Sep 26, 2011
Fela Kuti - I.T.T. (1980) / Original Sufferhead (1981)
After the demise of Africa 70, Fela set forth to create a new group of musicians that he could mold, shape, and direct to play out his musical conceptions. Instead of just offering a new group, he also progressed his compositional style and attitudes. Stylistically, the compositions became longer, more complex, and in some senses tighter; they began to take on Western classical structures in their arrangements but still carried the improvisational, American soul, and traditional African forms that gave birth to the original Afro-beat sound. Original Suffer Head is the first recorded offering from the group that he deemed Egypt 80; the name reflected his strong Pan-African sentiments. Released in 1982 after another brutal attack on his residence that almost killed him, it showed that he had yet to be broken by the authority figures who sought to silence him. (After decades of beatings and incarcerations, they would slow him down eventually, but not until after 1990.) Lyrically, "Original Suffer Head" calls attention to the strife and conflict that framed Nigeria in the 1980s, such as the lack of basic necessities in an era when the country was rich in petroleum sales. With words such as "Them come turn us to Suffer-Head," Fela attacks those in power for Nigeria's lack of development of food, water, and shelter, implying that the country's third-world status is a result of government corruption and stealing. "We must be ready to fight for am o," he pointedly remarks, "I say Suffer-Head must go." Also included on this album is "Power Show," a relatively forgettable number originally composed for the Africa 70 group but recorded here by Egypt 80 in a laid-back groove, with Fela making non-accusatory remarks about the state of Lagos in general.
Fela Kuti's records in the early and middle 1980s contain some of the most directly scathing remarks ever put to disc (notably, Original Suffer Head, Coffin for Head of State, and Authority Stealing). Sure, Ice-T, N.W.A., and Eminem have since been more pointedly offensive, but Fela deploys a smarter, slyer, and wittier approach to satire than anyone else. In I.T.T. (a play on the telecommunications company, International Telephone and Telegraph), he attacks two central characters that Fela calls out as thieves by name: President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo and Chairman of ITT and President of Decca Records, M.K.O. Abiola. Fela gets the jabbing started by describing how the British used to employ their African subjects to carry trailers full of excrement throughout the cities for disposal, then transposes the attack to Obasanjo and Abiola as they have forced their African subjects to carry their metaphorical sh*t of oppression, inflation, and corruption. He says, "We don't tire to carry anymore of them sh*t," while a rousing, call-to-arms chorus backs him up; Fela continues, "We go fight them well now." His methods were very dangerous, as his enemies were extremely powerful and his audience very receptive. For his actions, Fela would continue to be beaten and jailed throughout his life. Musically, I.T.T. is an average instrumental attack; however, average for Fela and Africa 70 is still quite above the watermark.
“I want to tell you my brothers want to beat the truth, I want to knock some truth right into your heads…we must be ready to fight…find out for yourself” — Fela Kuti – “Original Sufferhead”
With so much Fela on the mind because of the “Power Show” 7 Pack we had available during KPFK’s fundraiser it seems only fitting that I spend a little time talking about this music and about the man. More than a few people shy away from Fela’s later work with his second afro-beat group Egypt 80. I think a lot of the lack of enthusiam for these later records has to do with the terrible production on several (Army Arrangement being the main culprit…the only Fela record it seems record stores generally have and it’s the one Fela record no one in their right mind should want in the original) of these later period albums. One of the great benefits of having Fela’s music reissued and remastered has been a second look at many of these later records (point in fact “Army Arrangement” is actually a fantastic album and song, now that it’s been cleaned up and all of Laswell’s studio histrionics are stripped away).
One record that really needed no remastering and stands as one of the best late period Fela records (only bested by Beast Of No Nation from 1989, which is incidentally my single favorite Fela record) is Original Sufferhead. Released in 1982, his first album with Egypt 80, “Original Sufferhead” and the flipside “Power Show” (here edited into just an instrumental version, you’ll have to get Fela’s indictment of small time officials who throw their “power” around on the full CD, which also includes International Thief Thief aka I.T.T.) have all the hallmarks of Fela’s legendary style and sound. The new group Egypt 80 lays down an intricate and funky back beat punctuated by Fela’s saxophone and organ. The mood early on is a bit playful, with the upbeat beat and Fela’s stated desire to “Sing it nice and together” before some call and response between the instruments and the singers. But eventually Fela gets down to business. He wants to bring attention to the main problems that face Africa as a continent and Nigeria in particular.
“Water, Light, Food, House,” the basic necessities of life and things that many people take for granted where these things are plentiful, such as in the US. In 1982 and here still in 2011 these things are not so plentiful in much of Africa. But, as Fela details, one by one in detail, this is not because they do not exist in Africa. Instead the water, energy and food problems of Africa are largely created because the people do not control these resources. For example, as Fela details in reference to food, where the “Big Big People” in Corporations plant food and goods such as cocoa, brown nuts and rubber which are then sold outside of Africa, but the Africans have to buy their rice from Brazil, Thailand and elsewhere instead of being able to use their own land to produce the food they need. The housing matter is a different matter as Fela says himself in the song. Housing seems more tied to the general poverty of many people in Africa, poverty that if the resources already described connected to water, energy and food were not largely taken away from Africans, either by multi-national corporations or the despotic leaders of these countries, would not exist. Africa is a rich land, but the unequal distribution of power and resources leads it to be “underdeveloped” and its people to “live like servants” and “sleep inside of dust-bins.”
