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All the Rage

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Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Coffin for Head of State/Unknown Soldier; Confusion/Gentleman; Expensive Shit/He Miss Road; Opposite People/Sorrow Tears & Blood; Original Sufferhead/I.T.T.; Shakara/London Scene; Shuffering & Shmiling/No Agreement; Stalemate/Fear Not for Man; V.I.P./Authority Stealing; Yellow Fever/Na Poi

(Barclay)

By Michaelangelo Matos

In 1991, when Polygram released Star Time, its four-CD overview of James Brown's career, it both climaxed a resurgence of interest in his work and signaled a new wave. After five years of constant plundering of "Funky Drummer" and "Cold Sweat" by every hip-hop and dance producer in the business--and several rock and pop producers as well--the box was a revelation for those who only knew Brown's work secondhand. It gave the curious the opportunity to get to know the breadth and scope of the man's artistry as well as his "legacy."

Fela Ransome Kuti (later Fela Anikulapo Kuti), the legendary King of Afrobeat and perhaps the single most famous popular musician in all of Africa, hasn't been subject to nearly the degree of sampling as the man to whom he's most frequently compared--though God knows there's plenty there to work with. But what the ongoing string of reissues from his voluminous catalog by the French label Barclay is doing for him is something like what Star Time did for the Godfather of Soul.

Collectively or individually the first ten CDs (each containing two of Fela's 50 or so albums) may be nowhere near as concisely essential as Star Time--how many miracles do you expect in a lifetime?--but they're damn near as epochal. We're talking maybe the most sustained motherlode of titanic funk jams this side of Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton, and Prince, by a figure who looms as large as any of them--and larger if you're talking political relevance.

Though several of Fela's albums--including 1985's Army Arrangement, which as a bonus comes with Bill Laswell's rejected mix of the album, featuring Bernie Worrell and Sly Dunbar; and Zombie (1977), still his most famous album--were reissued shortly after his death from AIDS-related complications in 1997, much of his work remained unavailable until Barclay took up the torch earlier this year. Their project is almost certainly the reissue of the year, and the odd duff track aside, I've got just two complaints: One is that the original albums' often extraordinarily detailed artwork--think Pedro Bell's Funkadelic covers--has been shrunk to CD size. Fortunately the British jazz and dance label Talkin' Loud, which distributes the Barclay reissues in Europe, has also issued a pair of six-LP vinyl box sets containing some of the same albums, for those who crave all the details.

The other is that, according to a publicist for the American arm of Talkin' Loud (which is a subsidiary of Mercury), the CDs won't be available here except as pricey imports in the foreseeable future. "After the [Universal-Polygram] merger, reissues aren't very high on the agenda," she told me. "We're actually lucky we still have a new-artists roster." Longtime fans, of course, will note the irony: Fela, author of the scathing "I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)," from 1980, is now a victim of the machinations of the Western multinationals he used to rail against.

Nearly all of Fela's work addressed current political concerns, but as a result of his outspoken attacks on the Nigerian government, the political became personal. "Sorrow Tears & Blood" (from the 1977 album of the same name) details a military raid of Fela's estate on the outskirts of Lagos, which he'd declared an independent republic; "Unknown Soldier" (from the 1979 album) excoriates the goons who threw Fela's elderly mother, noted feminist and Nigerian independence activist Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, out a second-story window, injuring her fatally. And the cover of Expensive Shit (1975) succinctly explains the title: "The men in uniform alleged I swallowed some quantity of hemp. My shit was sent for lab test. Result negative."

As tempting as it is to label Fela the century's greatest political artist and leave it at that, it wrongly suggests that politics were the only thing his art had going for it. It also suggests that his politics were perfect. In fact the feminist's son was notorious for his view that women should subjugate themselves to men. In 1978 he married 27 women at once, and though he later divorced them, declaring that "no man has the right to own a woman's vagina," for many it was too little too late. And sadly, though his brother Olikoye Ransome Kuti was a onetime official of the World Health Organization, Fela refused to use condoms, declaring them a conspiracy to deprive the black man of pleasure.

But when Fela was on, even his most self-aggrandizing bullshit was outstripped by the blazing indignation at its core, which fed the music far more often than it hindered it--just listen to the way he spits out the title expletive in "Expensive Shit." While giving an album that name in 1975 is an I-don't-give-a-fuck display that a nation of Eminems would be hard pressed to top, the word is given the full weight of Fela's intent--instead of sounding scatological or, you know, transgressive, Fela sounds absolutely incredulous: "Them go use your shit to put you for jail!" That he was able to channel his anger into explosive music is doubly impressive given the personal hell (including beatings, harassment, and several stints in jail, usually on suspicious charges) he endured.

Of course, with a band as tight as his Afrika 70 and arrangements as scorching as the ones he wrote, he could have been singing about the moon in June with a spoon for all it mattered. Despite parallels to the Nigerian highlife music he began his career playing and the pronounced influence of the rock, funk, and jazz he encountered while studying music in London, his music sounds like nothing else, James Brown included.

Where the Godfather would alternate slow-burning grooves like "Ain't It Funky Now" or "Hot Pants" with throat grabbers like "Mother Popcorn" and "Get Up, Get Into It and Get Involved," Fela's songs, which typically ran 15 to 30 minutes apiece, built incrementally. They'd begin with simple, hypnotic patterns--a basic drumbeat, a simple keyboard figure, a circling guitar part, some bass--and climb slowly, almost imperceptibly to a full-scale soundscape of jagged horns, organ, and dense percussion. The tune "Original Sufferhead"--about half of the 1981 LP of the same name--kicks off with a simmering groove, led by R & B organ and almost-highlife horns, that bubbles up, retreats, and rises again over eight exquisite minutes. Then, after Fela takes a ragged but elegant sax solo, he starts in: "Water, light, food, house...

If you dey for Africa where we dey?...Wey the government now?"

The groove ends 21 minutes later, having completely altered whatever environment it's entered.

Fela's most archetypal and most radical work are combined on the Barclay reissue of Confusion and Gentleman, from '75 and '73. Confusion's title (and only) track opens with five minutes of synthesizer and drums that might've escaped from Sun Ra's cosmic laboratory, then segues subtly into 20 minutes of the kind of dreamlike, exploratory jazz-funk groove that Miles Davis flirted with on In a Silent Way, (though Fela's methods--simple electric keyboard licks played for rhythm rather than atmosphere, a driving horn section--are far more straightforward). And the fierce "Gentleman"--which leads with a sax solo that swings at notes, misses wildly, and lands directly on its feet not once but three times--splits the difference between that groove and James Brown at his toughest. It's as delicious as a ripe mango and as impossible to resist as gravity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): courtesy of Dusty Groove America.

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