Forever synonymous as both a founding patriarch and leading vehement voice in Afrobeat, Fela Kuti the legend transcends the musical style that he made his own. His music was amplified across the globe as his reputation and exotic funk-licked grooves leapt out of the African continent to Europe, America and beyond.
A vessel for social change, thorn in the side of the Nigerian authorities, Kuti was hailed as ‘a man of the people, for the people’. The West African superstar’s proverbial foot hovered vengefully on the throat of his oppressors; a teasing, often acidic critique, awaited the corrupt with politically charged broadsides levelled not just at the military juntas which controlled Nigeria during the 70s and 80s, but also attacked the Imperialistic miasma that still effected Europe’s former colonies.
For his troubles, Kuti was half-beaten to death and dragged through the mire. Yet he always escaped to fight another day (scarred both physically and mentally), his cavalier retort, “Ah well, they didn’t kill me”, resolute. Infusing the hot local Lagos rhythms with a message of obstinacy, pressure and protest Kuti remained a force for good, right up until his death in 1997.
And so with a typified appellation borne by the gifted musician and band leader’s status, a compilation – a mere scattering – of Kuti’s extensive back catalogue, entitled The Best Of The Black President 2, is set to herald the beginning of a re-release renaissance of his recordings. Adding to the Kuti zeitgeist, whilst bringing their rooster of world music across the Atlantic to our shores, New York umbrella label The Knitting Factory (founded in 2002 as an offshoot of the downtown Manhattan club) were granted the license from the Fela Anikulap Kuti Estate to indulge us.
Released in three batches, from March through to September, the first includes the following:-
– Koola Lobitos/ ’69 LA Sessions
– Fela with Ginger Baker Live!
– Shakara/ London Scene
– Roforofo/ Fela Singles
– Open and Close/ Afrodisiac
– Gentlemen/ Confusion
– Alagbon Close/ Why Black Man Dey Suffer
– Expensive Shit/ He Miss Road
– Everything Scatter/ Noise For Vendor Mouth
– Monkey Banana/ Excuse O
– The Best Of the Black President 2
– The Complete Works
As an entry point or introduction, The Best Of The Black President compilation offers up a wealth of Kuti material, gathered from three decades – the most recent 1992’s ‘Underground System (Part 2)’, a dissected African protestation inspired by the assassination of his friend, the Burkina Faso revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara.
Opening with the down and dirty Afrobeat testament ‘Every Thing Scatter’, we bear witness both to Kuti’s honed Nigerian strut and his exposure to western funk, merged into a lazy sauntering but equally dynamic rhythmic sway. Indolent and constantly re-working the structure, all the featured tracks exceed the ten-minute mark.
Notable additions include the extended original version of the plaintive, Isley Brothers-esque, paean to the South African apartheid’s crushing of the Soweto Uprising in 1976, ‘Sorrow Tears And Blood’, and the Afro-funk bewailed ‘Black Man’s Cry’. Kuti in his own inimitable, part soliloquy part narrated, style speaks out on the practices of skin bleaching among his Nigerian sisterhood on ‘Yellow Fever’, and condemns the deep-rooted problems and division caused by the old European masters on ‘Colonial Mentality’.
It’s a generous enough 2-hour plus offering, which on the deluxe edition features the added bonus of Kuti’s famous Glastonbury appearance in 1984.
The saying goes that ‘no man is a prophet in his own land’, and Kuti certainly escaped formal recognition – for the most part – by the state in Nigeria until very recently. In fact, the Fela Kuti adoration has built up a real momentum and snowballed in the last few years, with his old Lagos home now turned into a museum (Kalakuta), an annual ‘Felabration’ festival (held on his birthday, October 5th), ‘Fela!’ stage production, and both an upcoming Alex Gibney directed documentary (pencilled in for later this year) and, former Turner Prize winner turned film director, Steve McQueen’s promised biopic movie.
These are just a few events marking the great mavericks contribution to world music and political activism. Or as the compilations forward author – the Senegalese-American R&B/Hip Hop artist – Akon writes: “Despite everything they threw at him, Fela’s music and his message never lost their way. He was always real and he was always with the people. That’s why we love and miss him all the more.”
Pretty much a glowing and personal endorsement if ever I read one.
Released 4th March 2013