May 19, 2011
Fela Kuti - Gentleman (1973)/ Confusion (1974)
Given the enormity of the late-great Fela Kuti's output -- over 50 LPs, which even doubled-up in Universal Music's on-going reissue project, leave 25+ CDs to collect -- it's important for a new Fela collector to know where to start. While the case could be made that anywhere is fine, since Fela's catalog is uniformly strong, THIS 1973/1975 combo may be the single best entree for the uninitiated.
As much as any major artist of the rock-era, Fela's recordings work as a musical biography, telling the chapter-by-chapter story of this fascinating man's 25 year struggle to catalyze the pride of Black Nigeria as it moved beyond British colonialism. Yes, the intrinsic groove of Fela's "afrobeat" rarely fails to amaze and inspire (in short: funk of the FIRST ORDER), but the stories/messages/warnings which his lyrics contain are spellbinding, too. You can't read Rikki Stein's well-written Fela biography in any of the CD booklets without getting enthralled with the daring, !polemical, incendiary and often hilarious messages so expertly woven into the groove.
Confusion/Gentleman epitomizes the dichotomy of Fela: funk-avatar v. political rabblerouser. Confusion -- more-or-less a 20+ minute call to arms -- begins psychedelic in a Soft Machine-ish way, bores headlong into a sustained and super-swinging groove, and culminates in a fasinating and foreboding call-and-response warning that the European influence in Nigeria/Africa would end. Mesmering stuff!
Gentleman, the earlier of the two pieces, follows and lightens up the mood slightly. The groove is less menacing, but the lyrics remain provocative. The title track jeers the Anglo-fied black leaders of Nigeria's government and corporate world bluntly and mercilessly. The shorter -- i.e. 7-9 minute -- "b-sides" on Gentleman likewise plumb the funk whilst delivering some incisive barbs to the status quo.
With a dozen more Fela "two-fers" headed our way in late-July 2001, there will! soon be more Fela Kuti material to be dazzled by. Still, Confusion/Gentleman is one of the high-water marks of the Fela ouvre and it should be priority for all collectors who are seeking to compile a collection while this amazing CD reissue series is available!
You will never hear anything like Confusion. The opening is great and when it turns into the opening groove after the militant/psychadelic intro, it will blow you out of your socks. This is so good it makes me happy just thinking about the fact that music this good exists. The bass and guitar are unstoppable and Tony Allen's drumming is on time. I have to agree with the other reviewers, this is off the chain and those who don't appreciate this know nothing about music. It's killer, get it and you won't be sorry.
his CD is an excellent place to start a Fela experience. The two title tracks give a demonstration of the powers of Fela to move you. If you are not familiar with his music already, this CD is an easy place to get into it, and will appeal to a wide musical ear. This was the third or fourth Fela CD I purchased, and I currently own over 10 of them (I just can't stop it's that good). Other than Opposite People/Sorrow, Tears, and Blood, this is the CD that I would give to someone who has never heard Fela before, but shows an interest in Listening to music. I've listened to this innumerable times and am still not sick of it. Fela is really one of those artists you'll come to live with for many years to come. If you're reading this and are wondering... just get it.
You can argue that Fela Kuti's music mostly sounds the same, but almost all of it is incredibly well done. This CD is not completely typical, though, of his mid to late 70's work. The first track is incredible. Starts off very strange (but still cool), and takes about five minutes for the bass to come in and then you're hooked. The song slowly builds up in a very hypnotic effect. There are a few keyboard and horn solos. Then, he starts to sing, with powerful call-and-response/horn parts. The lyrics themselves are great as well and they effectively capture Fela's ideas. The other tracks are shorter and don't build as gradually as other songs. Of course, they are still well made and have memorable melodies and interesting themes/lyrics, especially "Gentleman". Also, art on the back of the CD case of the original cover for Gentleman is memorable and it says a lot--a monkey dressed in a suit (the song comments on how Africans would dress like Europeans, trying to be like them).
All from amazon.com
Gentleman is both an Africa 70 and Afro-beat masterpiece. High marks go to the scathing commentary that Fela Anikulapo Kuti lets loose but also to the instrumentation and the overall arrangements, as they prove to be some of the most interesting and innovative of Fela's '70s material. When the great tenor saxophone player Igo Chico left the Africa 70 organization in 1973, Fela Kuti declared he would be the replacement. So in addition to bandleader, soothsayer, and organ player, Fela picked up the horn and learned to play it quite quickly -- even developing a certain personal voice with it. To show off that fact, "Gentleman" gets rolling with a loose improvisatory solo saxophone performance that Tony Allen eventually pats along with before the entire band drops in with classic Afro-beat magnificence. "Gentleman" is also a great example of Fela's directed wit at the post-colonial West African sociopolitical state of affairs. His focus is on the Africans that still had a colonial mentality after the Brits were gone and then parallels that life with his own. He wonders why his fellow Africans would wear so much clothing in the African heat: "I know what to wear but my friend don't know" and also points out that "I am not a gentleman like that!/I be Africa man original." To support "Gentleman," the B-side features equally hot jazzy numbers, "Fefe Naa Efe" and "Igbe," making this an absolute must-have release.
Fela Kuti's 1975 Confusion shows him and Africa 70 at the heights of instrumental prowess and ambiguous jibes (the stabs are about to get a bit more direct and heated with 1977's Zombie). "Confusion" begins with an unusual free jazz interplay between Fela on organ and drummer Tony Allen that has the presence of 2001: A Space Odyssey in its omnipresent drama. Then the group falls into a lengthily mid-tempo Afro funk that plays with a sureness that only comes from skilled musicians and a dictator-like leader; here is the formula that had made Fela a genius: Once he has the listener (or the crowd -- as all of his songs were originally meant to entertain and educate his audiences at the Shrine) entranced in his complex (and at the same time, deceptively simple) arrangements of danceable grooves, he hits them with what he wants to say. "Confusion" is a comment on the general condition of urban Nigeria (Lagos, in particular). Fela uses traffic jams, no fewer than three dialects, and a multitude of currencies that make trading difficult to complete the allusion to the general post-colonial confusion of a Nigeria lacking in infrastructure and proper leadership. Confusion is a highly recommended 25-minute Afro-beat epic.
Though in most cases, it requires a handful of artists or bands to properly give a complete definition of a given genre, there are one or two styles of music that both begin and end with a single group or individual. While many other artists may have attempted to duplicate the mood and style being played, in these few elite instances, the core artist in question is so far beyond their peers that the comparison simply holds no water. Though it is perhaps the most rare occurrence in all musical trends, one can easily understand the concept and how accurate it is when one considers the only artist able to be truly called a player of "afro-beat" music, the late great Fela Kuti. The way in which his music seems to soar in directions previous unheard, as well as the undertones to all of his compositions, Fela is beyond an icon, and his activism and personality outside of the musical arena only adds to his legendary status. Releasing a massive amount of music over nearly two decades, his playing influenced countless genres around the world, and the complexity of his arrangements is often so far beyond that of anything else from the era that it simply defies description. Though it is almost impossible to find a "bad" song anywhere in his catalog, there is simply no other track in Fela Kuti's career that defines his sound, as well as the "afro-beat" style in general than one finds in his 1973 masterpiece, "Gentleman."
While the opening section of "Gentleman" may seem like little more than a funky, uniquely beautiful saxophone progression, the truth of the matter is, this is in fact Fela playing, and he had only picked up the instrument a few months earlier. When the bands' previous sax player, Igo Chico, left the group, Fela decided that instead of finding a replacement, he would learn the instrument himself, and his performance throughout "Gentleman" is all the more breathtaking with this knowledge. When his sound blends together with trumpet player Tunde Williams, there is something amazingly powerful about the combination that cannot be found anywhere else in music history. The deep groove is made even more clear through the simple guitar playing, and it is also this element that gives the song an amazing amount of movement. However, still standing today as one of the greatest musical pairings in history, there is simply no overlooking the fact that the most important element to all of Fela Kuti's music was the presence of drumming legend, Tony Allen. Switching tempos and bringing some of the most uniquely complex fills ever recorded, there is no question that while Fela may have been the spirit of the band, Allen was its soul. Throughout "Gentleman," the instruments blend together in a manner previously unheard, and this upbeat, almost jazzy sound is the very definition of "afro-beat," and it never sounded as majestic as it does on this song.
