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Fela Anikulapo Kuti; Nigerian Musician

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Nigeria’s maverick musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who popularized the Afro-music beat globally and became a staunch critic of his country’s leaders, has died of AIDS, his elder brother said Sunday.

“The immediate cause of death of Fela was heart failure, but there were many complications arising from the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome,” the brother, Dr. Olikoye Ransome Kuti, told a news conference.

The singer, composer and saxophonist, who was 58 and known to his fans simply as Fela, died Saturday after several weeks of illness.

Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

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His blend of African beats, jazz-influenced horn lines and politicized lyrics created a strong international following. But he had trouble attaining commercial success in the United States, perhaps because of his policy of never performing a song after recording it--a contradiction to the typical pop touring strategy of playing the hits.

He ignored other basic Western pop conventions too: His songs stretched over entire album sides, making them unlikely candidates for substantial radio airplay.

“The drive behind my success has been writing new things all the time. It’s like a challenge, facing the audience with new stuff,” he told The Times in a 1990 interview. “It is important for me to have the music spread, but I will not do it commercially.”

Despite his outrageous lifestyle--openly smoking marijuana, dressing in his underpants and sleeping with many women--Fela was still a legend among his many fans.

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Hundreds of tearful people gathered at “The Shrine,” Fela’s home and club in the Ikeja working-class district of Lagos, the commercial capital, to mourn their idol.

For decades, Fela remained an outspoken critic of the military governments that ruled Nigeria, for which he was detained several times and even imprisoned on a variety of charges.

Earlier this year, he was held by the drugs squad, which said it hoped to reform his character and turn him away from smoking marijuana. The narcotics agents later released him, admitting defeat.

In his last two years, Fela made no effort to oppose military ruler Gen. Sani Abacha, even though one of his brothers, democracy activist Beko Ransome-Kuti, is serving a prison term for involvement in an alleged coup plot.

Fela stayed mostly at his Ikeja home and gave infrequent and usually brief musical performances at the club there.

During his heyday, Fela changed part of the family name from Ransome to Anikulapo, which in his Yoruba language means “one who keeps death in his pouch.”


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