Apr 3, 2013

It began with Fela ...


Originally published by dummymag.com

On August 12th 1997, in his birthplace of Lagos, Nigeria, the funeral of Fela Kuti took place. One million people attended. If anything can express the immense adoration of Nigerian people for the most famous African musician of the modern age, it is that one million of his fellow countrymen came to pay their respects. Some even danced around his open grave as live music sounded across the crowds, spurring them on to express their love for him and his work in a way that Fela would surely have seen fit. Multi-instrumentalist, Afrobeat pioneer, social and political activist, human rights advocate, serial womaniser, AIDS victim, sonic revolutionary; many descriptions have been attributed to the man who captivated millions across the world with his outspoken beliefs and oft-criticised personal life, but the legacy that endures most vividly is that of the radical, awe-inspiring music that continues to influence a myriad of artists worldwide.


Now, to celebrate his life and legacy, the complete works of Fela Kuti have been re-packaged and re-released by Manhattan-based Knitting Factory Records/Kalakuta Sunrise, after the former was granted the license from the Fela Anikulapo Kuti Estate for the global re-release of his catalogue. Totalling an incredible fifty albums’ worth of music, the joint label venture have scheduled an ambitious three-batch re-launch between March and September of this year, which kicked off this month with ‘The Best of The Black President 2’, a double CD of 12 tracks ranging chronologically from Fela’s political awakening in the late 1970s after visits to the USA and Ghana (Everything Scatter, Sorrow Tears and Blood) to the early 1990s and his ode to Thomas Sankara after his assassination (Underground System Part 2). Each track from ‘The Best of The Black President 2’ and onwards will have detailed written commentary from noted Afrobeat historian Chris May, as well as specially commissioned artwork and photography.

To celebrate the release of ‘The Best of The Black President 2’, and in anticipation of the release of Kuti’s entire recorded catalogue, we asked musicians, DJs and taste-makers who love Kuti to tell us just what it is about the man that so inspires and informs them. From the first time they heard his music, the anxious, decade-long efforts to collect it and the way his sound shapes the mindset and tastes of producers across a wide variety of musical genres and disciplines, hearing these testimonies of love and loss speak to the enduring impact of Fela Kuti’s music, and serves as an apt prelude to the re-release of his work.

Here’s to you, Fela.

Auntie Flo

I’m writing this in the aftermath of our final Highlife night at the Sub Club in Glasgow as part of a residency that has taken place over the past 18 months. The night was given the theme of ‘It Began In Africa’, a commonly used phrase that refers to the birth of rhythm in music coming from pre-historical Africa. For me, however, ‘It’ really began with Fela. Fela Kuti (in a similar vein as Bob Marley) embodied a nation, created a voice for his countrymen, gave birth to a whole new musical genre in Afrobeat and continues to posthumously bring fresh eyes and ears to Nigeria and the African continent in general.

I’ve read books, seen documentaries and watched the musical over the last few years which tell Fela’s life story, and for those not familiar with it I would recommend that they’re your first port of call. Following the music, of course. Music-wise, there is a ton of it! Seemingly never ending, the originals are either almost impossible to find or in terrible condition, so it’s fantastic that re-issues are now being put out.

A couple of years ago, I was given the opportunity of warming up for Fela’s son Femi Kuti and his live band in the Arches in Glasgow. The concert gave me a glimpse into what it must have been like to witness Fela playing one of his all night sessions at the Shrine in Nigeria. He and his band would play live all night, for hours and hours on end. Like most music being made for a specific context Fela’s music was made for this setting, creating tracks that could seemingly perpetuate endlessly without getting boring. When Femi played the lasted for over three hours, but similarly could have lasted forever. For me this was a new experience when listening to a band as I, like I’m sure many people, have that moment an hour or so into any band’s performance where legs start getting tired and no matter how good it is, you start to think you’ve got your money’s worth.

This gig, although very much a band performance, felt much more like a club night with a DJ playing records. Except it was all live! In this sense I believe that Fela Kuti was one of the world’s first DJs; being able to build up long sets over the course of a whole night, whipping the crowd into a frenzy in doing so, in the same vein to any Panorama Bar DJ. Much is made of Fela the political freedom fighter, the womaniser, the musical pioneer, the dope smoker, but Fela the DJ is something that resonates for me as much as any of the above.


Ghostpoet

Fela made me understand that talking about everyday life through music wasn’t a crime, but a necessity. He taught me that being true to yourself is worth more then any riches, fame or status. Fela was making music in a time where civil unrest, fear and oppression were rife – a time way before the internet, social media and streaming – but his words burned bright like a beacon for all to see. He sold and created nothing but the truth as he saw it, conjuring up compositions that the average man or woman on the street could understand, appreciate and take to their hearts.

