Jun 4, 2012
Fela Kuti - Live In Detroit (2012)
When he rolled into Detroit's historic Fox Theater in November, 1986, Fela Kuti had been out of prison less than a year. He never should have been in prison in the first place; he'd been jailed in 1984 by the government of coup leader Major-General Muhammadu Buhari on trumped-up currency charges. Fela was an outspoken opponent of Buhari, as he had been of Nigeria's other coup-installed dictators before, and his imprisonment was an attempt to silence him. It backfired. Amnesty International launched a worldwide campaign for Fela's release, and then Buhari himself was overthrown by another coup, this one led by Ibrahim Babangida. Babangida pardoned Fela and actually brought Kuti's older brother, Beko, into his administration as Health Minister.
Fela opens the concert captured on Live in Detroit 1986 with a short monologue that directly references his wrongful imprisonment. "In my country," he says, "Things happen just like that…You go your own way, mind your own business, next thing I know I'm in prison, man, just like that." It's part of a nicely rhythmic build-up to the song "Just Like That", a song that continues the litany of arbitrary ills that Fela laments can befall an average Nigerian (he generalizes it to all of Africa, too), wrapping them in recollections of Nigeria's devastating 1967-1970 Civil War.
This version of "Just Like That" is half an hour long, which makes it by some distance the shortest workout on this set, which was taped by Bob Teagan at the Fox and is just now seeing release. The set is only four songs long, but it sprawls for nearly two and a half hours spread over three discs. Honestly, it could have fit on two discs without changing the running order, so I'm not sure why there are three. Fela's last band, Egypt 80, was a pretty different animal from Africa 70, which is the band most people are familiar with from its funky, forceful, and relatively compact masterpieces "Zombie", "Water No Get Enemy", "Expensive Shit", and "Roforofo Fight", among others. Egypt 80 emphasized jazz over funk, for one thing, and indulged in long, spacy jams built around hypnotic grooves.
The performance flows very freely through the four songs, each of which is introduced with a pointed, and usually pretty funny, monologue from Fela, whose facility with sarcasm was just about unparalleled in his day. Kuti engages his audience, teaching them short Yoruban phrases for call-and-response passages (and admonishing them to pronounce Yoruban words like Africans-- "We Africans talk with our whole mouths"), and these sections of long tracks make for good contrasts with the rhythm section's coolly funky vamping and the lead instrumentalists' winding solos.
It is a mostly great show, though not all dynamite. "Confusion Break Bones" wanders through one section so bizarrely discordant that it almost sounds like each instrument in the rhythm section is playing a different song at the same tempo, but it's a few minutes out of 40, and works in its own kind of freaky way. One of the show's highlights comes near its end, as "Beast of No Nation" thumps out of a big, full-band crescendo and settles on this amazing, bass-led rhythm that's so compelling on its own no one bothers to play anything over it. It gets the audience, already obviously engaged and even familiar with some of the material, really pumped. Listening to it off a very well-recorded audience tape is of course different from being there, and as a listening experience, this show is perhaps best taken a disc at a time. Still, whether heard whole or in pieces, it captures one of Fela's less appreciated phases and finds him still brimming with piss and vinegar two trying decades into his crusading career.
For Fela Kuti, 1986 was a crucial year. In April, he was finally released from prison in Nigeria after serving nearly two years for currency trafficking, after Amnesty International had declared the outspoken musical rebel to be a political detainee. He had been arrested as he was leaving for the US; at last that tour could go ahead, with Fela in predictably fiery form. This double album, recorded at Detroit's Fox Theatre in November 1986, is his first "new" release since his final studio album 20 years ago, and provides an exhilarating reminder of his power as a live performer. There are only four songs, stretched over nearly two and a half hours. Fela eased between funky keyboard work, saxophone solos, and cool chanting vocals on songs that included the furious Just Like That, the cool jazz of Confusion Break Bones, and the strident and angry Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense. This was Fela on classic form.
As a format, the live album serves numerous purposes: memento for fans of a concert recently attended, historical document of an important point in a band’s career. But, all too often, it’s a cynical cash cow to fleece the faithful. The best, however, make you wish you’d attended the concert in question. So it is with Live in Detroit, a recently exhumed 1986 recording from the first American tour by king of afrobeat Fela Kuti’s final band, Egypt 80, a year after he was freed from a bogus sentence for smuggling in his home country of Nigeria.
The memory of his incarceration is clearly fresh for Fela as he introduces the first song, Just Like That. "In my home country," he says, "They can put you in prison, just… like… that…" The song’s theme wouldn’t have been lost on the audience; while no corrupt militaristic hell-hole like Fela’s Nigeria, the Detroit of 1986 was a neglected, decaying post-industrial ghost-town. The recording’s bootleg roots – heavy with reverb, capturing the crackle and buzz of the audience – lend the music an electric presence.
