Out of Afrika

A new 15-disc retrospective challenges the listener to separate the legend of Fela Kuti from the musician

Fela Kuti is now as much a legend as a man. Not a legend as defined in the puffed-up lexicon of music-biz PR, which deems every journeyman an innovator and every innovator a genius. No, more a legend in the folkloric sense, like John Henry or Stagger Lee--a tangle of actual events, projections of folk desire, and good old exaggeration.

Oh, and before we go too far, did I mention that he is also a musician? Even before the artist's AIDS-related death in 1997, Fela's life threatened to overshadow the power of his music. Maybe that's the regrettable fate a cultural hero has to accept when he insists that his cannabis-fueled harem/nightclub is an independent republic, when he deposits a replica of his mother's coffin at the doorstep of a Nigerian dictator, when he spends his life being marched in and out of jail for antagonizing the government. At the height of his prominence, Fela was a national figure in Nigeria, a chief of outcasts who supported family and friends as well as hangers-on of the usual bohemian mix--radical thinkers and artists scattered amid the hustlers and prostitutes. The music can become a mere appendage to so epic a biography. And yet, the roots of that biography are key to understanding the evolution of his music, almost all of which is now available on CD with the release of a second batch of reissues on MCA.

When Fela Ransome-Kuti arrived in the United States in 1969 he was footloose, 30 years old, and frustrated with how superstardom had evaded him in his native Nigeria. The son of a solidly middle-class Anglican pastor and a noted Nigerian women's rights activist, Fela had been schooled in London already, and felt he knew more of the global musical game than his more successful peers. Fela had recently rechristened his hectic jumble of indigenous and overseas rhythms "Afrobeat"--a snazzier moniker than its previous label, "highlife jazz." (Still, this music was several dollops of hubris and inspiration short of the fully actualized Afrobeat that would win him acclaim in the Seventies). The brassy tumble generated by his band Koola Lobitos remained a loosely stitched patchwork of Latin lilt, American soul, and Nigerian exuberance, too clamorous for the easygoing Lagos audience.

"Human rights are my property/You cannot bribe me with my own property": Fela Kuti
"Human rights are my property/You cannot bribe me with my own property": Fela Kuti

But that didn't mean Fela couldn't be a superstar in America. If the merely "native" styles of fellow Africans Miriam Makeba and Babatunde Olatunji wowed U.S. folk aesthetes, Afrobeat's cosmopolitan melange would surely knock them for a loop. The formerly unavailable first half of Koola Lobitos '64-'68/The '69 L.A. Sessions (MCA), however, makes clear why Afrobeat Version 1.0 fizzled in this hemisphere (to Fela's dismay). The trumpet on "Omuti Tide," which quotes "When the Saints Go Marching In," wouldn't sound out of place on an Elvis soundtrack, and you can practically see Fela popping his fingers with jive glee on "Highlife Time." From the perspective of Sixties America, Fela must have sounded haplessly corny, a provincial boasting of his urbanity, the equivalent of a country dandy showing up in a Chicago poolroom in his finest straw hat and checked suit.

Frustrated and baffled that his innovations sounded like backwater clatter at the height of psychedelia and soul power, Fela immersed himself in black pride and deep funk, in "Mother Popcorn" and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. He renamed his band Afrika 70, and brought Afrobeat Version 2.0 back to the homeland. Forever after, he would re-imagine Africa from an expatriate's standpoint, interpreting it as a lost homeland even though he rarely left. Seeing himself through the eyes of his American brothers, Fela re-created himself as a wily permutation of the natural man they wished to have descended from in their most garish fantasies--regal, virile, antagonistic, autonomous. He would not entertain; he would defy.

While his music developed, his legend eclipsed it. And yet, paradoxically, MCA may have distanced us further from a full appreciation of Fela's oeuvre by re-releasing just about every extraneous note, spare beat, and valiant exhortation the man ever recorded. This summer, the label added fifteen reissues (nine of which compile two previous titles onto a single disc) to the ten they released in the spring of 2000. The collected 982 minutes and 7 seconds of newly available tunes are more than anyone with a steady day job has time to consume--in fact, processing this much music is a steady day job all its own--and making distinctions between that music will be hard going for a neophyte. This daunting abundance of material makes it possible for Afrobeat to be blindly revered rather than reasonably evaluated, and for its legacy to be misconstrued in the process.

 

Fela records may not all sound exactly the same, as skeptics claim they do--but the records sure do dare you to make that accusation. By the mid-Seventies, Afrika 70 had settled upon a fairly fixed formal structure: a few minutes of ruminative noodling on organ or electric piano, followed by the triumphant arrival of amassed horns, from which Fela's tenor sax breaks free to comment upon the riffs. And always, whenever your attention threatens to wander, a mesh of polyrhythm seeps into your body from underneath, buoyed by vamps that expand inexorably for 10, 20, 30 minutes, as bass and congas dip seditiously beneath the steady high-hat of drummer and musical director Tony Allen. Finally, Fela shouts something in pidgin English. His many wives (he had 26 at one point) shout back. The call-and-response continues, with increasing ferocity, the horns responding to his bellow.

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