Part of the reason I felt like this record in particular was a good one to highlight at this very moment is that it seems to encapsulate so much about what is going on right now in N. Africa and parts of the Middle East, where people are tired of how things have been and no longer are willing to accept their oppression at the hands of despots who continue to enrich themselves personally while leaving their people destitute. It is for this reason that Fela and Egypt 80 say “Original Sufferhead Must Go!” and the people must be able to control their own destinies. As history continues to unfold, let us hope that this vision will come to pass and the people will finally be free as Fela so longed for them to be.
Like V.I.P. Vagabonds In Power and Authority Stealing, 1980's I.T.T. International Thief Thief and 1981's Original Sufferhead address the moral vacuum at the heart of the Nigerian state—and its use of violent reprisal against dissent.
In "International Thief Thief ," Kuti makes fiercely insulting attacks on two of his biggest enemies, former Nigerian president General Obasanjo, and the local chief executive of the multi-national corporation Internal Telephone & Telegraph (ITT), Moshood Abiola, who was also the boss of Decca Records in Nigeria. Obasanjo Kuti regarded as a crook, an incompetent and a thug, and he held him directly responsible for the death of his mother following the army's 1977 pillage of Kalakuta. Abiola, he believed, with evidence, had both cheated him out of royalties and conspired with Decca's London bosses to neuter him after the 1977 attack, in order to maintain favorable relations with Obasanjo's regime. Both men, Kuti sings, are "thieves," "rats" and of "low mentality."
The original back cover illustration used for Original Sufferhead—later replaced by the design inside the gatefold of this edition—was a black and white photo taken shortly after a particularly savage beating Kuti received from the police in 1981 (the only beating, among dozens that he received over the years, during which he felt that his life was in danger). Clad only in a pair of Speedos, Kuti displays his bruised and battered body. Extraordinarily in the face of the evidence, no-one was ever prosecuted, much less punished, for the assault. Arguing from the personal to the political, Kuti sings that his injuries are part and parcel of the vicious treatment meted out indiscriminately to Nigerians.
Read the full article at allaboutjazz.com
Nearly every one of MCA's twofer reissues of the best albums in Fela Kuti's discography is worthwhile, and this pairing of 1980's I.T.T. and 1982's ORIGINAL SUFFER HEAD is no exception. By the early '80s Fela had already honed his intensely polyrhythmic Afrobeat sound to perfection, and these two recordings feature all of the extended vamps, roiling rhythms, searing horns, call-and-response vocals, and political invective he was known for.
ORIGINAL SUFFERHEAD marks the debut of Fela's Egypt 80 band, an ensemble that continued the thread of Fela's earlier albums while adding an increasing musical complexity. As is the case with much of Fela's work, the lyrics here address the political injustices of Nigeria at the time, satirizing public officials while commanding the people to get up/stand up. But the real revolutionary tenor of this music comes through in its sprawling grooves, whether on the relentlessly driving "Original Suffer Head," the chill, jazzy "Power Show," or the roiling, polyphonal "I.T.T. Pt. 1 & 2."
At the time of its release, the name of this album (and the eponymous title track) would have been recognized by any Nigerian as the acronym for “International Telephone and Telegraph”, Nigeria’s biggest telecommunications conglomerate. In this track, however, Fela satirically used the acronym to mean “International Thief-Thief.” The song is a 24-minute direct attack on multinational’s CEO, Moshood Abiola, who also happened to own Decca, the label Fela was signed to at the time, and with whom Fela was in full battle mode based on the label’s refusal to release his albums. Fela takes this opportunity to publicly disgrace Abiola for, in Fela’s eyes, becoming a stooge for the white man through his general colonial mentality, and specifically for his collusion in the CIA-led effort to dislocate Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president Allende. The lyrics also include a pointed history lesson outlining the way, in the days of slavery, the white man would find a willing African who would sell his own people into slavery.
Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu
Original Sufferhead (1981)
Original Sufferhead begins with a minimal and otherworldly improv with a Fela’s new band, Egypt 80, before building up into a bold, intricately structured Afrobeat anthem decrying the situation of the masses in Nigeria. “Let’s sing a nice song together,” Fela suggests, as the chorus parallels the agile melody of his of sax. He then, with the help of the chorus, launches into a list of the problems that plague the people: no water supply, the exorbitant price of living, no health care, double digit inflation. The B-side, Power Show, builds on the same theme, highlighting the ruling class oppression of the masses. The lyrics tell the story of a rich man in a fancy car that, pulling alongside a poor man traveling alone, verbally abuses the man. Fela calls this the “Power Show”, and excoriates the behavior – it’s not the right thing to do for your fellow human being.
Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu