“AfroBeat is about social, political and cultural literacy. It confronts the geography of world complacency, greed and fear and calls for a trans-formative insubordination.” – Carlos Moore, author of Fela: This Bitch of a Life
Fela Kuti is making his resurgent presence felt in popular culture today, 13 years after his untimely death. The broadway musical Fela (produced by Will & Jada Pinckett Smith & Jay Z.) was just nominated for 11 Tony awards. A film about his life, directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger) begins production this fall and will be released by Focus Features.
Fela’s pioneering contribution to Afro-beat blended African descendent music from the west (funk, salsa, calypso, reggae) with Juju, highlife, and west African percussive roots, creating a truly pan-African sound which along with his unequivocal political message of strong African identity in the wake of wide-spread disillusionment with neo-colonial rule established him as a heroic figure far beyond his home in Nigeria. He remains a beloved messenger in culturally and politically conscious movements across Europe, Africa and the Americas rooted in the liberation and human rights struggles of the twentieth century. He was also an enigmatic personality filled with contradictions, idiosyncrasies, controversy and magnanimous excess that make him ripe for re-examination through a variety of narrative and biographical mediums.
Knitting Factory Records has released two re-mastered and re-packaged collections of Fela’s musical output during the late 60’s and 70’s. Batch 1, Chop & Quench, is six cds containing the music from the original albums: The ’69 Sessions, Live with Ginger Baker, London Scene, Shakara, Roforofo Fight, Open & Close, Afrodisiac, Gentlemen, and Confusion. Batch 2, Na Poi, is 7 Cds, including music from the original albums: Alagbon Close, Why Black Men Dey Suffer, Expensive Shit, He Miss Road, Monkey Banana, Excuse O, Everything Scatter, Noise For Vendor Mouth, Ikoyi Blindness, Kalakuta Show, JJD, Unnecessary Begging, Yellow Fever, and Na Poi. Each collection is offered in a three-tiered package. The deluxe package includes: immediate download in 320kbps MP3 (plus free Apple Lossless file upgrade), digi-pack Cd’s featuring original artwork, and the biography “Fela: This Bitch of a Life” (with Batch 1) or a first edition Fela sun t-shirt (with Batch 2). The regular packages includes the immediate download and digi-packs featuring original album artwork minus the biography and t-shirt. Finally, they offer both batches as a digital download only.
These collections are satisfying in several different ways. The gratification of downloading this much Fela music was realized moments after I imported it into iTunes and pressed play – knowing that the cd’s with the original artwork of artist Ghariokwu Lemi are on their way leaves me in child-like anticipation each day when our mail carrier arrives. I do not have the originals to compare them to, but the remastered collection sounds clean and even throughout when played in shuffle mode.
The record nerd in me is thrilled to have this comprehensive body of work from such an influential artist and activist. Examination of these collections in chronological order, gives the listener clear insight into the intricate and mulit-layered Afro-beat sound being developed by Fela. Tight, angular horn section lines woven with a relentless rhythmic foundation powered by Tony Allen’s drums and dry, percolating guitar stabs give testament to the catalyzing influence of James Brown but create a uniquely west African flavor of funk. His well-documented political journey through the 60’s & 70’s supports his increasingly militant message, but it is his development of a truly individual, rhythmic and vocal style of saxophone playing that to me best illustrates the confident, sly, dissident, outraged and outrageous aspects of his personality. There is a tremendous amount of music in these collections, but it does not suffer the dilution of its potency through exhaustive presentation. It demands both intensive study and laid-back, bbq-infused enjoyment – many hours of both lie in my future.