Nigerian band leader Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who introduced audiences the world over to his high-energy Afrobeat music despite spending much of life imprisoned because of his criticism of Nigerian regimes, died Saturday in Lagos, Nigeria. He was 58.
The cause of death was listed as heart failure caused by AIDS. Fela, known internationally by his first name, had been seriously ill for several weeks, though few details had been released.
With his bands Nigeria 70, Africa 70, Egypt 70 and Egypt 80, he recorded more than 50 albums, many of which featured only two or three lengthy songs apiece. He was equally renown for marathon concerts featuring enormous bands performing music that tapped into traditional Nigerian rhythms along with the funk styles popularized by James Brown in the late ’60s.
His visibility in the U.S. reached its apex in 1988 with the Amnesty Intl. concert at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. He appeared before more than 70,000 fans on a bill with Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, Santana and others.
A saxophone player, Fela was born in 1938 in Abeokuta, about 50 miles north of the capital of Lagos. He started out as a jazz musician but shifted toward pop and reggae while studying at Trinity College of Music in Oxford, England.
He also spent time in Ghana and the U.S., where he developed a strong interest in politics and civil rights. Returning to Nigeria for good in 1973, he swiftly became a big star. In the 1970s, he recorded one of the most significant albums to emerge from Africa, “Zombie,” as well as the popular “Army Arrangement” and “Vagabond in Power.” In 1984, Capitol/EMI issued his groundbreaking “Original Sufferhead.”
Confrontations with military authorities in Nigeria began in 1977 with the burning of his house. He was convicted of illegally exporting foreign currency in 1984 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. A year later, the new military government of Gen. Ibrahim Babangid freed Fela. He most recently was arrested April 9 with about 100 others — including several of his 27 wives — for smoking marijuana at his nightclub north of Lagos.