Dec 7, 2010

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

Knitting Factory releases Fela Kuti "Zombie" batch


Thanx again to Michael Ricci and Chris May!!!

Knitting Factory Records' meticulous, immaculately packaged and altogether exemplary Fela Kuti reissue program reaches its third, broadly chronological chapter with the six-disc "Zombie" batch, comprising eleven LPs originally released between 1976—1980.

The batch chronicles Kuti's music from shortly before the Nigerian army's destruction of his live/work commune, Kalakuta Republic, in 1977, through that outrage's aftermath, and up to the cusp of the dissolution of Afrika 70 and the formation of its successor band, Egypt 80. It was a wildly turbulent period in Kuti's life, during which he formed the political party Movement of the People, attempted to stand for president of Nigeria, and recorded some of his most furious denunciations of the vicious military kleptocracy ruling the country.


The Nigerian military regime's reprisals against Kuti moved from relatively low level harassment to outright bloody brutality in November 1974, following the release of the album Alagbon Close. But this was as nothing compared to the vengeance the army, enraged beyond reason, took on him following 1976's Zombie.

Over a choppy, quick-march accompaniment from Afrika 70, Kuti begins the song by calling out, sergeant-major style, "Attention! Quick march! Slow march! Salute! Fall in! Fall out! Fall down! Go and kill! Go and die! Go and quench!" Each phrase is followed by the women singers' taunting response, "Zombie!." There's much more to the lyric, but this passage, revisited at various points in the lyric, wound the army up massively. Crowds chanted it at soldiers in the street, and like never before, the military sensed the growth of popular resistance. The response was terrible...

On 18 February, 1977, around 1,000 soldiers, most of them armed, swooped on Kalakuta. They cordoned off the surrounding area, broke down the wire fence around the community's buildings, and kicked their way into the central structure. Occupants were stripped and barbarously abused: particularly unfortunate men had their testicles beaten with rifle butts; particularly unfortunate women were raped (one also had her nipples crushed with stones). Kuti himself was beaten close to death, sustaining a fractured skull and several broken bones. His mother, then aged 77, was thrown from an upstairs window, fracturing a leg and suffering deep trauma. The army then set fire to the compound and prevented the fire brigade reaching the area. The ensuing blaze gutted the premises, destroying six Afrika 70 vehicles, all Kuti's master tapes and band equipment, a four-track recording studio, all the community members' belongings and, for good measure, the free medical clinic run by Kuti's brother, Dr Beko Kuti (also severely beaten in the attack). The first journalists to arrive on the scene were assaulted by soldiers. Inquisitive passers-by were similarly set upon. The army didn't want any witnesses. (They were unsuccessful at least in that: Kuti sent several dozen photos of the immediate aftermath of the attack to Black Music magazine in London, which published them along with the testimonies of Kalakuta residents).

Although Kuti won the war of words which followed, he sensibly decided to leave Nigeria for a while, and in October went into voluntary exile in neighbouring Ghana. But his political stance didn't endear itself to the Ghanaian authorities either, and after a few months he was deported back to Nigeria.

This edition of Zombie includes two valuable, previously unreleased tracks, "Observation Is No Crime" and "Mistake." The second, a medium-paced, conga-rich tour de force by Afrika 70, with an excellent solo by trumpeter Tunde Williams, was recorded at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival. Incredibly, the gig was frequently accompanied by cat-calls from the audience, some of whom appear to have gone along only to heckle Kuti for his perceived attitude to women. But Kuti and Afrika 70 had faced much worse than this the previous year, and continue cooking up a storm, unfazed.

Upside Down / Music Of Many Colors

Recorded four years apart, Upside Down (1976) and Music Of Many Colors (1980) are thematically unconnected with the events surrounding the sack of Kalakuta. They are unusual in that each includes lead vocals by guest American singers. The first features Sandra Isidore, the second singer and vibraphonist Roy Ayers.

