Sep 9, 2010

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


Thanx again to Michael Ricci and Chris May!!!

Knitting Factory hits Fela Kuti purple patch

Knitting Factory's comprehensive, multi-format, Fela Kuti reissue program hits a new high with its second salvo, the "Na Poi" batch, released in May 2010. The seven discs span 1974-77, a remarkably prolific and creative time even by the Afrobeat originator's own standards.

As with the first "Chop 'n' Quench" batch—reviewed in Part 7 and Part 8 of the Afrobeat Diaries—each disc in the latest batch pairs two of Kuti's original vinyl LPs.

First up, Alagbon Close / Why Black Man Dey Suffer by Fela Ransome Kuti (as he then was) and Africa 70 (as it then was).

Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70
Alagbon Close / Why Black Man Dey Suffer

Preceded by the auspicious Gentleman and Afrodisiac in 1973, Alagbon Close, released in 1974, marked watersheds in the development of Afrobeat and in Kuti's politics. Many of the elements which make the album so compelling can be heard on earlier recordings, but on Alagbon Close Kuti and drummer/bandleader Tony Allen pulled them all together to devastating effect, in the process creating the definitive Afrobeat paradigm.

Africa 70 plays with unprecedented fire: the four-piece horn section was never more majestic; the nagging riffs and ostinatos of the tenor and rhythm guitars never more insistent. Allen is a lithe-limbed colossus, his signature rhythms at times driving the band forward, at others drawing it back like a coiled spring, only to unleash it again. Three conga drummers support him. Kuti's screaming multi-octave glissandos on the organ climax an incantatory solo, and the track's concluding drums and horns passage is Africa 70 at its most epic.

And in what was becoming Kuti's trademark lyric writing style, the title track, sung in the Broken English he adopted to communicate beyond only Yoruba speakers, highlights a particular social injustice to make a broader point: on the title track he exposes the brutality going on in the Alagbon Close police cells (Alagbon Close was the headquarters of the Nigerian Criminal Investigation Department in Lagos).

Knitting Factory's reissue series pairs Alagbon Close with an earlier release, Why Black Man Dey Suffer. Recorded in 1970, this was one of several albums Kuti made with the participation of the British drummer Ginger Baker, who was at the time in Nigeria recharging his Cream and Blind Faith-depleted batteries.

Why Black Man Dey Suffer is a more formative affair than Alagbon Close. It's one of a series of early 1970s albums which made the transition between the highlife and jazz blend of Kuti and Allen's first band, Koola Lobitos, and mature Afrobeat. Trumpeter Tunde Williams, baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun and first conga player Henry Kofi, from later line-ups including that on Alagbon Close, are in place. But Afrobeat's mesmerizingly repetitive tenor guitar has yet to be introduced, and, crucially, Allen didn't play on the session, making way for Ginger Baker.

Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70
Expensive Shit / He Miss Road

From the brutalities recounted in Alagbon Close to the ridiculous: Expensive Shit chronicles in hilarious detail a failed attempt to charge Kuti for possession of weed. It also provides more evidence of his bravery. He'd face down soldiers tooled up with guns and machetes, and berate them with insults tailored for the occasion. He acted with the same scant regard for his safety in confrontations with politicians and senior police or army officers.

Busted in 1974—police raiding his home saw him swallow a joint—Kuti was interviewed by a succession of goons, who all tried and failed to get him to fess up. As Kuti later recalled, he was eventually taken in front of the head of Nigerian Interpol, who told him "I'm going to talk to you in my office...."

"You get office?" Kuti asked sarcastically. "You foolish stupid bastard! You low-down sonofabitch, you dog, you goat, you....."

Kuti spent the next three days in jail, while the police waited for him to produce an incriminating "sample." But he and his cell mates swapped their slop buckets around and, lacking any evidence, the police had to let him go. The tale is recounted on the title track of Expensive Shit, a prime slice of tough Afrobeat, which features an outstanding, extended solo from trumpeter Tunde Williams.

