A Flood of Fela
by Julio Diaz
Army Arrangement (’85)
Beasts of No Nation/O.D.O.O. (’89-’90)
Everything Scatter/Noise For Vendor Mouth (’75)
Fela with Ginger Baker Live (’71)
Ikoyi Blindness/Kalakuta Show (’76)
J.J.D./Unnecessary Begging (’76-’77)
Koola Lobitos/The ’69 L.A. Sessions (’64-’69)
Live In Amsterdam (’84)
Monkey Banana/Excuse 0 (’75)
Open & Close/Afrodisiac (’71-’73)
Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles (’72)
Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (’86)
Underground System (’92)
Upside Down/Music of Many Colours (’76/’80)
One of the more surprising and welcome reissue campaigns in ages comes from MCA, who last year started sorting out the enormous catalog of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Among the most influential, politically fervent, and prolific world musicians ever, Kuti’s fertile Afro-beat was tremendously popular in his homeland, and gradually started catching on to a larger Western audience before his death in 1997. Twenty of his albums were compiled on ten discs last year, and now, this latest crop of fifteen MORE albums almost completes the project.
Wading through them all is– as you can imagine– a daunting, not to mention time consuming task. Most of Fela’s “songs” run between 15-30 minutes, and consist primarily of call and response vocals over a single repeated riff with intricate accompaniment from his enormous bands, complete with horns and backup singers. On tour, he was known to have an entourage of 80 people. These re-compiled discs typically cram in almost 80 minutes of music– often just three or four tracks–augmented with detailed liner notes and beautifully remastered sound. Fela sings, plays keyboards and sax, but mostly leads the ever-changing band in his distinctive vision of Afro-beat, not dissimilar to an African George Clinton. For those interested in Fela’s history– and it’s a long, fascinating story just waiting for a movie version starring Denzel Washington–there are a few books available. One of which, entitled Fela, Why Blackman Carry Shit, is written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu, who pens most of the detailed track notes to these magnificently assembled reissues.
All the music played by Fela’s bands Afrika ’70, Nigeria ’70, and Egypt ’80 is, like Duke Ellington’s, consistently extraordinary. Even the long tracks–and that’s almost all of them– never seem to overstay their welcome. Inventive, exciting, groundbreaking, and jaw dropping in its flexible groove, Fela attracted astounding musicians, most of whom remain uncredited even on these otherwise well-annotated discs. His own sax lines slither, snake, and lash out with brutal force, but can also steep in their own languid juices. Many of the lyrics are talk/sung in his native Nigerian mixed with some English and are heavily political in nature.
But don’t be dissuaded by that. These are some of the most passionate, soulful, and downright funky sounds you’ll ever hear. Joyous, elaborately arranged, and completely inspired, it’s music you’ll return to often in order to revel in its complexities and let its hypnotic groove wash over you. From the exquisite, meticulously timed backing vocalists, to the spellbinding percussion, to the effortless harmony generated by a band that treats music as a religious/socio-political experience, even those unfamiliar with Fela will be hooked by the intensity exuding from every disc.
Try as I may, it’s impossible to choose favorites. Suffice it to say that if you own none of these, you can start anywhere and work your way through the batch at your leisure. Unless you’re a diehard, you won’t need the entire set, but anyone interested in worldbeat simply cannot be without some Fela in their collection. Those who crave powerful drum work should start with the Ginger Baker disc (hang on for the previously unreleased 17 minute drum duet with the ex-Cream/Blind Faith stickman and Fela percussionist Tony Allen), and those interested in an East meets West summit with fusion soulman/vibes player Roy Ayers will want to pick up Music of Many Colours, which features two 18-minute cuts that slip sensually on a bed of vibraphone, horns and percussion. The ’69 LA Sessions is a new compilation, with six of its tracks not only previously unreleased, but clocking in at a conservative five minutes and less, an anomaly of the artist. Many of these combine two albums consisting of a pair of side long (on vinyl) songs-onto one disc.
The cover art is uniformly hideous. Filled with ragged, ugly, often crass cartoons, cut and paste photo collages, and art direction that looks like it was done in a half-hour by a ten-year-old with blinders on, it’s no wonder these weren’t released by major labels in the States. Fela was so busy making music, he had no time — and certainly no money — to pay a good, or even adequate graphic designer, and it shows. When shrunken down to CD size, the sleeve credits are completely unreadable, even with a magnifying glass. Thankfully, the booklets that are specially composed for this series are classy, informative, and uniform, traits foreign to the original albums’ artwork.
Sure, at first wash, lots of Fela’s music sounds similar; the bubbling beats, repeated riffs, long sax solos, and metronomic percussion is a shared trait of Fela’s style. But similar to reggae, repeated listening reveals nuances and subtleties that expose themselves gradually. Although he recorded over 50 albums, many of which still remain unavailable in America, this series is a historically important and musically vital set of discs that prove how remarkable Fela Kuti was. To paraphrase The New York Times‘ old slogan, you may not need them all, but it’s nice to know they’re all here.