Alphabetical Order: Z


Zombie by Fela Kuti. 1976, Polydor Records.

So then, we’ve reached Z. Phew! I’d originally set out to map out all kinds of seminal moments in dance music history, from the first strains of disco to the beginnings of grime, but as the letters rolled round I soon realized that maybe it was too big a project to take on. 26 tracks to sum up over forty years of progressive music is a tall order. In the end, I settled on predominantly looking at the music of the mid to late seventies and early eighties as, for me, it was a golden era of creativity and experimentalism in music production and laid the foundations for what we refer to as dance music today. We’ve touched on detroit techno and chicago house, but focussed much more on disco, boogie and electro. Anyway, it’s been a blast, but all good things must come to an end, and the Alphabet, I can confidently proclaim, ends with Z.  We’re going to bow out with a monster of a track, both sonically and politically, from an absolute giant of modern music – Fela Kuti and perhaps his most incendiary moment – Zombie…..
Fela Kuti was born in 1938 in Nigeria to a protestant minister father and a feminist, anti-colonialist activist mother. At the age of twenty he was sent to London to study medicine but sacked it off when he arrived and instead went to Trinity College of Music to study music, where he promptly went about setting up a band – Koola Lobitos, who’s music was a mix of Jazz and Highlife. He returned to Nigeria in ’63, and trained as a radio producer while remaining active as a musician with Victor Olaiya and his All Star band. 
A couple of years later he went to Ghana to try and become more involved with music and it was here, in Ghana, that things started happening for him. He coined the term ‘Afrobeat’ to describe his music and also discovered the teachings and ideologies of the Black Panthers. Very soon he’d gathered a group of musicians around him and was taking them on tour to the US. They did a few shows and cut a quick session in LA before they were shooed out of the states for not carrying work permits. 
Back in Nigeria at the dawn of the 1970s, Fela’s interest in politics grew and the lyrical content of his music shifted from love and lust to more issue based songwriting and this coincided with him renaming his band The Africa 70 and, more pertinently, setting up a commune – The Kalakuta Republic, which he declared to be independent from Nigeria itself. A bold move, and one which increased the tension between Kuti and the government of the day. As his popularity grew across Africa, the Nigerian government became more and more aggravated and intimidated by his power. Fela’s music became more and more steeped in politics, and the format of the music changed too – tracks becoming longer, stretched out grooves which drew people into a kind of dancing trance, all the time the musicianship of the group and Kuti himself growing, developing and, with this, their power and popularity increasing. The output was extraordinary too, with over twenty albums between 1970 and 1977.
The Nigerian government were increasingly infuriated and more or less went to war with Kuti and his band/followers, raiding the Kalakuta commune consistently and doing their upmost to break up the spirit of togetherness around Fela which they feared so much. In 1976, Fela Kuti and Africa 70 recorded and released Zombie, a two track album (later increased to four tracks) which was a blatant attack on the methods of the Nigerian military, the name zombie a reference to the way the military mindlessly went about doing the governments biding. It was a bold, aggressive move on Kuti’s account, and it enraged the government to such an extent that it lead to 1000 Nigerian soldiers storming the Kalakuta commune in a a savage, brutal attack. They destroyed everything in sight, beat Kuti to within an inch of his life and, most brutally of all, killed Kuti’s mother – throwing her out of a window and to her death. They also destroyed the recording studio he’d set up and all the master tapes and equipment they could find. 
If the Nigerian government thought this would put an end to Fela Kuti, they were very much mistaken – he sent his mothers coffin to the army barracks and immediately penned two pieces of music in response – Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier which directly referenced the atrocity. The track Zombie went on to become an absolutely legendary piece of political music, causing riots in Ghana and beyond and, with it’s intense, twisting poly rhythmic horn-driven groove and call and response lyrics, the track gets aired out today and, depending on the setting and mood, can cause a crowd to kick off even now. It’s political clout is undeniable, but it’s effect on music (both in and beyond Africa) was profound too. It got played in the NY nightclubs of the late 70s that would set the bench mark for modern club culture: here was a twelve minute piece of music that featured out-of-this-world musicianship and the true ‘outsider voice’ that shaped and framed so much of the disco movement. It was perfect for the time and crossed over into all kinds of musical contexts. I’ve heard zombie played at (good) techno nights, in jazz sets, late night disco dives, carnival sound systems, warehouse parties – everywhere. Covers have been penned by Nile Rodgers and Bugz in the Attic, giving it a different, more modern sheen. Again, the original is far superior, and Zombie still stands tall as one of the finest pieces of political dance music ever made, thirty five years on.