Dec 16, 2011
Fela Kuti - Underground System (1992)
Underground System was among the better recordings of Fela's late career, comprised of two extended tracks, the title cut and "Pansa Pansa." "Underground System" starts off with rhythms that are far faster and more urgent than those on most of Fela's characteristically lengthy tracks. If that sounds like a marginal quality upon which to judge a song as a standout, well, something like a much faster and played-as-though-we-mean-it tempo really does help to differentiate it from the singer's generally similar output of the 1980s and 1990s. The backup singers also come in quickly with infectious chants, prior to a typical Fela lyric observing the difficulty in enacting positive political change in Africa. Hearing them sing in tandem with Fela instead of doing call-response patterns, as they do during much of the 28-minute cut, also makes for a refreshing variation. "Pansa Pansa," at a mere (for Fela) 17 minutes, also gets your attention more than his average effort, with rapid propulsive beats and sprinkles of slightly dissonant jazzy piano. The 2001 CD reissue on MCA adds a half-hour song from his 1990 album, ODOO, which is considerably slower and moodier than the prior two tunes, the beginning emphasizing mournful electric keyboards and sax soloing.
This album contains one of Fela Kuti's most direct and suitably scathing political attacks. Backed by Egypt '80, Kuti's unrelenting cries for justice and equality are at the foreground of the A-side title track, "Underground System." The stretched-out instrumental sections contain fierce, tightly knit rhythms around which Kuti and company deliver an impassioned choral call and response during the verses. Most specifically, "Underground System" is a fable of the behind-the-scenes puppet mastery and indelible hypocrisy in African politics. The melody is trancelike in its repetition, and the driving beats allow room for Oyinade Adeniran (tenor sax) and Rilwan Fagbemi (baritone sax) to unleash a few vital blows -- which have the same impassioned intonations and open-ended improvisational skills as a Sonny Rollins or Gerry Mulligan. This track is stretched out to nearly a half hour and is notable for the occasional drop-dead pause -- which is practically startling in contrast to the continuously throbbing tribal funk. Kuti's vocals -- roughly translated in the liner notes of the 2001 reissue -- are as fervent as any of his previously overtly political statements. The same is true of his piano solos -- which are rooted in a similarly freewheeling and melodic approach as Thelonious Monk, Terry Adams, and Sun Ra. "Pansa Pansa" became one of the tunes most synonymous with the anti-establishment leanings of Kuti and his Egypt '80 band. Although Underground System/Just Like That was not issued until the early '90s, this track has roots that reach back to the mid-'70s -- when Kuti was at the height of his political and social influence. Many of his most ardent enthusiasts and supporters took "Pansa Pansa" -- which is translated as "more and more" -- to become their rallying cry. The tiresome double standard under which they lived likewise encouraged African youth to take up the gauntlet, and soon Fela became a known nuisance to the concurrently governing regime. [The 2001 CD reissue also adds the track "Confusion Break Bones (C.B.B.)" -- which had been initially issued on the ODOO (1989) long-player.]
The last album of newly recorded material to be released during Kuti's lifetime, 1992's Underground System is a fitting swansong. Instrumentally, the rocket-fuelled title track's spotlight is as much on piano as it is on the horns, in line with the shift in emphasis introduced on Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense. Lyrically, it is as deep as it is hard-hitting.
Kuti originally conceived the piece as a tribute to Burkina Faso's revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. The two men knew and liked each other: Sankara admired Kuti's music as much as Kuti admired Sankara's espousal of African values and commitment to social change. But following Sankara's assassination in 1987, Kuti broadened the lyric, turning it into an attack on the "underground system" by which military and political elites throughout Africa conspired together to remove any emergent leader threatening the status quo (and the post-colonial hegemony's ability to keep its trotters in the trough). In passing, General Obasanjo and Moshood Abiola (see the I.T.T. International Thief Thief commentary) are also named and shamed.
"Pansa Pansa," also taken at a furious pace, was first performed (but not recorded) by Kuti in mid 1977, one of several brave responses to the army's destruction of Kalakuta earlier that year. Citing some of the 1970s albums which particularly angered the authorities—including Alagbon Close, Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana, Zombie and Kalakuta Show—Kuti vowed never to be muzzled. The more injustices Nigeria's rulers heaped on its people, the "pansa pansa" (literally, the "more more") he would protest against them. The final track, "Confusion Break Bones," in which Kuti turns his attention from state-sponsored brutality to government economic incompetence, was originally released on Overtake Don Overtake Overtake.
Read the full article at allaboutjazz!