Kuti went through some major cultural and political changes during the 1969 US tour which concluded with the formative Afrobeat recordings collected on The '69 Los Angeles Sessions . Perhaps the most far-reaching of these was his befriending of Sandra Isidore, a political activist who introduced him to the ideas of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and other black radicals. (Isidore also affirmed Kuti's use of reefer, though she didn't, as is sometimes claimed, introduce him to it; he had first enjoyed weed in London almost a decade earlier).

In 1976, Isidore visited Kuti in Nigeria, and sang on Upside Down. She's a competent singer, but the main points of interest are the lyric, in which Kuti observes how everything in Nigeria is "upside down" (or ass about face as English would have it), and her ongoing importance in Kuti's life.

In 1979, Roy Ayers' band toured Nigeria as the opening act for Kuti, and the two decided to make an album together, one side each. Ayers' side was "2000 Blacks Got To Be Free," a straight-ahead piece of jazz funk with a simple horn arrangement, in which Ayers testified that by the new millennium Africa would (or at least should) be liberated from any vestiges of colonial influence. Kuti's "Africa Centre Of The World" was a more collaborative piece, back in the Afrobeat groove and prominently spotlighting Ayers' vibraphone, which meshes wonderfully with the rich, motivic horn charts.

Stalemate / Fear Not For Man

Stalemate and Fear Not For Man were among the first albums to be released by Kuti following the sack of Kalakuta. It is likely, however, that neither album, contrary to some reports, was recorded following the February events—despite the original sleeve for Stalemate carrying the back cover message: "Recorded during the Kalakuta Crisis!!." Parts of both albums have a laid back, at times even lighthearted vibe (though not, assuredly, the title track of Fear Not For Man), and it is inconceivable that Kuti, of all people, would have recorded such music in the aftermath of the outrage. His response came later, on albums such as Sorrow Tears And Blood (reviewed below) and Unknown Soldier.

"Fear Not For Man" sounds like a work in progress interrupted by the attack, and the original LP's B-side, the attractive, anachronistic, highlife-tinged instrumental, "Palm Wine Sound," sounds like an earlier recording included to fill out the playing time and enable a quick release during a profoundly difficult period. "Fear Not For Man" opens with Kuti citing Kwame Nkrumah's statement, "The secret of life is to have no fear!." And that's about it with the lyric. The brevity and actual sound of the vocal resembles a guide track, suggesting that Kuti had intended to come back later and record an extended lyric, before being temporarily overtaken by events. But the instrumental passages, built on an edgy blend of funk, in the bass guitar, and Afrobeat, in the drums, are amongst the most ferocious Afrika 70 ever recorded.

Stalemate is a more finished affair, suggesting it was ready for release at the time of the attack. The title track is, by Kuti's standards, lyrically inconsequential, discussing social and domestic stand-offs, without deeper metaphorical allusion. "Don't Worry About My Mouth-O" weighs African personal hygiene and dress habits (chewing sticks not toothpaste, water not Andrex, traditional clothing not suits and ties) against Western practices, and finds the latter wanting.

Opposite People / Sorrow Tears And Blood

Like Stalemate and Fear Not For Man, Opposite People was probably recorded before the Kalakuta attack, but Sorrow Tears And Blood was recorded not long after it. It was Kuti's first recorded response, dedicated, he said later, to "the memory of those who were beaten, raped, tortured or injured."

Far from being intimidated by Kalakuta's destruction, Sorrow Tears And Blood found Kuti coming out fighting, bloody but defiant. His record label, Decca West Africa, had however been thoroughly cowed by the events, and refused to release the album, fearing repercussions by the military and anxious to remain on the right side of the authorities. It thus became the first album Kuti released on his own label, Kalakuta Records, which he set up once he'd extricated himself—at severe financial cost—from his Decca contract.

The front cover photo shows Kuti onstage a month or so after the attack, his left leg still in plaster up to the knee. When the army and the police leave an incident, Kuti sings on the title track, invariably "Dem leave sorrow, tears and blood," to which the backing vocalists respond, "Dem regular trademark." The B-side of the original LP, "Colonial Mentality," is one of Kuti's several acerbic lampoons of the Nigerian ruling elite's mindset: "You don be slave man before, them don release you now, but you never release yourself." The American trumpeter Lester Bowie, from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who spent several months in Nigerian in 1977, is heard on both tracks. It's a landmark album.

Shuffering And Shmiling / No Agreement

Shuffering And Shmiling and No Agreement, released in 1978 and 1977, play to different strengths—the first to Kuti's songwriting, the second to Afrika 70's instrumental power. Shuffering And Shmiling, which was banned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation because of its perceived socially-inflammatory lyrics, is rightly considered a masterpiece of the months following the army's attack. No Agreement, whose standout track is the white hot instrumental "Dog Eat Dog," has been less widely celebrated.

In "Shuffering And Shmiling," as in his later "Coffin For Head Of State," Kuti sings about the negative impact of invader-imposed Islam and Christianity on Nigeria. Having helped enslave Nigerians during the colonial era, Kuti observes, in the post-colonial era the two religions are equally guilty of undermining African social and spiritual values, encouraging a national cultural inferiority complex, fomenting regional strife, and facilitating the state-sponsored theft of Nigeria's natural resources. "Put your minds into any goddam church or any goddam mosque," he sings, and you'll be told to "suffer, suffer for earth, enjoy for heaven." Meanwhile, the bishops and imams enjoy lives of comfort, and look the other way while their brothers-in-religion exploit the country and its workforce, funneling their ill-gotten profits back to Europe, America or the Middle East.

No Agreement's title track and B-side, "Dog Eat Dog," have been mislabeled on some rereleases. The medium fast "Dog Eat Dog" is a rare Afrika 70 instrumental, with a gloriously gutsy horn arrangement and a memorable, post-Miles Davis Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) trumpet solo. In its own way, it's as much a delight as "Shuffering And Shmiling."

V.I.P. Vagabonds In Power / Authority Stealing

From 1979 and 1980 respectively, V.I.P. Vagabonds In Power and Authority Stealing are lyrically sophisticated attacks on the abuse of power. Both are among the best of Kuti's final series of albums with Afrika 70.

The lyric for "Vagabonds In Power," another track which was banned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, was in part inspired by an encounter Kuti had with Sam Nujoma, leader of the Namibian liberation movement, the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), on a flight out of Berlin in 1978.

During the flight, Kuti was troubled by Nujoma's maxim "lutta continua" (Portugese for "the struggle will continue"). Kuti flashed that Nujoma, who was traveling first class, was happy for the Namibian civil war to continue indefinitely; for while it did, he enjoyed a life of comfort overseas, while his people bore the brunt of the suffering. Kuti's doubts increased when on arrival at Lagos airport, Nujoma and his party were whisked away by officials in a fleet of Mercedes-Benzs. Would one of Nujoma's guerrillas, Kuti asked himself rhetorically—one of his actual frontline soldiers, arriving ragged and barefoot—be greeted so hospitably?

In "Authority Stealing," Kuti declares that the corruption and theft endemic among Nigeria's ruling elite are worse crimes than the armed robberies committed by hungry people in their efforts to survive from day to day. "Different way be them way," he concludes, "na similar style be them style: authority stealing pass armed robbery." After Nigerian record companies refused to release the LP, featuring repercussions from the state, Kuti had it pressed in Ghana and smuggled back into the country.

The "Zombie" batch ends shortly before the formation of Egypt 80 and the start of another, distinct but equally creative, chapter in Kuti's life and music. His album output became less prolific than in his mid to late 1970s purple period, but it too touched giddy heights of genius. The Knitting Factory programme will continue the story with the fourth batch of discs in early 2011.


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