Home » Jazz Articles » Fela Kuti: Coffin For Head Of State


Liner Notes

Fela Kuti: Coffin For Head Of State


Sign in to view read count
: Fela Kuti: Coffin For Head Of State
From the late 1970s onward, Fela's lyrics became longer, more complex and ever more confrontational. Coffin For Head Of State, first released on Kalakuta in 1981, is an outstanding example. It is one of several albums on which Fela responded to the Nigerian army's destruction of his Kalakuta Republic compound on 18 February 1977, and focuses particularly on the outrage's contribution to the subsequent death of his mother.

Attacked by an estimated 1,000 soldiers, Kalakuta was burnt to the ground and many of its residents, including Fela, were beaten, raped or otherwise physically abused. Fela's mother, aged 78, a veteran of Nigeria's struggle for independence from British colonial rule and a pioneering campaigner for Nigerian women's rights, was thrown from an upstairs window, fracturing a leg and suffering lasting trauma, contributing to her passing the following year.

The first half of Coffin For Head Of State, however, deals with the harmful impact of Islam and Christianity on African culture. To the backing chorus's response, "waka waka waka" (walk walk walk), Fela says that he has seen the stagnation and corruption both these imported religions have caused during his walks, by which he means travels, around Nigeria.

..."I waka many business anywhere in Africa," sings Fela during the first half of the song, "North and south them get them policies, one Christian and the other one Muslim / Anywhere the Muslims them they reign, na senior Alhaji na him be director / Anywhere the Christians them they reign, na the best friend to Bishop na him be director... These money making organizations them come put we Africans in total confusion..."

The second half of the album describes a more particular, and literal, walk Fela made, accompanied by his family and members of his Young African Pioneers organisation, on 30 September 1979, the day before General Obasanjo stepped down from the Nigerian presidency (for the first time; he later returned to office). Fela held Obasanjo personally responsible for his mother's passing on 13 April 1978, citing the trauma caused by the army's sack of Kalakuta.

Before Obasanjo left office, Fela was determined to castigate him personally for the outrage by depositing a symbolic coffin outside Obasanjo's residence at Dodan army barracks. Outwitting the army's attempt to cordon off the area (Fela had announced his intention to the press days earlier), during which soldiers fired warning shots at his party, Fela succeeded.

Focusing on the Obasanjo regime, Fela sings: "Them steal all the money / Them kill many students, them burn many houses / Them burn my house too, them kill my mama / So I carry the coffin, I waka waka waka / Movement of the People, them waka waka waka / Young African Pioneers, them waka waka waka / We go Obalende, we go Dodan barracks / We reach them gate-o, we put the coffin down / Obasanjo dey there, with him big fat stomach / Yar'Adua dey there, with him neck like ostrich, we put the coffin down / Them no want take am, them no want take am / Who go want take coffin...?"

On leaving the barracks, Fela and his companions were beaten by soldiers, forced into trucks and thrown into jail.

Coffin For Head Of State marked the beginning of Fela's second purple period, a decade-long string of hard-hitting albums, interrupted only by Fela's 1984-5 spell in prison on trumped up currency-smuggling charges.

Liner Notes copyright © 2023 Chris May.

Coffin For Head Of State can be purchased here.

Chris May Contact Chris May at All About Jazz.
Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz and editor of the style magazine Jocks & Nerds; he was previously the editor of Black Music & Jazz Review magazine.

Track Listing

Coffin For Head Of State.


Fela Kuti: saxophone.

Additional Instrumentation

Fela Kuti: vocals, keyboards, tenor saxophone; Egypt 80.

Album information

Title: Coffin For Head Of State | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Partisan / Knitting Factory

Post a comment about this album

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.




Double Portrait
Giuseppe Millaci and the Vogue Trio
Afro Futuristic Dreams
Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids
Pharoah (Box Set)
Pharoah Sanders
Dynamic Maximum Tension
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

On the record

Vibes on a Breath
Ted Piltzecker
Jonathan Karrant
Brazilian Match
Luiz Millan
Double Portrait
Giuseppe Millaci and the Vogue Trio

Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.