The lessons I’ve learned from him as a person and through playing his music for many a year have subconciously soaked deep into my brain. Maybe it was some sort of subliminal message in the talking drums or call and response of the brass? Who knows… The sense of mystery and drama has always sat well with me, and that rough and ready essence is a feeling I can never quite stray far from in my own work.

To choose one favourite Fela track is a task in itself but if I had to choose just one, I would say Water No Get Enemy. That brass intro causes goosebumps everytime, that guitar groove and the hypnotic bass always get the hips moving and only Fela Kuti could compose a song about something as supposedly simple as water and create a piece of Afrobeat history.

Jesse Hackett

Confusion Break Bones was first played to me by my close friend and Pipe Down NTS Radio show partner Otis Marchbank. It’s a track from one of the last records Fela recorded in 1992, and marks a departure from some of his more well known Afrobeat classics.

Harmonically, it seems to have a menacing atonality and impending doom in its resonance. Sounding almost more like a Sun Ra track, its fugue-like, contrapuntal, syncopated organ parts have an off-kilter, sloping feel. I’m always strangely attracted to songs that have a kind of ‘wrong’ or ‘accidental’ energy to them; as if the musicians – their tuning and timing – were all a bit off-colour during the studio session. I think this track really epitomises that aesthetic. It has a bizarre, non-musically-correct sound that makes your average, pitch-perfect muzo wince in discomfort. It’s a dark track that grooves hard and rattles like a meat grinder on a cold lonely mission into sonic oblivion.

For all those who want to search beyond the tributaries of Water No Got Enemy or Zombie, check this strange little gem, its a twisted beauty!


JD Twitch

Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela Ransome Kuti.
Africa 70.
Egypt 80.
Koola Lobitos.
Nigeria ’70.
Kalakutta Republik.
Who the hell is this guy?

I first heard of Fela Kuti when I was around thirteen years old. There was some very odd news piece in the NME about him visiting London and doing some crazy PR voodoo stunt that involved resurrecting a supposedly dead band member. Google sadly fails to bring anything up about this for me now, but I know I didn’t imagine it. Whatever, I was intrigued. As time went on I’d sporadically read more little snippets about him here and there, but there was absolutely no way for me to hear what his music sounded like. Bands I loved like 23 Skidoo would site him as a huge influence, which only made me more desperate to hear him.

Over the next decade or so I must have visited more than fifty record shops around the UK but I never once saw a copy of one of his records – nor did I ever meet anyone who had heard him. Those seem like prehistoric times compared with today; where with a couple of clicks I could have his entire back catalogue at my disposal. But, in hindsight, that almost 15 year wait was most definitely worth it. Perhaps it made me appreciate his music all the more when I finally heard it.

In 1997 the Barclay label in France released two six-album box sets of classic Fela albums. This in itself presented a dilemma. In 1997 I was dirt poor, and coming up with £70 for one of these boxes was quite a financial challenge. I managed to come up with the dough for one of the sets and proceeded to gorge myself on Afrobeat. What a revelation this music was! It was loose, vivid, rough around the edges, vital, life-affirming, joyous, powerful, political, endlessly hyper-kinetic. Those horns! The drums! The call and response vocals! The build up! That artwork! And of course, The Man. Fela!

His music was all I’d dreamed it would be and way, way more. A week later I sold some records so I could afford to buy the second box, and shortly after we started our Optimo nights. Optimo was initially very Fela heavy but sadly it seemed Glasgow audiences weren’t really ready for fifteen minute Afrobeat masterpieces and even now, in these Fela-literate times, it’s hard to pack a Glaswegian dance floor with raw unadulterated Fela unless it has been doctored and edited – and there are now endless unofficial Fela edits and remixes too. I now probably have almost every record he ever made, and I dream about one day doing an entire night devoted to his music. In the meantime, his music has led to me discovering all sorts of music from across Africa. Fela Kuti was the gateway drug to endless hours of pure musical joy for me.
 

Gilles Peterson

Ever since I first heard Roforofo Fight by Fela Kuti being played by DJ Paul Murphy in JAFFAS club on Tottenham Court Road in the autumn of 1984 I was enthralled by the depth and funk of this new music. As a DJ I’ve probably spun more Fela than most other music during the past 30 years… his music is timeless and never feels out of touch. It’s simply raw and rhythmic and dirty…no one can deny its power.

I’ve chosen Sorrow Tears and Blood as my Fela choice as this new elongated version has just appeared on a brand new Fela collection, ‘The Best of The Black President 2’… you can play this as warm up, wrap up or at peak time… Afrobeat perfection!


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