Omnibus Review: Fela Kuti reissues from Knitting Factory

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[Originally written for the August 2010 edition of Ink19.]

Fela Anikulapo Kuti—Na Poi/Chop ‘N Quench (Knitting Factory Records)

The music of Fela Kuti (1938-1997) sounds like so many things. It sounds like reggae, R&B and mambo; it sounds like Sun Ra, and James Brown; it sounds like disco, and the greatest black-college marching band ever. If ever an artist and a technology seemed almost made for each other, so it was with Fela Kuti and the long-playing stereo record. Such a powerful sound could have never existed otherwise.

The hypnotic swing of his horn arrangements is every bit as characteristic as his approach to rhythm. Fela’s horn section could set a mood in three notes like nothing ever quite could. Under his leadership, Africa 70 was arguably the last truly masterful large organization working in popular music. That is to say, a perfect band with a lot of members—a difficult challenge in terms of both logistics and creativity.

Knitting Factory was hardly the first to repackage segments of Fela’s output; several key titles were reissued by Rykodisc, among others. These 13 CDs represent the last 24 of the 45 albums licensed to Universal Music Group and, most likely, the last large-scale reissuing of Fela material we’ll see in the US market. There will be occasional releases, and surely a number of gems that remain undigitized at this point, especially from Fela’s first decade as a leader. But unless someone goes crazy and opts to put all this stuff together into one gigantic box set, these will surely be the definitive versions of these recordings for some time.

The “Chop ‘N Quench” package (which includes ten albums recorded in the early ‘70s) starts at $39.99 for the full digital download; $59.99 buys all the digital downloads, plus hard copies of the six CDs. The Deluxe Package ($89.99) includes all that, plus bonuses well worth the extra 30 bucks: a limited-edition screen print of the Best of the Black President album cover, as well as a copy of Carlos Moore’s acclaimed biography, Fela: This Bitch of a Life. Nice, huh? Well, it gets better. The “Na Poi” batch (seven CDs recorded from 1971-77) also downloads digitally for $39.99, with archival copies also available for $20 more; $79.99 gets all that, plus a Fela t-shirt.

So for about $170, you can have all 13 CDs, the poster, the t-shirt and the book. That’s certainly a chunk of change, but entirely reasonable—not much more than a high-end jazz box set, and less than the cost of a night out on Broadway for two. Heck, the CD’s alone retail for $15 each, so you’d save $25 buying them all at once, with digital downloads to keep the discs pristine, and all the other stuff is a bonus. Given the extreme devotion of Fela fans, this stuff pretty much sells itself. This review touches on some of the highlights, focusing more on the formative early years, but since many titles must go unmentioned for time/space reasons, here is a full list:

*Batch 1 (“Chop ‘N Quench”): 1) Koola Lobitos (1969)/The ’69 L.A. Sessions (1969); 2) Live With Ginger Baker (1971); 3) London Scene (1970)/Shakara (1972); 4) Open & Close (1971)/Afrodisiac (1973); 5) Roforofo Fight (1972) 6) Gentleman (1973)/Confusion (1975)

*Batch 2 (“Na Poi Batch”): 1) Alagbon Close (1974)/Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971); 2) Expensive Shit (1975)/He Miss Road (1975); 3) Everything Scatter (1975) /Noise For Vendor Mouth (1975); 4) Monkey Banana (1975)/Excuse O (1975); 5) Ikoyi Blindness (1976)/Kalakuta Show (1976); 6) Yellow Fever (1976)/Na Poi (1976); 7) J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop) (1977)/Unnecessary Begging (1976)

Fela’s march to musical immortality has taken major steps forward in just the past year. He was one of three music legends featured in The Messengers project, a series of three EPs issued simultaneously by the Somali-American rapper K’Naan and J. Period, a Brooklyn DJ who constructed beats from the original tracks. The other “messengers” (in the sense of being musical prophets) were Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, and while those EPs are plenty nice, the project peaks with the Fela stuff, while overall it marks its creators’ highest-profile achievement yet.

Fela has also been recently paired with another dearly departed master: erstwhile “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, whose suspicious death in June 2009 crashed several major websites, blew up every search engine and social media tool, and precipitated a complete sell-out of all of his recordings on Amazon and iTunes. Another fascinating subset of this phenomenon has been the explosion of MJ mashups and related remix projects, of which The King Meets the President in Africa is the most recent, most intensive and probably most successful so far.

The website is as ambiguous as the album is hot. Like The Messengers, the mashup is offered up for free download, eliminating what would have otherwise been an impossible set of legal issues. While going to the trouble of setting up the site, which includes extensive documentation of the source material, and even a promo for a forthcoming t-shirt, there is nothing on the site (or anywhere else on the web) that gives any indication of who actually made the thing—which is a shame, because they should be acknowledged for doing such a good job!

And, of course, there’s the musical. With big-time backing from co-producers Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Jay-Z, “Fela!” went from being a hit on the indie theatre scene to a Broadway sensation in a year flat. “Fela!” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning three: Best Choreography, Best Costume Design and Best Sound Design. The soundtrack album has also been recently released by Knitting Factory, with much of the music provided ably by Antibalas, widely viewed as the finest among the new generation of Afrobeat musicians inspired by the Africa 70.

Its runaway success has led to some speculation the project will be adapted for the screen; if so, that would almost fulfill Fela’s vision for a film outlining both his music and philosophy. Those plans ended when his footage was destroyed during the central event of Fela’s life, touched on in the musical: In 1977, his compound was besieged by hundreds of Nigerian soldiers whipped into a homicidal frenzy by his breakout anti-military record “Zombie”. Fela’s mother, herself a pioneering feminist of post-war Africa, was defenestrated—thrown out of a window—and killed, and her son’s visceral rage became a  factor in most of his subsequent work.

