Monday, March 19, 2012

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: The Best Best of Fela Kuti

Born in 1938 in Nigeria to a minister father and a teacher/political activist mother, Fela Kuti turned to music whereas his three siblings studies medicine.  He lived for periods in London and Los Angeles before returning to his home country and creating a blend of funk,soul, jazz, and traditional Nigerian music, which he called "Afro-Beat."  By the early 1970s, Fela hit on a formula in which albums generally consisted of two side-long tracks that had long instrumental introductions with a tight rhythm over which Fela, on saxophone or keyboards, and other musicians in his "Nigeria 70", later "Africa 70" and "Egypt 80" ensemble played extended solos and vamps.  Vocalising usually involved Fela's chanting and singing of highly politicized lyrics while backup singers followed in a call-and-response mode.

The content of Fela's songs were direct satires on the follies of decades of African colonialism and, while they frequently targeted the colonizers, especially religions like Christianity and Islam, they also attacked Nigeria's military and civilan despots and Westernized Africans, including women who asserted rights that were not traditional in Nigeria or Africa generally.  The relentless funky grooves of the music and the incendiary lyrics became Fela's famed calling card. 

Unfortunately, political and military authorities were enraged by songs like "Zombie," "Sorrow, Tears and Blood," "Coffin for Head of State," and "Army Arrangement," and threw Fela in jail several times and destroyed his self-proclaimed "Kalakuta Republic" commune.  In one instance, his aged mother was tossed through a window and later died from her injuries.  Unbowed, Fela continued to issue his pointed musical jeremiads well into the 1990s.  Developing complications from AIDS, however, the musician died in 1997.  As is so often the case, Fela remained relatively unknown in this country until a musical celebrating his life and music, simple called "Fela" was produced in 2008 and just recently ended a run at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles.

This blogger first heard Fela's music in 1990 with the recently-released recording "ODOO" on Shanachie Records.  Like most of his recordings, there were the two side-long tracks.  The title track, spelled out as "Overtake Don Overtake Overtake" and the other piece "CBB (Confusion Break Bones)" follow the time-honored formula referred to above and the album quickly became a favorite, though Fela's last few years featured very little recording or live performance.  While the running times are 31 and 29 minutes, respectively, the hypnotic rhythms and beats, as well as the exciting extensive soloing are highly effective in mitigating the length.  If a listener has spent time with Indian ragas, classical symphonies, or longer jazz performances, then there should be little problem with Fela's awesome extended Afro-beat pieces.

While devotees would champion the individual albums with their unedited tracks, the two-disc "Best Best of Fela Kuti," issues by Universal in 2000 provides a valuable overview of his career from 1972 to 1989, albeit with edited versions in most cases.  The set is crammed full at 158 minutes and has the virtue of a tracklisting picked by Fela's son Femi, who has had his own notable career.  From "Lady" to "ODOO", the album covers some of the greatest songs in Fela's career. 

Highlights for this listener are "Roforofo Fight," "Zombie," "ITT," "No Agreement," and "Shuffering and Shmiling," though, truthfully, all of the thirteen selections are great and, with two essays and annotations to the pieces in the booklet, "Best Best" provides a solid overview of the career of one of the world's greatest performers. 

Fela Kuti:  The Best Best of Fela Kuti


1.  Lady
2.  Shakara
3.  Gentleman (Edit)
4.  Water No Get Zombie (Edit)
5.  Zombie
6.  Sorrow, Tears and Blood
7.  No Agreement (Part 2)


1.  Roforofo Fight
2.  Shuffering and Shmiling (Part 2)
3.  Coffin for Head of State (Part 2)
4.  ITT (Part 2)
5.  Army Arrangement (Part 2)
6.  ODOO (Edit)

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