Fela Ransome Kuti & His Highlife Rakers: Fela's First

Chris May By

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Fela Ransome Kuti & His Highlife Rakers: Fela's First
Lost recordings released for the first time!

First, the back story.... In 1958, aged 19, Fela Kuti left the highlife scene in Lagos, Nigeria, where he was on the first steps of a career as a trumpeter, and travelled to London. His mother hoped he would enrol in medical school, as his late father had wished. But Kuti was set on furthering his music studies. Arriving in London, he applied to Trinity College of Music but failed the theory exam. But because of his talent on the trumpet, the college principal waived the rules and admitted him, on the understanding that he would resit the theory paper later. Kuti graduated in 1962 and returned to Nigeria the following year.

Kuti was a diligent student at Trinity, but his after-hours musical education in London's jazz clubs was important too. The drummer Ginger Baker, who lived in Nigeria during the first half of the 1970s, hanging out with Kuti at his club the Africa Shrine and sitting in with his band Africa 70, first met Kuti when the trumpeter jammed with one of the bands Baker played in at the Flamingo jazz club in London's Soho.

In spring 1959, Kuti formed his first group, Fela Ransome Kuti and His Highlife Rakers, a dance band playing a mix of West African highlife and Caribbean calypso spiced with a little jazz. Kuti coined the name with characteristic wit: in the late 1950s he was a playboy leading a happy-go-lucky lifestyle which could be described as "rakish." Kuti did not become politicised until late in the 1960s, when his Afrobeat style began to take shape.

In August 1959, the Highlife Rakers recorded four sides for Melodisc, one of the first British labels to specialise in African and Caribbean music. One single was released: "Aicana" / "Fela's Special." Two other tracks, "Highlife Rakers Calypso No. 1" and "Wa Ba Mi Jo Bosue," have long been known to exist but were never released... until now.

Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, the session tape was gifted by the late Emil Shallit, the founder of Melodisc, to John Jack, the founder of jazz label Cadillac Records. Jack stored the tape in a cupboard, intending to release it one day, but never actually got around to it. After Jack passed in 2017, Cadillac decided to release all four tracks on this 10" vinyl EP.

The music is evocative of its era, a seemingly more innocent age when London's present day multi-cultural make-up began to take shape and African and Caribbean music started to filter into clubland. Kuti sings "Fela's Special," "Aicana" and "Wa Ba Mi Jo Bosue" in Yoruba. "Highlife Rakers Calypso No. 1" is an instrumental. The vibe is sunny and mellow and will still be irresistible on the dancefloor sixty-one years later, once we get back on our collective good-foot.

Track Listing

Side One: Fela’s Special; Aicana. Side Two: Highlife Rakers Calypso No. 1; Wa Ba Mi Jo Bosue.


Fela Kuti: saxophone.

Additional Instrumentation

J.K. Brimah: guitar (probable); Wolo Bucknor: piano (probable). Unknown trumpet, tenor saxophone, bass, percussion.

Album information

Title: Fela's First | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Cadillac Records

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