Good FelasApril 2, 2015
What a shitty few weeks. The previous post below will fill you in if you’re an infrequent visitor. Thanks for taking the time to leave your comments. I read them all, even if I couldn’t face replying. Truly, thanks.
Anyway, what better way to get back on track than by digging out some slick Nigerian Afrobeat from 1977?
Fela Kuti is a real musicians’ musician. A multi-instrumentalist, equally at home on sax, keys, trumpet, drums….you name it, between 1960 and his death in 1997 he was responsible for around 60 LP releases. Perhaps only The Fall would appear to be able to top that. Much like The Fall, many of his albums are live affairs. A few are also dubious-looking compilations of indeterminate origin. Amongst the regular studio recordings, there are whole LPs of collaborations with other musicians (‘Stratavarious‘ with Ginger Baker, ‘Music Of Many Colours‘ with Roy Ayers.) All Fela’s albums are tight and taut, superbly played and full of meandering grooves underneath the politicised lyrics.
In the 70s, Fela changed his middle name. Ransome, he said, was a slave name. And Fela was nobody’s slave. He was a folk singer. The Nigerian equivalent of Woody Guthrie, singing the songs of the ordinary man. He took to singing in his own unique pidgin English as a way of ensuring Africans throughout the continent would understand his message – they all spoke in their own native tongue, but they also all understood basic English. He sang of the barbaric Nigerian Government and had a smash hit (‘Zombie‘) on the back of it. This resulted in him barely surviving with his life after a severe beating from government flunkies whilst his studio was burned to the ground. More than just a fly in the ointment, Fela galvanised his fellow countrymen into action, a real anti-establishment hero.
Fela’s music is terrific. There’s a real discipline to the playing. Much of it is simple and repetitive. The musicians could easily break out and rattle off a little lick or two, and sometimes they do. His brass section in particular (sometimes just Fela) are fond of the odd up-the-garden-path solo. But mostly to Fela, the rhythm is King. It’s a bit like Can at their grooviest – hypnotic, shamanistic, designed to subconsciously affect the limbs. Feet will tap. Hips will sway. Heads will bob. Before you know it you’ll be on your feet and wondering how you got there.
1977’s Sorrow, Tears and Blood LP is typical of his work at the time. The title track formed the entire first side, a relentless guitar ‘n sax-led tour de force, all polyrhythms and funk bass, lightly toasted with electric piano.
Fela Kuti – Sorrow, Tears And Blood
Atop the non-stop one chord groove is a lyric worthy of Joe Strummer at his authority-baiting best;
Everybody run….Police they come….Army they come….confusion everywhere…..someone nearly died….Police don’t go away….Army don’t disappear….them leave sorrow, tears and blood….
Fela’s work is absolutely ripe for sampling and reinterpretation. Mr Mendel has done this excellent remix of Sorrow, Tears And Blood:
Fela Kuti – Sorrow, Tears And Blood (Mr Mendel mix)
….and a couple of years ago, someone came up with the brilliant concept of Fe La Soul, where they took the Daisy Agers raps and placed them on top of Fela’s funkiest fills. There are whole albums of the stuff if you look in all the right places. Here‘s one of my favourites;
Fe La Soul – Itsoweezee
….and no doubt inspired by the relentless, driving grooves of Fela, during the sessions for 1980’s Remain In Light, Talking Heads recorded Fela’s Riff, a terrific piece of instrumental New York, new wave funk. I really need to do a Talking Heads feature at some point…