Along with being one of the greatest composers of his generation, Fela Kuti also made his name as one of its most magnetic vocalists. Much of his music was inspired by the struggles he saw around him, and this, combine with his activism, led to some of the most controversial, unapologetic lyrics ever recorded. Within all of his vocals, there is an energy and allure similar to that of a preacher, and this is exactly what Fela was trying to do; to pull the listener into the song and inspire change within. Yet even with this element, there is a soft touch to his vocal work, and even almost four decades later, his work on "Gentleman" remains just as moving. It is within his vocal work that one can fully understand his mission to make his music accessible to all, as the lyrics beg for "call and response," and are written in simple terms that anyone could understand. Sending a strong message to take pride in themselves, as well as a shot at the post-colonial English powers, when Fela sings, "...I am not a gentleman like that, I be Africa man original...," one can feel the pride in self he is attempting to instill in others. Fela furthers this idea of self-identity when he rattles off a list of clothing that he sees others wearing that are clearly part of this English influence, and not the "true" dress that should be worn. These seemingly subtle, yet powerful statements of self-pride help to give the song a rebellious, yet oddly upbeat feel, and the words, and the commanding way in which Fela delivers them, is what makes "Gentleman" such an extraordinary moment in music history.
It is truly impossible to fully capture just how unique and important Fela Kuti was to the overall development of music across the globe, as there has simply never been another artist that was capable of creating music with the same skill and spirit that one finds in his songs. Due to this fact, one can argue that Fela stands as both the beginning and end of the "afro-beat" style, and those who claim this title in their music, while perhaps close, should be referred to by some different title. Regardless, there are few personalities in music history that come close to that of Fela Kuti, and on "Gentleman," one can quickly understand why he retains such a revered status. The way in which he blended together the bright brass sounds with the deep groove and found a way to fuse this together with a "native" sound is simply stunning, and the resulting product remains a true moment of musical genius. Not only can this be heard in the various instruments, but the catchy hook that the band creates is second to none, and even those unfamiliar with such sounds cannot help but be drawn in by the infectious groove and progression deployed throughout "Gentleman." Taking all of this and placing on top of it the almost scathing, scolding lyrics from Fela, there are simply not enough words one can say about this monumental achievement, and there is perhaps no other song in history that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated than one finds in Fela Kuti's 1973 masterpiece, "Gentleman."
The title track of this excellent album has often been hailed as Fela’s masterpiece. Musically innovative, melodically addictive, Fela got it all right in this politically scathing song in which he opposes Westernization and those who imitate Western ways. “I’m no be gentleman at all,” Fela sings, and then goes on to detail the ways in which he’s a “true African origina” — and therefore superior to those who wear three-piece suits and hold tight to their colonial mentality. Fela follows this track with Fefe Na Efe, which derives its name from an Ashanti proverb describing the beauty of a woman holding her breasts as she runs. Fela, who had many Ghanaian fans (and more than a few Ghanaian wives and girlfriends), sings this lush track as a tribute to Ghana. Finally, “Igbe” again shows the artist breaking cultural taboos by singing literally and figuratively about “shit”, as the word translates to, attaching the word to those friends who may betray you.
Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu
2. Fefe Naa Efe
This epic Afrobeat album contains just one eponymous track clocking in at just over 25 minutes in length, and beginning with a mysterious and psychedelic musical interplay between Fela on organ and Tony Allen on drums. As the song takes on a righteously funky groove, Fela evokes the chaos of Lagos – the multitude of regional dialects, the gnarly traffic jams, the absence of a policeman to take charge – as a metaphor for the larger problems of post-colonial Nigeria.
Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu
1. Confusion [Part 1 + 2]