Fela starts the song in Underground System by saying he had sang songs for great African men: Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana was for him the greatest of all. In the same breath, he had sang songs against African thieves: Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigerian President and M.K.O. Abiola; late chairman of ITT Middle East and Africa, are the biggest thieves. He went on to explain that many young folks in Africa today may not know about Kwame Nkrumah because of the diabolic conspiracy which consists in keeping Africans away from knowing who they should look up to as role models. For Fela, those who know or read about Nkrumah will agree that there are not many like him in the history of Africa, he was African personality personified. He worked throughout his adult life for black pride and African unity. Unfortunately, because of the Underground System they try to protect, whenever Africa finds a charismatic leader determined to change things on the continent, other stooges passing as leaders will conspire to destroy such a leader. Fela mentions how Nkrumah was destroyed by the Western powers who wanted to keep Africa latched to their colonial masters. Sekou Toure suffered the same fate. Ahmed Ben Bella, Patrice Lumumba, Modibo Keita, Gamel Abdu’Nasser, even Mandela—they didn’t want him to arrive as head of a free South Africa. Everywhere in the world, people look up to their role model for inspiration. Fela then brings us to the story of Thomas Sankara. Saying Africa, since the passing of the leaders mentioned above, had not seen a charismatic leader like Sankara. He was one of the few who were not afraid to speak the truth. Calling on other African heads of state to come together and unite, living a modest life compared to those who only preoccupation was to line their pockets with money stolen from their respective countries. Fela says that, despite the attempt by corrupt African leaders to protect their crimes in an Underground System, everything in the world is in turns: they can conspire to kill Sankara today, but can never kill the ideals he lived and was murdered for.
Pansa Pansa was Fela’s most defiant statement to the Nigerian military rulers of his determination to champion the cause of Pan Africanism. Mid 1976, when Fela started to play this track live, musically he was at his zenith—extremely popular throughout Africa. Politically, his message was beginning to get across. Youths in Nigeria were beginning to identify with the Fela ideals and registering en-mass at the Africa Shrine headquarters of the new grassroots movement Fela had inaugurated and called: The Young African Pioneers. Economically, it was the peak of the oil boom. Oil was selling for a minimum of $700 US dollars a barrel. Nigeria never had it better, careering along on at least two million barrels of sulphur-low oil, pumped daily and sold on the world market. Fela has just signed a twelve album a year deal with DECCA Records. The record industry was booming—people were buying records. At government’s level, it was corruption galore including those in the highest echelon of government. Denunciations and criticism from Fela had brought him in open confrontation with the military rulers on previous occasions, some of which he had sang into songs: Alagbon Close! No Bread! Monkey Banana! Zombie! Go Slow! Kalakuta Show! The release of all these songs angered the military establishment in Nigeria and most times prompted attacks on Fela and Kalakuta republic residents. For Fela however, despite all the repression: “…as long as Africa is Suffering! No Freedom! No Justice! No Happiness!, They will never hear PANSA PANSA”(meaning they will hear more and more).
Confusion Break Bones (C.B.B.) (originally released on O.D.O.O. album)
In Confusion Break Bones(C.B.B.), Fela mentions the earlier song he wrote titled ‘CONFUSION’ where he compared the present African situation (with particular reference to Nigeria), as an example of a crossroad in the centre of town with a permanent traffic jam — “..na confusion be that oh!”. Despite this graphic picture painted in “Confusion”, some people feel optimistic that one day the Nigerian situation will improve: ‘…Nigeria go better!’, Fela felt the contrary because he did not share their optimism, he did not see why a continent as rich as Africa, with all the natural resources, will have the majority of their population existing below the poverty: ‘how country go make money and people of the country no see money’. Continuing, Fela says: ‘…I see many wrong things for Nigeria!’, citing as an example of such wrongs, the acts of economic sabotage perpetrated by people in high places, only to punish the poor for the fallout of such wrongs. Government prohibits some articles, but such articles find their way into the market despite prohibition. However government agents; i.e.: the police, army, etc., seize such articles from the poor, whose livelihood depend on the little profit they make selling such articles. Fela asked in this song why destroy such article by burning? Why not give them out to people for free? Particularly since these articles are needed by the people and because of the disorganization that is government, people profit from smuggling the prohibited articles into the country. Singing about all these problems was no new news for Fela. He had done this all his professional life — putting everything at risk. He feels it is no news(old news) to talk about all the mismanagement of African lives by various administrations: ‘If I say! Road no dey? (that is old news). ‘…No Food for the people!’ (another old news), mismanagement? That is old news (‘na old news be that!’), stealing by authority?(another old news). Inflation! Corruption! all are not new. The only solution is to have the right government in power thinking in terms of African cultural values. That is the only government that can hold in the centre-creating a power base for all parts of the continent. Fela reminds us that if we allow power to break in the centre the result is what we see in our daily lives: corruption, armed robbery, police and army brutality, anarchy, etc. Fela concludes this song by reminding us that what passes as government in Africa today, is like the crossroad at Ojuelegba in the heart of Lagos, with no traffic light and no traffic warden ‘Na Confusion Break Bones!’. Another double wahala (double problem).
Written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu