When Afrobeat Legend Fela Kuti Collaborated with Cream Drummer Ginger Baker

At the end of the 60s, super­star drum­mer and angri­est man in rock Gin­ger Bak­er was on the verge of col­lapse. Strung out on hero­in, deeply griev­ing Jimi Hendrix’s death, and alien­at­ed from his for­mer Cream and Blind Faith band­mates, he need­ed a new direc­tion. He found it in Nige­ria, where he decamped after dri­ving a Range Rover from Alge­ria across the Sahara Desert. (A mad­cap adven­ture cap­tured in the 1971 doc­u­men­tary Gin­ger Bak­er in Africa). Once in Lagos, Bak­er start­ed jam­ming with Afrobeat leg­end Fela Kuti.

The meet­ing of these two musi­cal forces of nature pro­duced a suite of record­ings. “Baker’s drum­ming appeared on sev­er­al albums along­side the Niger­ian king of afrobeat,” writes Okay Africa, “includ­ing Why Black Man Dey Suf­fer (1971), Live! (1972) and Stratavar­i­ous (1972).”

Kuti’s long­time drum­mer and arranger—and inven­tor of the “afrobeat”—Tony Allen was high­ly impressed with Bak­er’s range, and Nige­ri­ans, as Jay Bul­ger writes at Rolling Stone, loved him.

Arriv­ing in Lagos, Nige­ria, Bak­er set up west Africa’s first 16-track record­ing stu­dio and formed a life­long friend­ship with Afrobeat star Fela Kuti. Per­form­ing with the musi­cal icon for crowds of 150,000, Bak­er became famous through­out Nige­ria as the “Oyin­bo” (White) Drum­mer. “If Gin­ger wants to play jazz, he plays jazz,” says the Niger­ian drum­mer Tony Allen. “If he wants to play rock, he starts Cream. If he wants to play Afrobeat, he moves to Nige­ria. What­ev­er he plays, he brings his own pulse and sound. He under­stands the African beat more than any oth­er West­ern­er.”

High praise, but Bak­er didn’t seek the spot­light, his enor­mous ego off­stage notwith­stand­ing. He trained and he learned. Always a col­lab­o­ra­tive play­er, by his own descrip­tion, Bak­er adapt­ed him­self to the needs of the music. In Kuti’s band, he found a well-drilled ensem­ble and in Fela him­self, a kin­dred spir­it with a per­son­al­i­ty as grandiose and cap­ti­vat­ing as his own, though Baker’s par­tic­u­lar charms were maybe best appre­ci­at­ed at a dis­tance. Hear the loose, sprawl­ing Live! above, with anno­ta­tions telling the sto­ry of the two leg­ends in brief.

Bak­er and Kuti first met in the ear­ly 60s in Lon­don when Fela stud­ied at Trin­i­ty Col­lege of Music. Once they final­ly con­nect­ed musi­cal­ly, the sound was explo­sive, thanks to Baker’s record­ing stu­dio and Fela’s New Afri­ka Shrine, the per­for­mance space where the live mag­ic hap­pened night after night. Then there are the war stories—not only sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but also the actu­al Niger­ian Army try­ing to shut down Fela’s com­pound, which he called the Kalaku­ta Repub­lic, and which housed his 27 back­up singers and his stu­dio. The band­leader was beat­en and jailed over and over, and the com­mune was final­ly burned to the ground in 1977.

The video above from YouTu­ber Band­splain­ing gives an enter­tain­ing syn­op­sis of the Baker/Fela sto­ry, though beware, as sev­er­al com­menters have point­ed out, it con­tains sev­er­al inac­cu­ra­cies, includ­ing at the out­set the sug­ges­tion that Fela has only recent­ly received wide­spread recog­ni­tion. This, of course, is total­ly false—Latin Amer­i­can musi­cians have cel­e­brat­ed his fusion of African polyrhythms, big band funk, and psy­che­del­ic rock for decades; in Nige­ria and else­where in Africa, Fela was as big a musi­cal god as Clap­ton in Eng­land, as well as a pow­er­ful spir­i­tu­al and polit­i­cal sym­bol of Pan-African social­ism; and in the US and UK, New Wave bands like Talk­ing Heads made entire albums build­ing on Fela’s inspi­ra­tion.

One might think of Baker’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Fela Kuti and the Afri­ka ‘70 as an ear­ly inter­na­tion­al super­group, of the kind that would become com­mon­place in lat­er decades. But Bak­er didn’t use Fela’s music as a back­drop for his own brand. He was thrilled just to be there in the band.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See Why Gin­ger Bak­er (RIP) Was One of the Great­est Drum­mers in Rock & World Music

An Intro­duc­tion to the Life & Music of Fela Kuti: Rad­i­cal Niger­ian Band­leader, Polit­i­cal Hero, and Cre­ator of Afrobeat

Who Are the Best Drum Soloists in Rock? See Leg­endary Per­for­mances by Neil Peart (RIP), John Bon­ham, Kei­th Moon, Ter­ry Bozzio & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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