Just Like That is the first of four songs over two-and-a-half hours, which won’t surprise Fela aficionados: his albums typically chased a single tune across one or both sides of vinyl. Still, not a moment is wasted. While Fela’s 80s output isn’t quite as fiery as his work with Africa 70 – there’s nothing here as blistering as the agit-bleat of ITT or Original Sufferhead – the slow-burn of the material is every bit as insurgent, as life-affirming.
The lengthy track times – Just Like That is the shortest, at just under a half-hour; a seething Confusion Break Bones boils away for over 40 minutes – are part of this music’s power, as Fela and band coax their grooves into meditative, conversational exchanges and roaring, intense peaks.
Witness Just Like That’s crescendos, saxophone solos writhing between blasts of righteous horns, Fela and his wives scattering chants between the polyrhythms, carving a martial funk from the chaos. Or the infernal slow build of the closing Beasts of No Nation, translating anger and pain into the sweetest, most-bristling, most-ecstatic party music. You’ll wish you’d been there. You’ll wish it would never end.
Detroit in the 1980s wasn’t a place many people wanted to visit. With racial strife and collapsing industry having critically hemorrhaging it through the middle of the 20th century, the Motor City was a stagnant mess of derelict buildings and crime-ridden neighbourhoods. It was in such a bad way that when the movie RoboCop came out, there was an understood realism to the violent dystopia in the film. Fela Kuti, however, was someone undeterred. In 1986, the Afrobeat pioneer played a show at Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre. Recorded with his band at the time, Egypt ’80, it’s now being released as an album by Knitting Factory Records.
The set captured on Live In Detroit: 1986 is a fantastic encapsulation of Kuti’s many aspects. It is first and foremost an astounding musical feat. Never one for brevity in his music, the entire concert is comprised of 4 sprawling tracks, each a polyrhythmic tapestry showing off each part of the Afrobeat sound. Long free form jazz structure, driving and hypnotic beats, call and response vocals, all overlayed with intense bursts of talented individual musicianship; the sheer energy of the music on the album shows that this no ordinary gig, but a clinic on the style Kuti helped create.
Also on display throughout the album is Fela Kuti the activist. Before every song, he talks vaguely on a topic of social justice that would not seem out of place in either an African dictatorship or impoverished swathes of the United States. The opening musings are particularly interesting, as Kuti speaks about the sudden and negative changes that can befall a person (“You’re going on your way, mind your business, don’t do shit, don’t do nothing. Next thing you know you’re in person. Just. Like. That.”). All in all, this expansive release does a great job of summarizing the figure of Fela Kuti for a public just rediscovering him.
On November 7, 1986, Fela Kuti played live in Detroit as part of his first international tour with the Egypt 80. He had tried two years previously but the plan had been foiled by a dubious arrest over ‘currency trafficking’ and his subsequent imprisonment. His freedom came only after an Amnesty International campaign for his release. Fela’s international tour then became an opportunity, as Amnesty saw it, to expose human rights abuses in Nigeria through Fela’s music.
Several bootleg recordings were made of the Detroit gig. This release by Knitting Factory Records was the best quality.
Most valuably captured in the recording is Fela Kuti the activist, displayed through his pre-song musings. “Me goin’ my own way, my own business”, says Fela of his arrest. The crowd whoop as he performs a piece of visual comedy lost to the listener. “Don’t do shit, don’t do nothing… next thing I know I’m in prison man, just like that. In my country, things happen just like that. Just like when you watching television or something… they take power man, just like that.”
Western style democracy, according to Fela doesn’t work in Nigeria – “democracy? dem-a-crazy!”. “White man ruled us for many years, we have constant electricity.” But then things change, ‘Just Like That’. ‘Just Like That’ is probably the catchiest song on this release, and carries a powerful warning of how unpredictable Fela’s Nigeria has become. Each member of the Egypt 80 has their moment in the spotlight as Fela Kuti the bandleader dictates the pace. Half an hour of energy, then, just like that, it all ends.
‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’ displays a slower, jazzier style of afrobeat, strongly reminiscent of Fela’s better known ‘Water Get No Enemy’. “Culture, tradition, Western democracy, African dem-o-crazy, corrupt university, corrupt school, corrupt teacher” – at a later point in the concert, Fela takes the crowd through the stages of knowledge as it filters down from a colonial past to the streets of Nigeria. Also featured on the album are ‘Beasts Of No Nation’ (“I’m talking about leaders who act like animals”) and ‘Confusion Breaks Bones’, two reflections of Fela’s time in prison.
Fela Kuti, the outspoken Nigerian originator of afrobeat, began his highly-anticipated tour of the U.S. in the fall of 1986, two years behind schedule. It wasn’t his fault. Arrested by the Nigerian government in 1984 at the Lagos airport en route to America, Fela spent the next eighteen months in jail on a trumped-up currency charge. When he did finally arrive stateside for his first full-band appearances in over sixteen years, he was showered with public and critical acclaim. In retrospect the ‘86 tour marked the high point of Fela’s international career. No commercially available recordings from the tour have been available until now. Thanks to a fan who recorded an appearance at Detroit’s Fox Theater we can now hear Fela and his band Egypt 80 thrill the audience in a venue that once hosted legendary Motown performers.
