My first introduction to the music of Fela Kuti was thanks to a phenomenal release by Brooklyn-based mixtape DJ and hip-hop producer J. Period. In 2009 his collaboration with K’naan, The Messengers, chronicled the music and message of three of history’s most influential musicians – Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan – by fusing it with K’naan’s own story of struggle and perseverance as a Somalian activist and songwriter. Needless to say, the release was powerful on its own as J. Period is a sublime talent at blending the old with the new, but in the case of Fela Kuti it was eye (ear?) opening.
From that moment on, I tried to discover more about Kuti and his music.
Though much (much) later, my experience is perhaps not unlike that of Brian Eno when he first bought Kuti’s Afrodisiac in 1973, as his love for the album found him playing it for Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, which in no small part led to the African music vibe that envelops the band’s Remain in Light, which Eno collaborated on.
However you get there, it seems, once your ears receive the music of Mr. Kuti, there’s a good chance that you’re going to become a fan for life. Eno did, so much so, that he’s gone on to curate vinyl box sets that feature recently reissued Kuti LPs, according to his own selection process. Talk about a fan’s prerogative![Note: This is the third box set released by the Knitting Factory of reissued Fela Kuti albums. The first one was curated by Questlove of the Roots and the second by Ginger Baker of, well, Ginger F’ing Baker (and Cream).]
Box Set 3 draws heavily from Kuti’s releases in the early 1970s. The albums Eno included are:
Generally viewed as the beginning of Kuti’s most prolific period, it also marked a point where he decided against hiring a new saxophone player for his band and instead decided to learn the instrument himself. Gentleman was the first album he was able to play on and lay down his own vision of what the instrument could do in this new style he was creating, namely afrobeat. As it turns out, it could do a lot, as the title track is STELLAR and one of the strongest songs he ever laid down in the studio. As a vision of what was to come, it’s imposing. With this new remaster? It’s revelatory.
Consisting of two 13-minute performances, Shakara contains elements of funk, soul, jazz, blues, and whatever other special ingredients Kuti had blended into his visionary music. “Lady,” performed in English, is a bit rough to western ears, as it pokes fun at “modern” African women for becoming overly westernized. The groove and the beat wash away any uneasiness, though, as it does on the title track, which is a song making fun of braggarts who can’t deliver. Unlike Kuti, who delivers on this album, and then some.
Fela’s London Scene (1972)
After EMI agreed to finance a recording date in London, Kuti cut the five tracks that make up this release at Abbey Road, which perhaps inspired the slightly more jazzy and complex (if that’s possible) sound. Then again, perhaps it was the energy and spirit of former Cream and (at the time) current Blind Faith drummer, Ginger Baker, who plays (though uncredited) on the track “Elbe Mio” but also helped Kuti secure gigs all over the city while there so that the band was hitting the studio in mid-stride and ready to go. Thank goodness that Baker had gotten smitten enough with Kuti’s sound that he’d gone to Lagos to meet and ultimately befriend him.
Afrodisiac might possibly be Kuti’s funkiest album, period; certainly it’s the funkiest in this curated box set. Consisting of early Nigerian 45s Kuti then rerecorded in London, it’s one of his last albums to be sung entirely devoid of even the slightest pidgin English. While it must have been something special to have heard this when it originally was released, the psychedelic swirl of the electric piano truly shines throughout this remaster, as does the powerful male vocal chorus of the tracks. If I was going to point to one album out of all of these to define Mr. Kuti’s “sound” as far as the complete spectrum of what was and what was possible, this would be it.
Kuti’s afrobeat sound may have reached a high water mark here, at least as far as worldwide notice and acclaim are concerned. Zombie, from the first note to the last, shows that Kuti and his amazing band – Tony Allen on drums is … well there are no words – are in full control of this music and have decidedly aimed and fired it for a purpose.
There’s no mistaking Kuti’s view of soldiers in the Nigerian army, as he croons like some feral Frank Sinatra, “Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go/Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop/Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn/Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think.” Considering that the end result was the government destroying his compound, studio, recordings, the club where he regularly performed and during the raid, throwing his mother from a window (she later died from resulting injuries), it was obviously a record that embodied all that he wanted to say and the price he knew he’d have to pay for saying it.
God, what a powerful album – and it sounds STELLAR with this remaster, if you were wondering.
Upside Down (1976)
Out of the seven albums in this set, this one stands out a little from the crowd, as it’s the only one featuring someone else on lead vocals, instead of Kuti himself. Actually, that could probably be said of his entire output, but even without that distinction, Upside Down would be notable for the amazing performance of Sandra Isidore. The power of the music is there, as are the lyrics, but there is something universal and more “human” about hearing these strident emotions coming from a female voice rather than Fela’s usual deep-throated sound. It’s not my favorite of the box set, but in a box full of diamonds it’s hard to nitpick that you don’t like the way this one shines in the sun as opposed to the other one. They’re still all brilliant.
On International Thief Thief (or I.T.T.), which is also a not-so-subtle dig at the African telecommunications company “International Telephone and Telegraph,” the album calls out two central characters as thieves by name, the chairman of that other ITT as well as the president of Decca Records, MKO. As a rallying cry his words and methods were dangerous at best, as Kuti would continue from this point on to be beaten and jailed throughout the remainder of his life. If there was ever an orchestra fueled or at least inspired by anger and rage over obvious injustices, this album clearly shows that Kuti has settled into the position of conductor and was not afraid to swing his baton at any target.
All in all, this box set showed me that while J. Period’s messengers gave me a glimpse of the amazing musical talent that Mr. Kuti was blessed with, Eno has put together a small musical manifesto of what gave Kuti’s heart a reason to keep beating and laying out the percussion to drive him on into action.
After countless listens, I feel as if I both know Kuti more than I ever knew any other African artist before, and also how little I appreciated the struggles and injustices that take place across the world in other people’s hometowns or communities. It takes a strong light to shine down on some of the darkest days in the shadow. Thank god Fela Kuti burned as bright as he did for our awareness.
Needless to say, this is a set worth purchasing if you can manage. If not, I still highly suggest finding the individual albums included, as they are phenomenal, one and all.
P.S. Unfortunately – or fortunately as I’ve have just drooled on them and caressed them into an unplayable status – the copy I was (amazingly!) provided for review were the remastered hi-definition digital files created for the 180-gram pressings of each album. If experience has shown me anything, depending on your stereo setup, the music should be about as good as you’d dream it could be – with perhaps a touch more warmth coming from the vinyl.