Apr 3, 2010

The Afrobeat Diaries ... by allaboutjazz.com (Pt.VIII)


Thanx again to Michael Ricci and Chris May !!!

Part 7 of The Afrobeat Diaries reviewed the first three discs in Knitting Factory's launch batch of Fela Kuti reissues, the six-disc "Chop 'N' Quench" batch. The first three discs span the years 1964-72, and follow Kuti's music as it evolved from the highlife-jazz hybrid of the mid 1960s to the almost fully formed Afrobeat of the early 1970s.

Part 8 reviews the three discs comprising the second half of the "Chop 'N' Quench" batch, taking the story up to 1974's Confusion. The discs are Roforofo Fight / The Fela Singles, Open & Close / Afrodisiac and Confusion / Gentleman.

By the time the music on this second trio of discs was recorded, Kuti had assembled all the signature elements which defined mature Afrobeat: Tony Allen's supple but insistent drum rhythms; nagging tenor and rhythm guitars, setting up a reiterative to-and-fro rocking motion in the Africa 70 rhythm section; explicitly political lyric subject matter; a call-and-response choir of women singers, working with the horn section to answer Kuti's lead vocals; and finally, and perhaps most crucially, Broken English lyrics, which Kuti employed to broaden his audience beyond Nigerian Yoruba speakers, and which were key to his breakthrough to a pan-African audience.

Originally released over two separate vinyl albums, Music of Fela: Volume 1 and Volume 2, Roforofo Fight includes two of Kuti's most engaging early 1970s recordings: "Go Slow" and "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am."

The medium tempo "Go Slow," whose lyric addresses the perma-traffic jams then clogging up Lagos' road system (as they still do), features a vibrant horn arrangement led by baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun, but its chief instrumental appeal comes from the interplay between the tenor and rhythm guitars. The insistent riff played by the rhythm guitar and the answering, picked-out motif on the tenor guitar combine to create a magical groove. It's a drums and guitars-led, 17:22 minute long, stone delight up there in the groove pantheon alongside trumpeter Donald Byrd's contemporaneous "The Emperor" from his album Ethiopian Knights (Blue Note, 1971). Mesmerizing isn't the half of it.

"Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am" is unlike any other Kuti tune of the period. Slow paced, with a pretty but sorrowful top line, it's an Afrobeat blues ballad. The title is the Broken English equivalent of "toying with a loaded gun" or "playing with fire" and the lyric empathizes with the short fuse induced in hungry, down pressed people (the "sufferheads" who were Kuti's core audience). Mr Trouble keeps his cool until Mr Provocation (yanga) comes along and starts messing with him. Kuti's vocal delivery is uncharacteristically gentle.

The rest of the disc includes the remainder of the Music of Fela albums—"Roforofo Fight" and "Question Jam Answer"—both of them up-tempo, tough and urgent, and two singles, "Shenshema" and "Ariya." "Roforofo Fight" features some of Kuti's best ever scat vocal passages, and "Shenshema" showcases heady percussion work, deservedly brought well forward in the mix.

After the highs of Roforofo Fight and Shakara (reviewed in Part 7 of The Afrobeat Diaries), Open & Close and Afrodisiac are steadier affairs, on which Kuti seems almost to be marking time, consolidating rather than innovating. They're both well crafted and winning sets, but without the innovatory air of those made immediately before and after them.

Afrodisiac was recorded at EMI's Abbey Road studios in London. It's made up of Africa 70 staples, some of them previously recorded in Nigeria and released there as singles. Among them is a new version of "Jeun Ko Ku," a satire about gluttony and Kuti's first big hit in West Africa. In Broken English, the title means "chop and quench," which, in turn, means "eat and die" in Standard English. The standout track is the closing "Je'Nwi Temi" ("don't gag me"), a critique of the Nigerian political/military establishment and a defense of free speech. Kuti vows that he will continue telling it how it is even if the state tries to muzzle him. Prophetic stuff, given the police and army assaults on Kuti, his associates and his property which would begin less than two years later (see Part 1 and Part 2 of the Diaries).

Open & Close comprises three tracks. The heavily syncopated title tune is a simple exhortation to dance, with instructions on how to perform Kuti's choreography ("open arms, close arms, open legs, close legs"). It includes a rare drum solo from Tony Allen, who, then as now, generally preferred to stay in the engine room (Live!, reviewed in Part 7, nothwithstanding). "Swegbe And Pako" ("bad and good," "incompetent and competent") is folklore-based and encourages its listeners to do what they do well and work for a better society.

"Gbagada Gbagada Gbogodo Gbogodo" is also folklore-based and tells the story of the Egba people's armed resistance to invading British colonialists. As a lyricist, Kuti was more often concerned with attacking the repressive rule and post-colonial mentality of Nigeria's contemporary leaders than he was the actions of their British forbearers, and on "Gbagada" he makes a telling connection between past and present.Confusion and Gentleman, paired together on the sixth and final disc in the "Chop 'N' Quench" batch, are the first major masterpieces in Kuti's canon. They raise the curtain on Africa (and, by the second half of the decade, Afrika) 70's mid 1970s to 1980 purple period, which produced a consistent stream of classic albums including Alagbon Close, Why Black Man Dey Suffer, Expensive Shit, Kalakuta Show, Yellow Fever, Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana, Zombie and V.I.P. Vagabonds In Power.

Casual listeners to Afrobeat sometimes remark that "it all sounds the same." While it doesn't, of course—any more than bebop "all sounds the same"—it's true that, once Kuti had assembled its various signature characteristics, the style did become codified. But only listeners with the thickest of cloth ears could criticize Confusion for that. Originally released over two sides of a vinyl album, "Confusion," the only track, throws away any perceived Afrobeat rule book.

Lasting 25:36 minutes, "Confusion" starts with a dramatic, five minute, free-rhythm dialog between Kuti, on electric piano, and drummer Tony Allen. Full of distorted, spacey textures, it sounds rather like the opening soundtrack to an early-synth era sci-fi movie. The groove isn't established until the introduction of a bass guitar ostinato 4:50 minutes in, which is cranked up by rhythm and tenor guitars after another minute or so, and then again by the entrance of the horn section a minute later. Turbulent trumpet and tenor saxophone solos precede Kuti's lead vocal, which takes up the final 10 minutes. The lyric ridicules the parlous state of oil-rich Nigeria's civic structure, in which supposed public services such as the police and hospitals struggle with corruption and inadequate funding. "Everywhere confusion," sings Kuti, a theme he return to often during the course of the 1970s.

Gentleman includes, with its title track, the first of Kuti's truly great Broken English lyrics, sung in infectious call-and-response with the backing vocalists. "Africa hot," sings Kuti, "I like am so." He then lacerates the Nigerian elite's post-colonial mentality, using its adoption of Westernized clothing as a metaphor for its general stupidity. Clad in vests, socks, shirts, ties, suits and hats, a man "go sweat, he go faint right down, he go smell like shit." Kuti concludes by affirming "I no be gentleman at all-o, I be Africa man, original." It's still one of his most memorable songs.

Lyrically, by comparison, the shorter "Fefe Naa Efe" and "Igbe," which took up the second side of the original LP, are smaller beer. But they are both powerful, eight minute, instrumental jams, with trumpeter Tunde Williams and tenor saxophonist Igo Chico making good use of their solo time.

The "Chop 'N' Quench" batch ends with Kuti and Africa 70 poised on the threshold of violent, ongoing conflict with the Nigerian army and police, Kuti's name change from Fela Ransome Kuti to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and Africa 70's symbolic recalibration as Afrika 70. The Afrobeat Diaries will continue the story when the next batch of Knitting Factory discs is released.

Meanwhile, there's more than enough here to keep Afrobeat enthusiasts happy for the next couple of months.


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