but I don’t know who you are.’ McCartney, who until then avoided him, had to resort to the old title. “I’m one of the Beatles!” But Kuti was adamant: “Who?” “That was Fela. Some of those who were in charge of that call said that it lasted more than fifteen minutes, that Fela cut off to talk to the women and that it exasperated the Briton, who ended up going into the rag. “This talk is nonsense. You know very well who the Beatles are, they are the most important group in the world! And Kuti hung up on him: “If you haven’t played in Africa, you’re not the most important group in the world”, says Dédola.

The version that reached Dédola, which does not exactly match what was narrated by McCartney, still sounds like Kuti’s character, but the rumor that the ex’s will beatles was playing with the locals reached other ears.

“Paul McCartney was fascinated by Fela but fatally welcomed him. It seems Fela feared that a British musician would appropriate his music or go to Lagos just for the folklore,” Alexandre Girard-Muscagorry, exhibition curator, told ICON. Fela Anikulapo Kuti. afrobeat rebellion, which receives the Philharmonie de Paris until June 11th. This is the first exhibition dedicated to Fela Kuti’s musical and political journey, recovering the material collected by the musician to create Afrobeat in the 1970s and 1980s. “That Fela treated him like that does not mean that McCartney always recognized that Afrobeat was a setback for him, as it was for many Westerners at the time, because it was a sound they had never heard before.”

Detail of the exhibition ‘Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Afrobeat Rebellion’, in Paris.philharmonie de paris

The truth is that, with better or worse footing, that conversation took place but the two geniuses ended up meeting, as attested by a photograph from 1973 in which they appear together. McCartney said that Kuti accepted his invitation to go into the studio and see firsthand that the work they were doing was not theft. “There’s nothing like African music,” he told me. We then became good friends and he invited me to go to Afrika Shrine, his mythical club on the outskirts of Lagos. I had a fantastic night, it was a wild experience. And he played a song that I could never find on the record. But it was very intense, when it ended I was crying”, narrated the Englishman, elevated to the rank of knight by the British queen in 1997. Before this nomination, in 1965, Elizabeth II decorated them with the Order of the British Empire. . John Lennon returned it in 1969 due to the United Kingdom’s involvement in the war between Nigeria and the independent region of Biafra and support for the United States in Vietnam.

political awakening

The Nigerian Civil War, between 1967 and 1970, was the event that led precisely to the birth of the most political Fela Kuti. Until then, this son of a Christian family, wealthy but with an evident political conscience (his mother, Funmilayo, was an activist for the defense of women’s rights), had distinguished himself as a musician with his band Koola Lobitos. In 1963, after studying at Trinity College of Music in London, Kuti recomposed the group with which he played the new genre. high life who had come from Ghana, colored by the jazz he had heard in England and Afro-Caribbean music. But, as African-American activist and musician Sandra Izsadore describes in the documentary Finding Fela, their songs spoke of “soups”. Thus, Koola Lobitos’ tour of the United States was a sovereign failure. The awakening of black consciousness in the United States and movements like the Black Panthers were far from the street chronicles in Fela’s songs.

Izsadore, who was romantically involved with him until arriving in Nigeria and discovering he was already married, ends up calling him a “son of a bitch” in the documentary. The songwriter’s feminist conscience was far from being the “macho” Fela, but the truth is that it was she who put Malcolm X’s autobiography in her hands and it completely changed her life and music. From the Black Panthers he also took the protest gesture with which she entered history, her two fists raised.

British decolonization in the early sixties aroused political, ethnic and religious tensions with Biafra, where the trigger was the struggle for control of the oil that bathed this region. Biafra was blocked and its inhabitants were victims of a famine that killed about three million people in the two and a half years that the conflict lasted.

Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.

The Nigeria that left there grew up in the shadow of oil wells and the corruption of a new political system that became the main theme of their new songs. “Fela wouldn’t need this if it weren’t for what oil has done to the country”, also points out John Darnton, a former correspondent for the newspaper, in the documentary. New York Times in Lagos.

“From his trip to the United States, Fela recovers many elements of black nationalism. And above all an awareness and pride in being black. Then he starts to assert himself and give his music a very political connotation. It not only reaffirms its racial identity, but also connects with Nigeria’s political dysfunction, even reaching the presidential arena in the late 1970s,” says Girard-Muscagorry.

His particular way of challenging the Nigerian regime even led him to create an independent republic in his own home, the self-proclaimed Republic of Kalakuta, on the outskirts of Lagos, where he lived with his family, friends and the 27 ballerinas he decided to marry. . “He said that polygamy was an African tradition and that the values ​​of Christianity had to be rejected and reconnected with African traditions, but from a very reductionist, generalized Africa… Sometimes he took extreme or sexist positions. Fela was very progressive on the political level, affirming democratic values ​​towards the people and against the corruption of the elites, but on gender issues he was much more conservative, fueled by anti-colonial criticism. It is very paradoxical and complex”, tries to decipher the curator of the exhibition about the self-styled black presidentmade in conjunction with one of Kuti’s musical colleagues, Mabinouri Kayode Idowu, and music curator Mathilde Thibault-Starzyk.

In his clubs he not only performed but also criticized the State, the military and foreign powers. An anti-colonial discourse that drew on the Pan-Africanist intellectuals of the time, and which led to an understanding of why, in 1973, Kuti ended up accusing Paul McCartney of cultural appropriation. “The truth”, adds the curator, “is that Fela collaborated with European musicians, toured Europe, his manager in the eighties he was French and open to collaborations. I think it depended on how the subject was approached and the moment.” It is understood that McCartney did not get off on the right foot.

“Attention, McCartney is also a genius of the stature of Fela. You must have heard McCartney play solo piano in any London bar. He is, like Fela, comparable to Mozart or Chopin, but I think Fela misunderstood his intent. Perhaps she sensed that his gesture was a little paternalistic. That’s how I interpret it”, says Dédola. For the French musician, there was no attempt at appropriation. “Let’s be clear, the afrobeat It’s African music, but it’s not black music. It’s played on white instruments, on a white scale, with jazz… I don’t see what McCartney could have done. Fela played with Ginger Baker, a white guy who plays the afrobeat Very well. What mattered to him was reaching as many people as possible.”

The truth is, Paul McCartney talks about Fela Kuti’s influence on his music every chance he gets. He sent a video of a few seconds to the Philharmonie de Paris, a selfies engraving that accompanies the gesture of peace: “Fela is the boss”.

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