Unknown Soldier: the dirge that became Fela’s most powerful song

Posted on August 02 2017 , at 09:28 am
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  • As Fela's daughter says on the documentary 'Finding Fela', he probably never got over the death of his mother.

At 31 minutes long, ‘Unknown Soldier‘ is an unapologetically long ballad, one of pain and angst. With good reason too.

In February of 1977, a battalion of soldiers attacked Fela‘s house Kalakuta Republic. He had recently released a scathing record called ‘Zombie’ which pilloried the military government of the day.

It was only a matter of time before it struck back and strike it did: running Kalakuta Republic aground but not before mercilessly beating its occupants – Fela and nearly two hundred other people.

Fela’s mother, the iconic Olufunlayo Ransome-Kuti, 78 years old at the time, was dragged up to the second storey of the house and flung out from a window. She didn’t die immediately; she nursed the injuries for a year before she passed away.

As Fela’s daughter says on the documentary Finding Fela, he probably never got over the death of his mother. The two shared a bond, no less strengthened by their innate stubborn nature.

Mrs Ransome-Kuti was an activist who fought for women rights in the 40’s and 50’s. A striking character; she was boisterous, fearless and unyielding – a trait Fela picked up and completely personified.

Her death sent Fela into a deep sadness, one that many believe he did not escape until his own death nineteen years later. It is believed that his search for his mother, who was his closest confidant formed the basis of his music and his life by extension. He delved into African mythology all in a bid to find his dearly departed mother.

But nowhere than on ‘Unknown Soldier’ was his grief more evident. The raw pain in his voice as he sang about the killing of his mother is infectious and when his voice breaks, the listener might gasp as well.

Recorded in 1979 and released two years later, Unknown Soldier gives a window to Fela’s tortured soul- one invisible under the stoic facade with which the man hid his pain.

The song was a dirge no doubt and its detailed recount of the day’s event makes it still poignant today, forty years after.

 

One thousand soldiers them dey come…

People dey wonder, dey wonder, dey wonder
One more time: people dey wonder, dey wonder, dey wonder

Stevie Wonder dey there too
Na one week after FESTAC too
And dey broadcast on American satellite
Around that time too now, I say to you

Where these one thousand soldiers them dey go?
Look o
Na Fela house Kalakuta
Them don reach the place, them dey wait
Them dey wait for…
Order!’

He continues describing the event and his voice broke as he sang about his dearly beloved mother.

 

Them dey break, yes
Them dey steal, yes
Them dey loot, yes
Them dey fuck some of the women by force, yes
Them dey rape, yes
Them dey burn, yes
Them dey burn, yes
Them dey burn, yes
Them commot one student’s eye, yes
Them break some some head
Them break some some head

Them throw my mama
Seventy-eight-year-old mama

Political mama
Ideological mama
Influential mama…

Them throw my mama out from window
Them kill my mama
Them kill my mama
Them kill my mama
Them kill my mama
Them kill my mama…’

Of course Fela released several albums after that. But for a man as ostensibly strong as he was, singing out of this raw, uninhibited emotion was the most powerful thing he did.

Grief could be overwhelming and it one could say for sure that it did overwhelm Fela on ‘Unknown Soldier’. His body was broken but he then took on an anger, a passion that was twice the spirit he had before his mother’s death. There was a shift in his ideology too which became more pronounced with his Egypt 80 band.

After the Unknown Soldier, Fela went on to release almost twenty more albums- no less piercing than the previous ones. But there is no doubt that his resolve was emboldened further by the tragic loss of his mother. Listen to the record: it is very clear why Fela never held back for the rest of his life.

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