On this day 28 years ago, Fela Kuti was arrested as he prepared to depart from his native Nigeria for a US tour. The charge was that he was trying to smuggle “foreign currency”, 1500 pounds, (at the time about $2384) out of the country. Roughly about enough to buy his band and entourage a nice dinner. Unfortunately, this was all too common an occurrence in his native land, and Kuti was sentenced to concurrent five year terms, though pressure from Amnesty International saw him released after 20 months. A perfect Fela story emerges from his time spent locked up:
When Kuti was jailed, Army Arrangement was awaiting release by Paris-based Celluloid Records, who had made a deal to rerelease some of his back catalogue along with the new album. Believing, misguidedly, that the tapes needed invasive attention, Celluloid first asked Dennis Bovell to do a remix. Because Bovell was unavailable immediately, Celluloid house producer Bill Laswell was drafted in. Laswell was dismissive of the album, scrubbed all Kuti’s solos, added synthesized percussion, speeded it up and brought in Bernie Worrell and Sly Dunbar to overdub new keyboard and drum parts. Friends smuggled a tape of the Celluloid album into jail for Kuti to hear. “Listening to it was worse than being in prison,” he said later.
This is why Fela is regarded as an international hero. Wrongful imprisonment? No big deal, just a side effect of fighting for justice in your home country for over two and a half decades. If you really wanted to see him suffer, mess with one of his albums. - MO