Fela’s formula for success was solid: an infectious backbeat punctuated by tight brass, with the leader’s saxophone out front. His lyrics were witty, profane and almost lethally incisive, sung usually in English for maximum global impact. One could just as easily ignore the politics of his message, treating the words as just another layer of sound, but in doing so one runs the risk of missing what made Fela’s music so special: it was the sound of a revolution that never quite happened, at least not exactly as he’d wished. His was one of the most important voices articulating the conditions of people living under a military dictatorship in Nigeria funded and back by Shell Oil. 

Recorded in 1968 and 69, Koola Lobitos/The ’69 L.A. Sessions represent some of the oldest Fela stuff on-record, and it makes an ideal starting point for neophytes. Koola Lobitos was the band’s original name; it would be soon changed to Nigeria 70, later Africa 70. Koola Lobitos is Fela’s sound at its purest, before much of the sadness, anger and despair that colored a lot of his later work; you can hear it, from track to track, as Highlife becomes Afrobeat. The songs are also all relatively short. Highlights include “Omuti Tide”, “Laise Lairo”, “Witchcraft”, and the scorching “Wayo” (version 1). A song like “Obe” stands as one of the earliest examples of what Fela’s experimentation would ultimately yield. (You could then add Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles, or the Best of the Black President comp, to hear what the band became.)

Fela got some of his first major rub in the west from former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Among that wave of excellent drummers to emerge from the British Invasion—Ringo, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell and the singular John Bonham—Baker’s name is not as well-known to current audiences, but his is a legacy of power and finesse rarely equaled at the drum set. Live With Ginger Baker (1971) starts fittingly with “Let’s Start”, maybe the most-sampled Fela tracks; it opens the Messengers, and there’s also a version online with mashed-up vocals by Wale and Dorrough.

The album’s highlight, and really a signpost in the whole Afrobeat story, is the drum battle between Baker (who checks in for the second half of the concert) and native son Tony Allen—a true summit of styles running over 16 minutes. It was actually recorded in 1978, and added to later reissues. To hear Baker, a notorious adept of Buddy Rich, digging deep into his bag of tricks for some Gene Krupa phrases in the sixth minute is a special treat, not least because Krupa was a major early influence on Allen. It’s not so much a competition as an exhibition, an intense-but-friendly jam among peers. When they cut loose and really get engaged, the resulting complex polyrhythms call to mind Art Blakey, and especially Elvin Jones.

Shakara/London Scene (1972) has a noticeably dark vibe—grimy, almost menacing. If some Fela albums are really just about having a good time, this most certainly is not. While not overtly political in content, it carries an air of danger throughout. Maybe Fela, in Britain, was able to relax a bit, take brief distance from the lethality of the politics of Nigeria and blow off some steam. The horns carry the day, like high-beams punching through the London fog; note the four-note theme that punctuates the title track. “Who’re You” (also sampled for the Messengers) has some nice keyboard work, too. “Buy Africa” (also mashed-up online, with Dorrough vox) is a signature piece.

Most of the Fela albums recorded in the 1970s have certain standard features. They usually have two tracks, one on each side, sometimes two on Side B. The albums are usually named after its first track, which tends to stick pretty up-tempo, whereas the B-sides are decidedly slower, more reflective in tone, almost dub-like. (It begs the question of how a man like Lee Perry or Rudy Van Gelder might record such a group.) It’s like each of these songs (and, thus the albums) are self-contained orchestral works themselves. The familiar Tony Allen rhythms permeate all.

The set should appeal to Fela completists, whose efforts to fill out their collection probably stalled out years ago. Of course, with this much material being released at once, not all of it is going to be the most awesome stuff ever. Nothing is actually bad, but some of it feels like going through the emotions. For example, Confusion/Gentleman (1975) is nothing special until the last track, a little gem called “Igbe”. (Extensive insight can also be gleaned from Albert Oikelome’s excellent “Stylistic Analysis of Afrobeat Music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti“.)

It’s still not entirely clear exactly how many records were released in Fela’s lifetime, and some were sparsely distributed. On Ebay, vintage Fela LPs are selling now for up to $500. Fela had the ability to record basically whenever he wanted, with facilities on hand and most of his key personnel pretty close. The situation is somewhat similar to another esoteric-leaning big-bandleader whose preexisting global influence exploded after dying in the mid-‘90s—Sun Ra. (Incidentally, a well-worn copy of his Arkestra’s debut LP tops $1,300 on Ebay.) More casual fans, the types who have just recently discovered Fela through the musical, are in for a time-consuming treat, picking and choosing individual selections starting with those mentioned above.

Fela himself would surely be pleased to see the exponential growth of his posthumous reputation. It is a fitting postscript to a life marred by violence and ended prematurely by complications of AIDS. In life, Fela had dozens of wives, hundreds of lovers, thousands of devoted fans and probably an equal number of enemies. Now, 30 years after his creative peak, his fans number in the millions, while most of his enemies have either died or been imprisoned for their crimes. He never lived to see the end of the regime he hated so much, but he did live to know that a) its days were numbered, and b) his music helped make it happen. When the day of true freedom and real democracy in Nigeria finally comes, it will stand as tribute not only to him, but to all his friends and family who suffered and died to make it happen. And after a new government is sworn in, people will play “Zombie”, loud, and laugh.

sdh666@hotmail.com; July 1, 2010

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3 responses »

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