Roadrunner Records - Slipknot's hard-hitting, aggressive metal anthems are getting…
- Posted on Apr 24th 2007 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
So just who is this Fela fella?
Well, it's who was Fela Anikulapo Kuti, since he died of complications from AIDS in 1997 at age 58 as the unquestionable king of Nigerian music. His series of bands (Africa 70, Egypt 80) repatriated James Brown's funk to its African origins as the genre known as Afrobeat, and he defiantly sang and spoke out against a Nigerian government that treated him as a legitimate threat, as well as about the perceived capitulation of some Africans to western culture. For the rest of the story, it's hard to know where even to start.
Even if one was to separate fact from myth, most likely an impossible task, Charles Dickens, Cecil B. DeMille and Steven Spielberg together couldn't capture the epic. (His life did inspire some scholarly analysis, though, as in the intriguing paper found here.)
There were his 27 wives (mostly dancers from his band, married en masse as an act of tribal defiance), his massive rural compound (which was attacked in a gun battle by soldiers in 1977 during which he incurred a fractured skill and his 82-year-old mother received fatal injuries when thrown from a second-story window), the Nigerian political party he founded, and his arrest and imprisonment on apparently trumped-up currency violation charges in 1983 on the eve of what would have been a highly visible U.S. tour, which led to a 10-year prison sentence (though he was released thanks to Amnesty International in 1985).
So let's just focus on his albums -- though to choose a starting point is maddeningly elusive, as Fela had far more albums than even wives, most of which featured side-long tracks of sinuous grooves where he worked his electric piano, accented by punchy horn charts and stern vocal chants. The All Music Guide lists nearly 60!
Universal Music launched a definitive reissue series in 2000, pairing up albums on two-fer CDs that covered the crucial parts of the catalog, yet that still comes to more than two dozen discs. Perhaps a good entree to his sound is the pairing of the 1977 albums 'Shuffering and Shmiling' with 'No Agreement,' the former attacking religious imperialism (his father, by the way, was an Anglican priest), the latter (with avant-garde American trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago on board) a pledge of communal unity. Or another set of mid-'70s high points, 'Confusion' coupled with 'Gentlemen,' the former a single 25-minute excursion that rivals the avant-jazz of Sun Ra, the latter a forceful berating of Africans whom he saw as having lost their African spirit. And how can you resist a title like '"Expensive S---,' a 1975 album reissued together with 'He Miss Road' from the same year. The first features 'Water No Get Enemy,' one of Fela's most affecting and hard-to-pin pieces, and 'Road' was produced by Cream drummer Ginger Baker, who was a regular at recording sessions held in the then-Nigerian capital of Lagos. This set is nothing short of hypnotizing.
And that only covers a three-year period. Really, you can hardly go wrong with any of the reissues. If one pulls you in, you'll certainly want more. That's how it was with Fela. Seeing him live, even on a 1990 U.S. tour as his public life wound down and some moments had a going-through-the-motions taint, was a transforming experience. Imagine what it was like in the all-night performances back home in his heyday!
You can currently see his son Femi Kuti, who has carried on in the family business, accompanied by some of his father's musicians. Femi, when not reaching out to the hip-hop world, is continuing and updating the Fela traditions, singing out against social ills prevalent in Africa, such as poverty and AIDS. Of course, as with the children of Bob Marley, the force and fire aren't quite as intense or distinctive, but it's definitely worthy of the family name.
Speaking of Marley comparisons, Fela had neither the inclination nor the instincts to become a radio pop star, like the reggae icon. But the achievements of this self-declared Original Suffer Head and Black President, both musical and social, remain just as imposing.