Dec 13, 2011
Fela Kuti - Beasts of No Nation (1989)
After helping Fela Anikulapo Kuti with Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense, Wally Badarou was back in the producer's chair for this effort, which was political in the extreme. That is to say, Kuti was in an extremely confrontational mood. The cover pictures former South African president P.W. Botha, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan as horned vampires with blood dripping from their mouths. The music is more of the same, the grooves are typically sinuous, but the lyrics are venom-filled with Kuti referring to the aforementioned trio as "Animals wan dash our human rights." After a few so-so records in the early '80s, Beasts of No Nation was a strong (at times stunning) return to form for Kuti and signaled that his political beliefs kept him from becoming musically lazy.
By time of the two half-hour tracks on this CD reissue, Kuti's lyrics were as confrontational and critical of government behavior as ever. The revolutionary aspects of his music, however, had been dulled by the repetition of his formula over many years. "Beasts of No Nation," a half-hour track from 1989, is not one of his more memorable grooves or sequences of interchanges among instruments and lead-backup vocals. The lyrics were characteristic comments on his personal situation, though. The first song he wrote in 1986 after leaving prison, it comments on the behavior of the judge (who apologized to him in a prison hospital for his conviction), and also weaves critique of the United Nations into the tune. "O.D.O.O. (Overtake Don Overtake Overtake)," from 1990, protests the negative effects of military regimes in Africa -- not a new theme for his work, though certainly one worthy of ongoing concern. Percussive prominence and variation plays a stronger role in this cut than it does in some of Fela's other work. Yet structurally, his music's navigation through numerous instrumental passages and sequencing of instrumental and vocal parts is almost as predictable as a graph of the temperature rising as water is boiled.
At first listen, Fela seems unfocused on Beasts of No Nation / ODOO. Extended songs are a long-standing trademark of Fela's afrobeat, but in most cases the song's length is propelled by the energetic strength of Fela's music and the conviction in his message. His seeming lack of focus makes the half-hour tracks on this recording seem overlong. However, Beasts of No Nation / ODOO were a pair of relatively late-period albums for Fela (roughly 1988), and the toll that decades of imprisonment and beatings had taken on him is well-documented. Close listening reveals that the strength of this recording lies not in his slightly diminished charisma, but by the evolution in his compositions and the realization of this evolution through his band, the Egypt 80.
Considering that Fela's performances (even on record) always had an improvisatory aspect to them, the Egypt 80 proves to be a highly flexible and responsive group. In comparison to the hard-driving Africa 70, The Egypt 80 was more attuned to the texture and subtleties that Fela was developing in his late-period work. Although the Africa 70 excelled in executing highly complex beats derived from local traditions, Beasts of No Nation / ODOO shows that Fela was experimenting beyond the boundaries his previous work. Repeated listening reveals some of his most complex arrangements and memorable melodic material, seamlessly bound into an improvisatory tapestry. It does not take too much effort to visualize Fela conducting the Egypt 80 like an orchestra in the same way that Frank Zappa conducted his bands.
However, one can't help but feel that on some level Fela is repeating himself. Despite the subtle strength of the overall composition, his direct quotation of "Zombie", "Suffering and Schmiling", "Unknown Soldier", and several other of his "greatest hits" in ODOO feels a little more like nostalgic lip service than relevant political dialouge.
The Lowdown: Listen really closely to this one. Although Fela's usual politics are present, he was channeling his energy into evolving his music towards what he considered a new "African Classicalism". One cannot help but think about where this path would have led him if he would have stayed with us for just awhile longer.
Beasts Of No Nation and Overtake Don Overtake Overtake are well-argued indictments of the corruption and oppression rampant in post-colonial regimes in Nigeria and throughout Africa. Beasts Of No Nation also took on the South African apartheid regime of P.W. Botha and the support given to it by Britain's Margaret Thatcher and America's Ronald Reagan. In addition to being vilified in the lyric, Botha, Thatcher and Reagan were portrayed as satanic figures on the front cover.
Kuti rarely focused on individual overseas politicians in his songs, preferring to expose the incompetence and brutality of contemporary black African rulers. And it's worth emphasizing that he didn't possess an ounce of racism or feel any animosity to individual whites (providing they weren't exploiting Africa in some way). He was sufficiently secure in himself even to find some humor in racial tensions....
In 1979, the British film maker Jeremy Marre visited Nigeria hoping to meet and film an interview with Kuti. Already made jumpy by what he'd seen on arrival in Lagos (soldiers and police beating people in the streets, corpses left to rot on the beach), he was made doubly so by the journey to Kuti's house. Driving late at night through unlit back streets, to avoid army patrols (an encounter which would at best result in the payment of a bribe), Marre's party found the building in total darkness, outside and in. Gingerly making his way inside, Marre tripped and fell headlong into a room where Kuti was relaxing with friends. Somebody turned on the light, revealing Kuti lying on a sofa, naked except for pink Speedos and smoking a massive joint, and Marre lying face-down on top of several young women. "Hey, white man," Kuti said, "what are you doing with my wives?" Marre got his interview.
Read the full article at allaboutjazz.com!
This is a rare footage of the late great Afrobeat legend, FELA KUTI & EGYPT 80 getting down to another Underground Spiritual Game/Sound, "BEASTS OF NO NATION!"
