Fela Anikulapo Kuti was an amazing talent. During his approximately 20 years of active recording, he recorded nearly 50 albums, toured the globe, and single-handedly invented the genre of music known as Afro-Beat. He was also arrested over 200 times, beaten mercilessly, and spent a lot of time behind bars in his homeland of Nigeria.
Fela’s Afro-Beat was a mixture of jazz and funk, with traditional African elements thrown in at times. His songs usually stretched out well over ten minutes, and often filled a whole side of a vinyl LP. Fela’s lyrics were sung in what is known as Pidgin English, which he used so that a large part of the continent could understand what he was saying.
And what Fela had to say got him into a lot of trouble with the authorities. He grew up in the last days of English Colonialism in Nigeria, born to a middle-class family who were somewhat radicalized activists. When Fela traveled with his band to the US for the first time in 1969, he met some members of the Black Panther party. When he was deported soon after, Fela had developed something of a revolutionary spirit himself, and expressed it in his music from then on.
Fela’s Afro-Beat records were immensely popular in his homeland, which is little wonder. His music is fantastic. Many of the songs stretch way out in a groove similar to that of a James Brown or George Clinton. His bands featured up to 30 members onstage, who would take leisurely, and at times incredibly powerful solos throughout the pieces.
Fela’s lyrics were always the main point though. One of his most well-known tracks, “Zombie,” proved to be literally incendiary at one show. “Zombie” opens up with some superb sax from Fela, over a rhythm track as funky as anything Sly Stone ever did. When Fela’s lyrics, which compare the military to zombies, were played at a concert in Nigeria, the place erupted in a riot.
The new, two-disc compilation The Return Of The Black President contains 13 songs, a few of which were edited slightly, for space considerations. There is not a weak track among them. Fela’s band were as tight as any jazz or funk unit have ever been. There is so much joy in this music, it is disconcerting to read about the horrible conditions so much of it was recorded under.
A couple of my personal favorites include the track chosen to open this compilation, “Lady,” and the full 17 minute version of “Army Arrangement (Part 2).”
Knitting Factory Records have fully committed themselves to the music of Fela, and The Return Of The Black President is just the beginning. They now have the rights to all of his work, which will be released on CD and vinyl as well as digitally.
The deluxe edition of Black President includes a DVD titled A Slice Of Fela that is quite interesting. The first segment, “Music Is The Weapon,” is an excerpt from the film of the same name, made in 1982, and features him playing live in his nightclub in Nigeria.
The second segment, “Powershow,” is a furious recording of the band playing that song live at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1978. It is about ten minutes long, and is really something to see.
The third segment, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense,” is excerpted from the BBC program of the same name, from 1984. This is some pretty fascinating material also, as it includes live footage from the Glastonbury Festival, and interviews with Fela.
The final portion of the DVD features interviews with two experts on Fela, Carlos Moore, the biographer who wrote Fela: This Bitch Of A Life, and director Bill T. Jones. As unlikely as it may seem, Jones is bringing Fela and Afro-Beat to Broadway, with a musical simply titled Fela! All of this material is introduced by actor Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Fela in the show.
The Return Of The Black President is an outstanding compilation of some of Fela’s greatest works. But there was so much more to the man’s life than just his music. At one point, he declared his compound in Nigeria a separate state, which resulted in an ambush that nearly killed him, and actually did result in the death of his 82 year-old mother.
In 1978, to commemorate the one year anniversary of this horrible event, Fela married 27 women in a mass wedding. He continued to record, tour, and suffer beatings from the police until the end. Fela passed away from complications of AIDS in 1997, and it was reported that his funeral was attended by over one million people.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti lived an extraordinary life, and The Return Of The Black President is just the first of what looks be an enormous amount of recognition for him. It is a fine place to start, as his mix of soul, funk, and jazz called Afro-Beat is timeless. The deluxe edition of this package, with all the live footage is well worth it, because as amazing as his records are, nothing compares to seeing the man and his band live, in full-flight.