Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Heavy Shit Goin’ Down

Fela Kuti was, to borrow from That Petrol Emotion, an agitator, an educator, an organiser. A music and sociopolitical trailblazer, he was equal parts multi-instrumentalist and political activist. The founder of Afrobeat, he combined on-the-one funk with rippling, rattling one chord jazz and more often than not included a lyric that savaged the powers in charge; look for 1977’s Sorrow, Tears and Blood, which calls out police brutality as the perfect example.

1975’s Expensive Shit is the story of being framed, set to a groove that falls somewhere between the freeflowing Blue Note jazz of Gil Evans and James Brown’s mid 70s excursions in funk. Wandering, electric piano fights for earspace with chattering, polyrhythmic drums and clickety-clacking off-beat percussion. Underpinned by body popping bass and fanfaring trumpets, Fela’s saxophone noodles across the top with just as much regard for boundaries as its player’s attitude to authority.

Fela KutiExpensive Shit

Just as you begin to think you’re in the middle of a tight-but-loose instrumental – those muted trumpets really know how to elongate their presence – along comes Fela and his backing singers, singing a song, half-Nigerian, half-English, of being set up by the police.

Finding himself in posssesion of a joint that had been planted on him by corrupt police officers, Kuti swallowed it. The police took him into custody, knowing that nature’s way would eventually incriminate their innocent target. Always one step ahead of the authorities though, Fela managed to swap stool samples with a sympathetic inmate and was released without charge.

On 1976’s Zombie, Kuti waged a war on the militaristic Nigerian government of the era. He likened the military to zombies, dead-eyed government stooges, incessantly carrying out sinister orders from above.

Fela KutiZombie

Propelled by a fluid and skittering Tony Allen drum groove and the assembled brass of Africa 70, Kuti’s band, Zombie begins on a fade-in, suggesting the band have been working up the groove for a quite some time before we get to hear it. It’s not until it reaches Kaa the snake levels of hypnotism that Kuti’s call-and-response vocals come in.

Attention! (Zombie!) Double up! (Zombie!) Fall In! (Zombie!) Fall out! (Zombie!) Fall down! (Zombie!) Get ready! (Zombie!)

Nigerians loved it, to the point where they’d mimick the soldiers who lined the streets. “Zombies!” they’d shout, arms straight out ahead and limp at the wrist in mocking pose. So incensed was the government at Kuti, they systematically attacked and destroyed Kalakuta Republic, the studio-based commune he’d set up with his family and band. On the government’s say-so, 1000 soldiers raided the community. They beat Kuti to within an inch of his life, raped the women and threw Kuti’s elderly mother from a first floor window. She would die of her injuries.

  

As an inflammatory reaction to the charge that he was kidnapping women and keeping them hostage against their will, on the first anniversary of the Kalakuta violence he simultaneously married 27 of the women in his community; dancers, vocalists, musicians. Not long after, he was banned from Ghana after a riot broke out during Zombie. Later that same year at the Berlin Jazz Festival, his band would quit following rumours that he planned to use their fee to fund his presidential campaign. A colourful figure to say the least.

Fela Kuti fought a long fight with authority, calling out injustice, corruption, brutality and downright wrongness at every possible turm. He continued to be a real thorn in the side of those in charge for another 20 years, before his death in 1997. His back catalogue and life story is worth some of your time.

Get This!, Hard-to-find, Kraut-y

Head Music

As fresh as it sounds, this track coulda been recorded an hour ago by some hep band of skinny-jeans ‘n slick-backs from Brooklyn. Listen again and you could be forgiven for assuming that it was spawned a decade earlier in the windswept deserts of Africa, playing out tinny AM radios anywhere between Mali and Mozambique.

The more switched-on amongst you could be forgiven for suggesting Can in one of their relatively straightforward moments; foreign chanting, infused with the groove and with nary an eye on the clock. Squint, and it could even be Happy Mondays around their first album; chiming and repetitive, a hands-in-pockets baggy-trousered circular mooch around the scuzziest parts of town. Slow down the little counter riff that plays between the chanted lines and it’s almost the later-era Loose Fit.

talking heads blurry

Truth is, it was recorded in 1979 by Talking Heads and featured on their 3rd LP, ‘Fear Of Music‘.

Talking HeadsI Zimbra (LP Version)

It’s African in origin – a twin guitar attack – one playing the incessant, loping guitar riff that rises and falls with the tide of the song, the other playing a demented desert blues somewhere beyond the 12th fret, both fighting for ear space with poly-rhythmic Afro beats pinned down by the muscle of Tina Weymouth’s  solid ‘n steady bass.

tina weymouth

It’s snake-like, enhanced somehow, someway, by sonic architect Brian Eno. He’s credited with adding guitar to the stew, but I doubt we’ll ever really know for sure. Done in the days before his oblique strategies, perhaps he told himself to play more orange, or something like that. Either way, the combination of musicians, producers, instruments and ambience created one groovy mover.

The extended 12″ version is even better…

Talking HeadsI Zimbra (12″ Version)

Altogether now,

Gadji beri bimba clandridi
Lauli lonni cadori gadjam
A bim beri glassala glandride
E glassala tuffm I zimbra!

A couple of things….

  1. On the LP credits for I Zimbra, the conga player is Gene Wilder, Surely not the wild-eyed actor of the same name? Anyone know?
  2. Drumming ‘Head Chris Frantz once agreed to do a ‘Six Of The Best‘. I must chase him up…

talking heads i zimbra

Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Kraut-y, Sampled

Good Felas

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

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 kuti 2

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 KutiSorrow, 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 KutiSorrow, Tears And Blood (Mr Mendel mix)

fe la soul

….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 SoulItsoweezee

….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…

t heads