Mar 8, 2010

The Afrobeat Diaries ... by (Pt.VII)


Thanx again to Michael Ricci and Chris May !!!

Knitting Factory rolls out Fela Kuti reissue program

Following the release of its The Best Of The Black President sampler in November 2009, New York's Knitting Factory has cut to the main event in its Fela Kuti reissue program. The label, which is scheduled to release all of Kuti's albums during 2010, put out the first batch of six discs in February. Titled the "Chop 'n' Quench" batch (after the title of an early single), the discs cover the years 1964-74, Afrobeat's formative years. They contain nine albums and a selection of singles.

This review considers the first three discs in the batch—Koola Lobitos 64-68 / The 69 Los Angeles Sessions, Live! and Shakara / Fela's London Scene. The discs chart the development of Afrobeat from its late 1960s fetal stage to something close to its fully developed form, as—session by session—Kuti creates the style's signature characteristics.

Part 8 of The Afrobeat Diaries will cover the second trio of discs in the "Chop 'n' Quench" batch—Roforofo Fight / The Fela Singles, Open & Close / Afrodisiac and Gentleman / Confusion.

The Knitting Factory program is an admirable one. All the music is available in CD, vinyl and download formats, and there are some imaginative optional extras, including ring tones. It's a shame Kuti didn't live to see it, but—13 years after his death and 40 years after the formation of Africa 70—America is waking up to his music. It had to happen one day.

Kuti's early recording history is a discographer's nightmare—an array of uncataloged 7" singles, variously recorded in the studio, for radio and at club gigs, some of which were reissued with new titles within a few years of their original release. This heroic attempt at a discography, itself strewn with anachronisms and other errors, gives an idea of the challenge facing researchers.

The 16 tracks on Koola Lobitos 64-68 / The 69 Los Angeles Sessions are not a complete collection of Kuti's early recordings as bandleader, but they offer a fascinating chronicle of the development of his music from the highlife-jazz hybrid of the mid-1960s to the proto-Afrobeat of the end of the decade.

Koola Lobitos emerged in 1964 out of the Fela Ransome Kuti Jazz Quartet, the first band Kuti formed after returning to Nigeria following four years in London studying at Trinity College of Music. The drummer in both groups was Tony Allen, Afrobeat's co-creator, who stayed with Kuti until 1979-80 (the parting wasn't an overnight one). Another longtime associate, baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun, who succeeded Allen as bandleader, joined in 1965. The six tracks which make up Koola Lobitos 64-68 are fairly typical examples of the highlife-jazz popular in Lagos at the time, albeit with a greater focus on jazz-based improvisation than was the case with most bands. The tracks document Kuti's impressive jazz chops on the trumpet, an instrument he would later abandon in favor of the saxophone and the electric piano. Here he solos frequently on trumpet, with a big, fiery tone, great range and a vibrant swing-to-hard bop vocabulary.

From an Afrobeat perspective, things start getting really interesting with the final 10 tracks on the disc, grouped together as The 69 Los Angeles Sessions. In 1969, Kuti and Koola Lobitos spent 10 months in the US, living a hand-to-mouth existence and, towards the end, trying to keep off the radar of immigration officials. Kuti went through some major changes during the visit, the most far-reaching of which followed his befriending of Sandra Isidore, a political activist who introduced him to the ideas of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and other militant black thinkers.

Isidore also affirmed Kuti's use of reefer, though she didn't, as Mabinuori Idowu's liner notes claim, introduce him to it (he had enjoyed weed in London almost a decade earlier, and regularly in Nigeria from 1966 onwards). All in all, Isidore was a major influence on Kuti's development, and changes were heard in his music almost immediately....