Beasts of No Nation
Beast of No Nation is the first song Fela wrote in 1986, after he was liberated from prison—serving two years from a five year prison sentence for trumped-up foreign currency violation charges. Everywhere he went after his release, people were asking him what he was going to sing about: ‘Fela wetin you go sing about? Them go worry me!”. People wanted to hear him sing about his prison experience, like he had done with the songs like: Alagbon Close, Kalakuta Show, and Expensive Shit. Finally, he decided to sing about the world we live in—with particular reference to Nigeria. He said when he was in prison he called it ‘Inside World’, out of prison he called it ‘Outside World’. But for him it is actually ‘Craze World’. Otherwise, what name can one give a world with: police brutality, army oppression, courts without justice, magistrates who are supposed to uphold the law, obviously seen bending the law to please some special interest. As further proof of the craze world, he sings about the judge who sent him to jail for five years on a trumped up charge, only for the same judge to visit Fela in a prison hospital two years after. The judge apologized, claiming he was under pressure from the government to convict. This could only happen in a Craze World, Fela reasons. It can only be in a craze world that people sit and watch governments shoot down protesting students with impunity, like in Soweto(South Africa), Zaria and Ife(Nigeria). Bearing in mind that Nigeria like all craze world countries, condemn the apartheid regime in South Africa, yet committing crimes against humanity in their respective countries. Turning to another aspect of craze world policy of the Nigerian government. In 1983, the Buhari/Idigabon military regime launched a public campaign dubbed ‘War Against Indiscipline’. This was the regime’s solution to corruption inherent in the Nigerian society. To justify this campaign, the Nigerian head of state, General Buhari and his deputy General Idiagbon publicly used words like: ‘…my people are useless! My people are senseless! My people are indisciplined!’ to describe Nigerian People.For Fela, only in a craze world can such remarks be made. Moreover, such statements could only have come from an ‘animal in human skin’. How could these two animals use such words to qualify a people who feed them? This being so, other leaders from other countries must either be animals themselves to associate with, or accept to co-habit under such an umbrella as the United Nations with a head of state that considers his people useless. Turning to the United Nations, Fela saw it as a majorly unhealthy organization that suffers major inadequacy in its organizational principles. It is absurd to organize the UN principle bodies; the Security Council and the General Assembly, in such an undemocratic manner as one member’s cote can veto the decision of the majority. Is this Democracy? “What is United about the UN?” Fela asked. Thatcher went to war with Argentina over Falkland—yet both counties are members of the world body. Reagan and Libya were at war. Israel versus Lebanon. Iran versus Iraq. East-West cold war. It looks more like a group of disunited nations, so how can such a body work to promote and encourage respect for human rights? For Fela, that is another kind of animal talk. How can people talk about ‘individual’ rights? No one has the right to deprive someone else of what belongs to the individual—only an animal would try to take away another person’s legitimate rights. People who hear Fela say things like this reminded him that he was sent to prison for having such opinions of government. He, in his defense, said it was not him who called members of the UN animals. It was Pik Botha, the former South Africa President at the peak of the anti-apartheid struggle, in reaction to the persistent riots against the racist regime. He came out with a statement that his regime would act more brutally if the riots did not stop: “…this uprising will bring out the beast in us”. Fela’s reminded us that President Reagan advocated: “..constructive engagement with the apartheid regime” among member nations of the UN. The same policy as Mrs. Thatcher – an indication that they were sharing the same friendship and animal characteristics as Botha. If this is so the UN can only be an assembly of Beasts of No Nation.
O.D.O.O.(Overtake Don Overtake Overtake)
In O.D.O.O., Fela sings about the effects of military usurpation of power and the destruction of African young democracy since independence- particularly young democracies, that fought and won independence after long confrontations, and sometimes wars with colonial powers. He said when they come to power, the coup plotters assume names such as: Nigerian Supreme Military Council, Ghana Redemption Council, Libyan Revolutionary, etc. Most times the coup plots were planned and financed by departing colonial powers. To those who are not aware, the arrival of the military in the political arena creates the illusion of a peaceful ‘democratic’ participation and functioning government. Particularly, since most of the daily running of government is performed by civilians who report to military bosses. For Fela, under normal circumstances, the duty of the armed forces is to defend and support the civil government; not to overthrow it or usurp the duties of any branch of government because it has no political mandate. To do the contrary- that means ‘Overtake-overtake’. Any idea of a prosperous, peaceful country with the military at the helm of power is nothing but an illusion. Persistent scandals and corruption at the highest level of power, a hallmark of each and successive regimes since independence, helps put Fela’s disillusion and distrust of the military in perspective. Pointing to the ambiguity of modeling newly independent African nation’s constitution after those of the departing colonial masters, as the root cause of our problems. Fela in his sarcastic manner calls what passes as government in Africa as: ‘…soldier go! Soldier come!’, meaning the institution that created the military structure purposefully put the army there to continue their colonial work. To paint a clear picture of the plight of Africans under such dictatorship, Fela mentions a list of songs he had written, criticizing the wrongs of the system: Kalakuta Show! Mr. Follow-Follow! Zombie! Shuffering and Shmiling!. Unfortunately, it is the poor masses who suffer most from these mismanagement and corruption in government. From an early age, Africans children are forced to learn how to survive in a system where you don’t know where your next meal is coming from—no social security, no education, etc. Despite all these setbacks, Africans still try to educate their children, the children grow up, taking steady jobs to better their lives, saving money here and cutting edges there just to survive. In the end, Overtake Don Overtake Overtake because events of the mismanagement’s from various administrations render all sacrifices and cutting edges the individual makes to better his life useless.
Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu