It’s hard not to like Fela: ambassador of the people, exposer of corruption, warrior against injustice and inventor of Afrobeat. His method of serving up politically-charged lyrics wrapped in an infectious blend of Jazz, Funk and Hi-Life was pure genius: give the audience an education as well as a tune they can dance to. He was also a master of simile and analogy when it came to his lyrics.
Here, he equates the Nigerian military with the titular zombies: simple-minded, brain-dead and incapable of independent thought: “Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think”. Every suppressive order given (“put am for reverse”), even when it means certain death for others or even themselves, the soldiers comply without question.
On Side 2, entitled Mister Follow Follow, Fela expands on this theme further but without the militaristic analogy. He argues against those who blindly follow the herd without observing their environment, engaging their intelligence and without communication. It sounds very much like a wake-up call to the people of post-colonial Nigeria, calling upon them to recognise the changes colonialism has made to their culture, their language and their country. Very sound advice.
As always, it’s the music that sells the message. If you’re not already familiar with his music, Afrobeat is made up of simple, yet wholesome, ingredients: funky rhythms, call-and-response vocals and full-scale improvisation on saxophone, trumpet and piano; his ever-present drummer, Tony Allen, underpinning everything with dexterity and precision.
When I first heard Zombie, I couldn’t stop playing it. For an album with such a heavy, political message, it’s catchy as hell! While you’re tapping your feet, Fela’s words burrow into your brain. I loved the sax and trumpet solos during the intro that evoked the interplay between Miles Davis and John Coltrane back in the late 50’s, and how Fela’s mockery of the military was done tongue-in-cheek. At just 25 minutes, the album was short enough to play twice in a single lunch hour, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve done so. Is it my favourite Fela album? At the moment, definitely – but I’ve only just scratched the surface of Fela’s works. With the world as it is today, his works are still highly relevant, so time will tell!
The album was a hit amongst the people, but the ruling junta didn’t react quite as favourably. A thousand or so of the titular zombies turned up at Fela’s commune, the Kalakuta Republic, and razed the place to the ground. Fela was severely beaten and almost killed; his mother, Funmilayo – herself a prominent rights activist and educator – was fatally injured.
What happened next is a story for another day.