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Good music is good music and while it’s not necessarily what you might think of when you think of Fela Kuti, this release is an amazing document of an artist coming into his own.

Music Review: Fela Ransome Kuti & His Koola Lobitos – ‘Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-1969)’

For a jazz music neophyte, I must confess that the idea of a three-album compilation of early recordings from afrobeat pioneer and musical icon Fela Kuti – born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti – sung to me of the potential glance it might give me into the world of jazz music itself. Born and raised in Louisiana only a few hours drive from New Orleans, my idea of jazz is forever tinged by the beaming smile of Louis Armstrong which regrettably caused me to pigeonhole the genre for much of my life.

Dabbles with Miles Davis and John Coltrane in my twenties have turned into middle-aged quest to simply listen to as much “good” music as I can until my time on earth is done, y’know? Interestingly enough, that quest led me to discover Fela Kuti’s afrobeat sound years ago thanks to a brilliant mixtape by an artist named J.Period. Delving into the impact of three transformative artists, his The Messengers showcased the words and music of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Kuti. Though this is not necessarily a review of that particular work, find it and listen to it. Seriously.

Back to what I was trying to say, however, that particular mixtape introduced me to my first taste of Kuti’s music, and I was hooked. Thanks to my local record store I found some of Fela’s earlier works and a brilliant “Greatest Hits” compilation – not to mention some solid work by his children that continues in the same musical spirit.

Occasionally the mood will strike me – especially during the doldrums of a long work day – to listen to some of Fela’s music that I’ve acquired, but the idea that his sound evolved from roots deep in Cuban music and jazz? While I can acknowledge it now by listening deeper I’ll confess that the correlation wasn’t that apparent to me.

Pressing play on these three albums, however? You can instantly see the ingredients that led to Kuti ultimately becoming one giant gumbo of sound that sprawled so much over genres that it necessitated the creation of its own moniker – afrobeat.

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Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-1969) is a compilation crafted from early studio recordings as well as live performance and plays as if a musical recipe book for the musical food Kuti was cooking up for when his Koola Lobitos band would merge and morph into what he ultimately called African 70. Moving through the three albums, you can hear the different sounds being added into the mix – here’s a little soul for the base, a cup of James Brown for spice and to create a rich body, etc. – so much so that by the time you get to the last album in the set, you’re sampling sounds that could easily have been named afrobeat if only the name had been invented yet. The songs on this release read like a how-to-guide that gives a glimpse of how Kuti arrived at his own musical style and sound.

Well, that and how once again I know so little when I think I know anything at all about music and musical genres. More and more my musical illiteracy pushes me into appreciating jazz all the more, but it is inviting to both the learned and the ignorant.

Good music is good music and while it’s not necessarily what you might think of when you think of Fela Kuti, this release is an amazing document of one artist coming into his own as a performer and figuring out himself and his “sound” – and if that’s not worth a listen then I don’t know what is.

Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul (1963-1969) Tracklist

Disc 1:
1. “Bonfo”
2. “Fere”
3. “Onifere No. 2”
4. “Oyejo”
5. “Oloruka”
6. “Awo”
7. “Great Kids”
8. “Amaechi’s Blues”
9. “Yese”
10. “Egbin”
11. “Orise”
12. “Eke”
13. “V.C. 7”
14. “I Know Your Feeling”

Disc 2:
1. “Signature Tune”
2. “It’s Highlife Time”
3. “Lagos Baby”
4. “Omuti”
5. “Ololufe”
6. “Araba’s Delight”
7. “Wa Dele”
8. “Lai Se”
9. “Mi O Mo”
10. “Obinrin Le”
11. “Omo Ejo”

Disc 3:
1. “Everyday I Got My Blues (Live)”
2. “Moti Gbrokan (Live)”
3. “Waka Waka (Live)”
4. “Ako (Live)”
5. “Ororuka (Live)”
6. “Lai Se (Live)”
7. “Onidodo”
8. “Ajo”
10. “Abiara”
11. “Se E Tun De”
12. “Waka Waka”
13. “My Baby Don Love Me”
14. “Home Cooking”

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