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Out of Afrika

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

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.

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.  

That's just a rough schematic, of course. Sometimes the horns precede the keyboard, sometimes they dip back into the mix midsong. Sometimes Fela wraps things up within a concise 15 minutes (though rarely within 10). Repetition is essential to the African aesthetic, not to mention the African-American aesthetic. But as any James Brown fan (or Sunny Ade fan, or Franco fan) can tell you, repetition doesn't necessarily mean doing the exact same thing over and over. For Fela, however, repetition often meant just that: deliberately testing an audience's patience with a nuanced fillip tossed out as a temporary reward, deferring the payoff, making you earn your pleasure.

But rather than putting off Westerners in search of primal exoticism, these gruff exhortations and eternal jams have proven just the thing for those who find Congolese rumba too silken or West African griots too alien. Fela sounds suitably African; you'd think James Brown swiped his sense of funk from Fela instead of vice versa. Of course, Fela actually got on the good foot during his trip to the States. By the time of the '69 L.A. Sessions, Brown's open-ended sensibility can be heard in Fela's mix, but the rhythms here still sound a bit humid and wilted. This progression has toned up some by the time of Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa 70 with Ginger Baker--Live! The carefully articulated bassline that underpins "Black Man's Cry" brings a new complexity to the mix. And when the brand-new beat comes courtesy of the former Cream stickman, the dynamics of postcolonial exchange are twisted indeed.

Though many of Fela's early-Seventies experiments are tentative and patchy, Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles is the lively sound of an artist hitting his stride. The solos are staccato alarums, boldly conflating melody and rhythm. The horn assault of "Alu Jon Jonki Jon" is practically as percussive as the congas, while the cowbells that tinkle across "Shenshema" yank delicate melodies out of their rhythmic patterns. Fela's mocking parodies of Nigerian life are often quizzical and humorous, revamping both folk wisdom and local color on the title track, which is about how fighting makes both parties look foolish. "Go Slow" took its name from the storied traffic jams of Lagos, while providing an apt metaphor for emergent Afrobeat. The engine is always running, but the vehicle moves in starts and stops, jostling and jolting the traffic surrounding it. These songs are 12 minutes long because they need to be: There are too many musical elements to cram into less time.

Afrobeat became less hectic as Fela devised the chant-and-rant formula outlined above.

Though most of the choice late-Seventies Fela was reissued in MCA's first batch in spring 2000 (and much of that was excerpted to better effect on the two-disc The Best Best of Fela Kuti), the most consistent mid-period disc is 1978's Zombie. The title track is as effective a piece of music as he devised, as the limiting structure of the call-and-response becomes content as well as form. The lyrics lambaste the blind obedience of soldiers, Fela's lockstep echoing the military discipline of his enemies even as it parodies it. But Zombie also sounds like the end of a cultural moment. Though many lament the dissolution of Afrika 70 at decade's end, the recorded evidence suggests that Fela had pushed that unit as far as it could go. Or, maybe, the band had pushed him as far as he could go.

 

Though Fela never approached the incendiary interplay of musicians that marked his Seventies peak, much of his Eighties work lived up to his boasts of creating a new kind of African composition. The 28-minute title track to Beasts of No Nation is unlike any other piece of music I've heard--and most startlingly, it is unlike any other Fela. A soulful saxophone reverie leads into a quirky organ bump with chirpy chorus, then smoothes back out. Fela sounds bitter and enervated, as if scraping up his last shred of indignation to criticize white politicians in Africa for making false promises: "Human rights are my property/You cannot bribe me with my own property." This is weary but unbeaten protest music. Paired with the career overview "O.D.O.O." (on a disc entitled Beasts of No Nation/O.D.O.O), it generates an autumnal mood. (The remarkable excursions in atonal piano on Underground System, his final album, are also worth checking out).  

And yet, the most accomplished LP of Fela's career won't be officially re-released any time soon. Fela loathed the Bill Laswell mix of Army Arrangement, carried out during Fela's two-year stint in prison for a trumped-up charge of illegal currency exportation. (Officials claimed Fela had failed to claim 1,600 British pounds he was carrying to a U.S. tour.) MCA respectfully gives us the original 30-minute mix: off-key electric piano solos, sour horns, endless vamp and all. The mix that the New York bassist and studio wizard configured--using P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell and all-pro reggae drummer Sly Dunbar--gives shape to the protean funk of Fela's newest band, Egypt 80. It suggests that Fela, like so many great artists, could have used a collaborator.

If I were in the mood to make dubious sociological pronouncements, I'd say that Fela's authoritarian streak as a musician and political celebrity parallels Nigeria's troubled relationship with democracy. Like the oligarchs he challenged and mocked, Fela was impatient with the bureaucracy of collaboration--not for nothing was the bandleader a big fan of Idi Amin, a guy who got things done on his own. And yet, as Army Arrangement suggests, Fela's music could have benefited from a more democratic outlook and from the musical input of others. As The Best Best of Fela Kuti demonstrates by lopping off some solos and shortening some vamps, Fela's music can be packaged more effectively--with more punch to the rhythms, the shouts, and the politics. Too bad the man would never allow this to happen during his lifetime.


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