Shortly before returning to Nigeria, the band, now calling itself Nigeria 70, scraped together the funds to record some tracks in Los Angeles. Several of these, in particular "My Lady Frustration" and "Obe," include what were to become key characteristics of Afrobeat. Tempos are more measured and the beat is heavier. Kuti's vocal delivery is earthier and more declamatory. Horn arrangements are more influenced by soul and funk than by highlife's Latin jazz-inspired charts. And Afrobeat's signature rhythms are starting to emerge, not so much in the drums as in the reiterative rhythm guitar riffs. There are no Broken English lyrics or tenor guitars yet, but there are clear links to the mature Afrobeat of the early to mid 1970s.

Political messages are also beginning to be heard: "Viva Nigeria," though sung in immaculate BBC English, addresses the then ongoing Nigerian civil war over Biafra from a pan-Nigerian, pan-African perspective.

Back in Nigeria, Kuti opened his first club, the Afro-Spot, changed the band's name from Nigeria 70 to Africa 70, and continued developing the style he'd explored on the Los Angeles sessions.

In 1971, British drummer Ginger Baker visited Nigeria, where he intended to take some lengthy rest and recreation following five years of heavy touring with, successively, Cream, Blind Faith and Ginger Baker's Air Force. As might be expected, given their flamboyant natures, Kuti and Baker hit it off big-time.

Despite the assertion in Idowu's liner notes that Live! was recorded using Baker's 16-track mobile studio in Nigeria, the album was in fact recorded in front of an invited audience at EMI's Abbey Road studios in London. Baker is featured alongside Tony Allen, and the two drummers, together with three conga players, bring to the music a degree of percussive intensity new to Kuti's recordings. Baker's extended solo on "Ye Ye De Smell" is magnificent, as are tenor saxophonist Igo Chico's turbulent solos on that track and "Let's Start" and "Black Man's Cry." Kuti is no longer heard on trumpet, sticking instead to electric piano and vocals.

The album adds two more of mature Afrobeat's signature characteristics to those introduced on The 69 Los Angeles Sessions. The lyric for "Black Man's Cry" is the first explicit expression of the philosophy Kuti would later call Blackism; and his interaction with the Africa 70 horn section on "Ye Ye De Smell," where the horns repeat his sung phrases, together with his sing-along vocals with the band on "Egbe Mi O," are precursors of the call-and-response vocals that would become a key feature of Afrobeat recordings. Above all, Live! ramps up the rhythmic and vocal intensity of Kuti's music to new heights, establishing the norm for Africa 70.

The album closes with a 16 minute drum feature for Allen and Baker recorded at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival.

With Shakara, Kuti and Africa 70 enjoyed one of their biggest early hits. A two-track set comprising "Shakara" and "Lady," it marks the transition of Afrobeat from its fetal stage to something very close to its full-grown form. The album is paired here with Fela's London Scene.

"Lady" introduces the rest of mature Afrobeat's signature ingredients. The band includes two guitarists, with rhythm guitarist Tutu Shoronmu joined by tenor guitarist Segun Edo, adding a mesmeric reiterative structure to the rhythm section; Kuti's use of Broken English lyrics enhances the African feel of the music and extends its potential audience beyond Yoruba speakers; and (uncredited) female backing vocalists respond to Kuti's lead vocals. All of Afrobeat's building blocks are now in place. The lyrics for "Lady" ridicule the adoption of European mores by African women. Kuti would address African men in similar fashion on Gentleman in 1973. Shakara is a thrilling album—both in itself and for the great strides Kuti had made in his music since the 1969 Los Angeles recordings.

Fela's London Scene is another top notch affair, made with a slightly smaller band. There is no tenor guitarist and no call-and-response choir (though some London-based friends add sing-along vocals to "Egbe Mi O," in line with the version on Live!). Kuti's electric piano is gym-ripped and razor sharp, and Igo Chico turns in three stirring tenor solos. On "Buy Africa," Kuti's extols the benefits of African self-reliance, a theme he would return to throughout his career.

The first three discs in the "Chop 'n' Quench" batch include some of Kuti's least known work, but it's the root of everything that followed. Any serious Afrobeat enthusiast will want to be familiar with this music.


Thanx again to Michael Ricci and Chris May !!!

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