Expensive Shit is paired with He Miss Road, produced by Ginger Baker but with Tony Allen on the drums. The three-track album lacks a song lyric as enduring as "Expensive Shit," but Baker's psychedelia-influenced production and mix still give it legs in 2010. Fascinated by the interplay between tenor and rhythm guitars, Baker placed them prominently in the mix, one on the left channel, the other the right. Drum and keyboard sounds are periodically bent and distorted, and there are memorable solos by Kuti, on organ, and by Williams and tenor saxophonist Christopher Uwaifor.

Fela & Africa 70
Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana / Excuse-O

First, let's hear it for the title, Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana, one of Kuti's funniest. And second, for Ghariokwu Lemi's artwork, featured on the front and rear sleeves of the original LP and reproduced here. (One of the pleasures of the Knitting Factory reissues is the reproduction of the front and rear sleeves of all the original LPs; and at about one-quarter of their original size, they still work ). Lemi's vibrant Afrodelic style graced many of Kuti's sleeves, perfectly capturing the spirit of the music. Still active in the noughties, in 2008 Lemi produced the artwork for the Brooklyn-based Akoya Afrobeat's P.D.P. President Dey Pass (Afrobomb Music), reviewed in Part 6 of the Afrobeat Diaries.

Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana has two tracks. "Monkey Banana" is a song of solidarity with, and warning to, Nigeria's working class, toiling without the benefit of social security, decent public health and education systems and the like. When you jump like a monkey to the command of your employer, don't forget the struggle for proper rewards, Kuti urges. "Sense Wiseness" is a lampoon on Nigeria's "been-tos," people who'd been to America, Europe, Russia or China to study, and came back home forgetting their roots. It's a theme Kuti would return to: see the review of J.J.D. Johnny Just Drop below.

Excuse-O opens with the lighthearted title track—you can hear the smile in Kuti's voice—suggesting how to deal with various potentially confrontational social situations without resorting to a stand-up quarrel. "Mr Grammarticalogylisationalism Is The Boss" revisits the "been-tos" of "Sense Wiseness" and ridicules their assumption that speaking "proper" English demonstrated superior intelligence and was also a necessary qualification for upward mobility. (Kuti loved wordplay like grammarticalogylisationalism, and spins some more in the video clip below).

Fela & Africa 70
Everything Scatter / Noise For Vendor Mouth

Like most of Kuti's albums, Everything Scatter and Noise For Vendor Mouth caused controversy on original release, though not for the usual reasons. On the rear sleeve of Everything Scatter, Kuti put photos of various inspirational figures: his children, his friend Jimo Kombi ("J.K.") Braimah, and African heads of state Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure and Idi Amin. The inclusion of Amin caused disquiet among some of Kuti's followers. But the Ugandan despot's fiery rhetoric in favor of African emancipation made him, in the mid 1970s, a hero to many black Africans; they were prepared to believe that the stories the British press told about Amin were lies inspired by multi-national companies with vested interests in Uganda.

Noise For Vendor Mouth wasn't controversial because of its graphic design (though the rear sleeve includes photos of four, bare-breasted, nubile Nigerian women). It was the album's B-side, "Mattress," which angered some listeners. Kuti always denied being a male chauvinist—and frequently spoke with deep respect of his mother, a leading Nigerian nationalist during British colonial rule. But his belief in African tradition, and in particular his espousal of polygamy, was out of kilter with gender politics in Europe and America at the time. Did this make him "sexist?" Kuti didn't think so.

Away from tricky questions about cultural relativity, on the two albums' title tracks, Kuti takes on the Nigerian elite who were criticizing him and his followers for being hooligans, weed smokers and political troublemakers. On "Everything Scatter," he lists some of the negative opinions held about him. On "Noise For Vendor Mouth" he answers back, telling his attackers that they are the real villains: venal, incompetent, political gangsters and military adventurers, living off the backs of the working class. He likens their accusations to the noise made by street vendors when selling their wares. Instrumentally, the track is solid gold too, with a complex, two-bar, call and response tenor guitar riff nagging away throughout.

These are two great albums, and now the dust around them has settled a bit, they deserve to be re-evaluated.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Afrika 70
Ikoyi Blindness / Kalakuta Show

On Kalakuta Show, paired here with Ikoyi Blindness, Kuti tells the story of the first large-scale police attack on his self-declared "Kalakuta Republic"—the live/work compound he'd established for himself and Africa 70. The attack happened on 23 November, 1974, and, although it was on a smaller scale than the army's infamous attack in February 1977, it was a gruesome affair.

On the pretext of searching for a young woman who it was alleged Kuti had abducted, the police staged a surprise assault on Kalakuta. After breaking down the fence which surrounded the compound and throwing teargas canisters into its buildings, they set about anyone they could lay their hands on. Kuti was so badly beaten that he spent the next three days under police guard in hospital, no visitors, and especially no photographers, allowed, before his lawyer succeeded in getting him released on bail. Following a menacing introduction by the Africa 70 horns, and a tenor saxophone solo from Kuti, and underpinned throughout by insistent drums and shekere, the title track on Kalakuta Show relates the story.

In the title track on Ikoyi Blindness, Kuti drew attention to the economic chasm separating the haves and the have-nots of Lagos society, contrasting the mindsets of residents in the prosperous Ikoyi suburb with those of the poor inhabitants of the Mushin area, and finding the former wanting. The album was released a few months after Kalakuta Show. On it, Kuti announced his change of middle name from Ransome, which he now considered a slave name, to Anikulapo, and Africa 70's rebirth as Afrika 70. The cover showed Ransome crossed out, with Anikulapo added in above it. Kuti's full name now meant "He Who Emanates Greatness" (Fela), "Having Control Over Death" (Anikulapo), "Death Cannot Be Caused By Human Entity" (Kuti). It was a name-of-power, and Kuti was going to need all of it in the years which followed.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Afrika 70
Yellow Fever / Na Poi

The song "Na Poi," from which the title of Knitting Factory's second batch of reissues is taken, is featured, in different versions, on both Yellow Fever and Na Poi.

"Na Poi" literally means "things will collide," and in the lyric Kuti describes what men and women get up to in bed in graphic detail, including references to angle of penetration and lubrication. The original, 1975 version, included as the "B" side of 1976's Yellow Fever, was banned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. Never one to miss the opportunity of raising the stakes, Kuti recorded a longer (25:37) version for Na Poi, released a few months later.

In truth, contemporary shock value aside, "Na Poi" isn't an arresting lyric. Few things, surely, are as boring as watching other people have sex, but listening to someone else talk about having sex is even worse. Afrika 70, fortunately, is on burning form and on the longer version, in particular, there are several edge of the seat instrumental sections.

"Yellow Fever" is a more enduring song. In it, Kuti lays about the fashion for skin bleaching amongst Nigerian women, citing the practice as an example of the post-colonial, cultural inferiority complex he believed was holding back the country's development. The song addresses women much as 1973's "Gentleman," which lampooned the adoption of European suits and ties, addressed men.

"You No Go Die...Unless," with its unusually short playing time (7:35), was the filler track for Na Poi, whose title track took up all of the first and half of the second side of the original LP. More James Brown-derived funk than Afrobeat, it's reminiscent of Kuti's recordings with Koola Lobitos in Los Angeles in 1969 (see Part 7 of the Afrobeat Diaries). Over an urgent, edgy funk beat, Kuti tells the Nigerian state authorities that he doesn't fear them or their goons, and that he won't die until he himself is ready.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Afrika 70
J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop) / Unnecessary Begging

The "Na Poi" batch concludes with more great Ghariokwu Lemi artwork (the rear cover of J.J.D. is as good as the front) and two mighty albums. In the lyric for "J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop)," the sole track on the eponymous album, Kuti returned to the subject matter of "Sense Wiseness" from Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana and "Mr Grammarticalogylisationalism Is The Boss" from Excuse-O; making fun of the "been-tos" who'd returned from studies abroad with an inferiority complex about African culture.

Unnecessary Begging by contrast salutes the Nigerian working class. The title track posits ghetto values as more honest and civic-minded than those prevailing among Lagos' business and political elite. "No Buredi (No Bread)" urges Nigeria's put-upon students and workers to stand up and demand a more equitable society.

Kuti's political engagement was to intensify during the latter half of the 1970s, with the formation of his Young African Pioneers party, its (occasional) YAP newspaper and his absolutely serious attempts to be elected President of Nigeria. Knitting Factory's third batch of reissues will consist of the albums which set out Kuti's political program and chronicle some of his actions.


Thanx again to Michael Ricci and Chris May!!!

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