LAGOS (Reuters) - When he was alive, Fela Kuti electrified Nigerians and many music lovers the world over with his hip-shaking and strangely hypnotic blend of jazz, funk and West African folk rhythms.
His legendary sexual exploits with dozens of women, marijuana smoking and fearless critiques of Nigeria’s then corrupt and oppressive military regime only served to heighten the mystique.
This week Nigeria opened a new museum to the King of Afrobeat, at the start of a week-long annual “Felabration” to mark his 74th birthday on Monday, in the commercial hub Lagos.
“Everybody has a piece of Fela in him. He touched everybody,” said the Theo Lawson, the architect who converted Fela’s old family house into the government-funded museum.
The house is also a boutique hotel, with a bar and stage.
“We didn’t want a museum that closes at night and the life source leaves the building,” Lawson explained.
Inside, decorations include brightly colored murals, chic African art, photos from his life and performances, and a wall devoted to the different flamboyant shoes he wore.
His bedroom remains as has been since he died of HIV/AIDS in 1997: a bed, clothes, more shoes, colorful underpants — often they were all he wore. His electric keyboard has been mounted.
The ‘Afrobeat’ sound that Fela Kuti concocted in the 1960s mixes bass groves with jazz organ and traditional West African drumming, punctuated by a cacophony of horns and shrill backing vocals by gyrating women in colorful beads.
It still resonates across Lagos from nightclubs, bars and roadside eateries selling grilled meat.
In the late 1970s Fela became a symbol of the struggle against successive military dictators.
“Fela was frustrated. He came back from America full of ideas of Africanism and African unity, but he was talking to a bunch of military despots who just didn’t listen,” Lawson said.
In 1977 his smash hit “Zombie” infuriated the military by accusing soldiers of being violent, brainless automata. In the same year, around 1,000 soldiers descended on his commune in a rampage in which they burned down the house, cracked his skull and threw his septuagenarian mother out of a window.
Fela’s fondness for smoking massive, cone-shaped marijuana “spliffs” on stage and his rejection of Nigeria’s two monotheistic religions — Christianity and Islam — in favor of traditional Yoruba gods did not endear him to its conservative elites. Neither did the stories of Fela’s 27 wives and his free love sex commune.
Even today, “The Shrine”, a nightclub where his sons Femi and Seun carry on the tradition of working up eclectic crowds into fits of dancing, are considered risqué by many.
“This (museum) is a chance for everyone to see for themselves, not follow the myths that being in Fela’s house meant you’re a hooligan, or a prostitute or all we do is smoke weed,” Seun told Reuters in an interview before the opening.
“I grew up here. This house was a house of education.”
Fela’s sons believe his message — a call to peaceful rebellion against corrupt elites — still resonates.
“Corruption is now like a cancer in our society,” his eldest son Femi said from the museum’s rooftop bar. “Everything will take time. The youth will see this is not the way to go.”
Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks, editing by Paul Casciato