A few years back, a musical about a pot-smoking, rabble-rousing Nigerian political activist somehow became one of the most unexpected successes that the Broadway musical scene's ever witnessed. But, when you listen to music of the late Fela Kuti, that success seems a lot less unlikely.
Almost always referred to by his first name only, Fela led a larger-than-life existence—marriage to more than two dozen of back-up singers, clashes with the military and political powers-that-be—that bubbled up through his discography. Each song Fela recorded was epic, clocking in at 10, 20 sometimes even 30 minutes. Rather than bore listeners, though, tracks like "ODOO" or "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" mix up different elements like 1950s/1960s jazz-inflected stylings, the 1960s/1970s funk that was happening as Fela started making his name and traditional African rhythms and instrumentation. This fusion became a style called Afrobeat and its combination of rock-solid groove and in-the-moment improvisation creates awesome, nigh-irresistible dance music.
However, just as important as the energy and wit of the music is the fiery political rhetoric that served as Fela's lyrics. Which brings us to "Zombie." The unthinking undead referred to in the title aren't creatures from a George Romero movie. Fela's singing about the foot soldiers who propped up the military strongmen and corrupt politicians who profited from Nigeria's oil riches, accusing them of having "no brain, no job, no sense" in their mindless following of orders. The track above was recorded and performed just as the world's attention was turning to post-colonial Africa. Fela could've made a song that was insincere cheerleading and no doubt made a name for himself and lots of money to boot. The fact that he didn't—and that the song brought down the brutal fist of the Nigerian government—is only one of the reasons that his music's so incredible.