There is plenty of music here: almost two and a half hours-worth comprised of four songs, each averaging over thirty minutes. “Just Like That,” “Confusion Break Bone,” “Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense,” and “Beasts of No Nation,” unrecorded at the time, are all solid examples of Fela’s 1980’s sound. The band features twenty musicians, including an eight-piece horn section, along with four background singers and six dancers. The four songs follow roughly the same pattern. Beginning with a slow, scintillating percussion groove layered with guitars, the songs unfold at a relaxed pace as complex arrangements of background voices and horns weave in and out. Fela contributes sparse but effective electric organ as well as sax solos. His vocals begin well into each track and are performed in Nigerian pidgin (though he addresses the crowd in standard English). Background vocals serve as a provocative counterpoint. A section of audience participation via call and response is a regular feature of each song.
Compared to Fela’s earlier work Afrika 70, the energy level of this performance is cool versus hot. The lyrics from this period are less sarcastic and event-driven. Instead, Fela addresses broad topics, such as lingering colonialism in “Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense.” Some speculate that the year and a half spent in jail before the tour, as well as the severe beating he received from soldiers in 1981, caused Fela to become more introspective. This might account for the trance-like quality of the arrangements and the somewhat solemn mood of the music overall.
The sound quality of the recording, often a weakness in bootleg recordings, is excellent. Though some PA buzzing is audible at the very beginning of some tracks, it quickly disappears once the music starts. Fela’s signature political discourses during and between songs are held to a minimum, in part because the sections between songs have been left out.
Though he never reached the level of commercial success warranted by his artistic achievement, Fela remains an international icon, continuing to influence and inspire artists today. As a document of his most important U.S. tour, Live in Detroit, 1986 is significant and well worth hearing.
These days, rebellion in music often constitutes idiotic stunts with various offshoots of intoxication, and any political commentary is a carefully-plotted part of the publicity campaign for some new product. Fela Kuti (1938 – 1997) was the real deal, forever railing against the repressive actions of various military-led governments in his native Nigeria, and paying a heavy price for his troubles. This 1986 performance at Detroit’s Fox Theatre was recorded on a US tour that was delayed by two years due to Fela’s imprisonment on bogus charges – a good example of the harassment, beatings and generally extremely unpleasant hassle he was regularly served by the Nigerian authorities.
Crucially, Kuti had the sense to marry his political activism to some of the most intoxicating music ever created. As the bandleader of first Africa 70 and then Egypt 80 (featured here), Fela played a key part in cooking up the hugely influential polyrhythmic nirvana that is Afrobeat, a hypnotic blend of James Brown’s sweaty funk, loose-limbed African rhythms and the boundless exploration of jazz that – together with Fela’s incendiary lyrics and sloganeering – created some of the most successful protest songs in existence.
As such, the first official release of this much-bootlegged live recording from November 1986 (the first new Fela produce since 1992’s Underground System) is a drool-inducing prospect. Get past the amazingly vibrant opener, call-and-response epic ‘Just Like That’, however, and a problem emerges. Fela and his orchestra are on nothing short of top form here, but they appear to have lost any sense of proportion when it comes to the time it’s decent to dedicate to a single groove. Live in Detroit 1986 comprises four tracks: the double CD clocks in at 140 minutes. This might seem like a daft criticism of an artist whose album tracks often clocked in at 20 minutes each, and one whose Best Of compilation contains 10 minute edits. But do the maths, and it’s obvious we’re in for a very long haul indeed here.
The marathon workouts don’t matter one bit as long as the raw materials at hand are strong enough to withhold such extended exposure: ‘Just Like That’ goes on for a neat half an hour, but could easily double that without anyone objecting. Likewise ‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’ – not one of Fela’s most infectious cuts, perhaps, but sweet enough to sustain interest for 25 minutes. Problems start when the proceedings move to selections from Fela’s B-list. The tracks here are drawn from his final studio albums (all tunes were still unreleased at the time of this performance – Fela didn’t do “the hits”). Even the biggest Fela fanatic would hesitate to claim this was the most fruitful phase of his career, with the razor-sharp grooves of the legendary 1970s cuts giving way to a looser, less hook-laden approach that at times struggled to build a compelling momentum. Governments rise and fall, fashions change, tectonic plates move several inches towards each other: Fela and his band are still working their way through the 40 minutes of ‘CBB (Confusion Break Bones)’.
This slow-burning jam must have been thrilling to witness: the excitement of the audience is palpable. Taken in at a 25 years’ remote, though, and it’s hard not to feel similar frustration as with, say, live Neil Young guitar solo epics at their least inspired. You can half-imagine members of the band struggling with their conscience, trying to decide whether or not they’ve the courage to suggest that the boss moves on to the next tune as this one’s well and truly exhausted.
01. Just Like That
02. Confusion Break Bones
03. Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense
04. Beast of No Nation