Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Fela Kuti

I only recently discovered Fela Kuti when listening to BBC Radio late at night. Brian Eno was raving about Tony Allen, and his drumming in Fela Kuti’s band Africa 70.

You can hear the BBC segment here

I have a lot of respect for Brian Eno’s knowledge and musicianship so I took notice and checked out some CD’s from the library the very next day. And then I listened to nothing but Fela Kuti and Tony Allen for weeks.

With all that Afrobeat in my head, I started wondering what it would sound like if I tried making Afrobeat music. At first I had to laugh, picturing me and my white buddies jamming some of that funky African stuff. But when I really imagined in my head what it would sound like if white people did Afrobeat, it came out sounding like the Talking Heads. Suddenly I thought of Brian Eno (who produced several Talking Heads albums) and it all made sense. Sure enough, I found out that Eno turned the Talking Heads on to Fela Kuti, who became a major influence for early 80’s Talking Heads. You can listen to Eno talk about it
here, in an NPR segment on “Once In a Lifetime.” It was a song pick for their series NPR 100.

I have a lot to say about Fela Kuti’s music but, right now, I don’t even know where to start He’s funky and he jams! I’ll try to edit this when I call articulate better.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938, was a singer-composer, trumpet, sax and keyboard player, bandleader, and politician. Kuti was one of Africa's most controversial musicians and throughout his life he continued to fight for the rights of the common man (and woman) despite vilification, harassment, and even imprisonment by the government of Nigeria.

His bands traditionally included the typical huge line-up consisting of many singers and dancers, numerous saxophonists, trumpeteers, drummers, percussionists, and of course, many guitarists blending African rhythms and jazz horn lines with politicized song lyrics. His music was intricate, rather than calling it Afro-beat you might more arguably consider it Afro-jazz. Entire recordings often consisted of just a few songs and this propensity for jamming set up a roadblock for Fela to attain commercial acceptance in the United States. He also abhored performing a song after recording it, and this led to audience disinterest in the U.S. where the people wanted their music to be recognizable hits. –
African Music Encyclopedia

In 1969, Fela brought Koola Lobitos to Los Angeles to tour and record. They toured America for about eight months using Los Angeles as a home base. It was while in L.A. that Fela hooked up with a friend, Sandra Isidore, who introduced him to the writings and politics of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver (and by extension the Black Panthers), and other proponents of Black nationalism and Afrocentrism. Impressed at what he read, Fela was politically revivified and decided that some changes were in order: first, the name of the band, as Koola Lobitos became Nigeria 70; second, the music would become more politically explicit and critical of the oppression of the powerless worldwide. After a disagreement with an unscrupulous promoter who turned them in to the Immigration and Naturalization Services, Fela and band were charged with working without work permits. Realizing that time was short before they were sent back to Nigeria, they were able to scrape together some money to record some new songs in L.A. What came to be known as the '69 Los Angeles Sessions were remarkable, an indication of a maturing sound and of the raucous, propulsive music that was to mark Fela's career. Afrobeat's combination of blaring horn sections, antiphonal vocals, Fela's quasi-rapping pidgin English, and percolating guitars, all wrapped up in a smoldering groove (in the early days driven by the band's brilliant drummer Tony Allen) that could last nearly an hour, was an intoxicating sound. Once hooked, it was impossible to get enough.

Upon returning to Nigeria, Fela founded a communal compound-cum-recording studio and rehearsal space he called the Kalakuta Republic, and a nightclub, the Shrine. It was during this time that he dropped his given middle name of "Ransome" which he said was a slave name, and took the name "Anikulapo" (meaning "he who carries death in his pouch") . Playing constantly and recording at a ferocious pace, Fela and band (who were now called Africa 70) became huge stars in West Africa. His biggest fan base, however, was Nigeria's poor. Because his music addressed issues important to the Nigerian underclass (specifically a military government that profited from political exploitation and disenfranchisement), Fela was more than a simply a pop star; like Bob Marley in Jamaica, he was the voice of Nigeria's have-nots, a cultural rebel. This was something Nigeria's military junta tried to nip in the bud, and from almost the moment he came back to Nigeria up until his death, Fela was hounded, jailed, harassed, and nearly killed by a government determined to silence him. In one of the most egregious acts of violence committed against him, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers attacked his Kalakuta compound in 1977 (the second government-sanctioned attack). Fela suffered a fractured skull as well as other broken bones; his 82-year old mother was thrown from an upstairs window, inflicting injuries that would later prove fatal. The soldiers set fire to the compound and prevented fire fighters from reaching the area. Fela's recording studio, all his master tapes and musical instruments were destroyed.

Track List
1972 – Roforo Fight 15:41
1972 – Question Jam Answer 13:40
1972 – Go Slow 17:24
1972 – Igbe 8:08
1974 – He Miss Road 10:47
1975 – Confusion 25:37
1975 – Water Get No Enemy 11:00
1975 – Mattress 13:53
1976 – Mr. Grammarticalogylisationalism Is the Boss 16:34
1977 – Dog Eat Dog 15:33
1977 – Equalisation of Trousers and Pants 16:42
1977 – Sorrow, Tears, and Blood 10:15
1977 – Stalemate 12:55
1978 – Mr. Follow Follow 12:56
1980 – V.I.P. parts 1 & 2 20:09
1981 – Original Suffer Head 12:10
1984 – You Give Me Shit I Give You Shit 24:59
1989 – O.D.O.O. (Overtake Don Overtake Overtake) 31:56

Six Degrees of MyPod

Fela Kuti collaborated on the 1980 album
Music Of Many Colors with Roy Ayers, who has a song on the 70’s Funky Soul Pod.

Bernie Worrell played on two of the three tracks on Fela Kuti’s 1985 album
Army Arrangement. Bernie also played with the Talking Heads, including their set at the Heatwave Festival, which is featured on the Talking Heads Live 1980 Pod. That concert was the first with the extended Talking Heads lineup which was the result of Fela Kuti’s influence on the Talking Heads and their producer Brian Eno

Fela Kuti frequently mentioned James Brown (who is on the 70's Funky Soul Pod) as a major influence on his music.


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