Kronomyth 1.0: I FELA GOOD. Fela had studied music at Trinity College in London and, more than a decade later, returned to the scene of the crime to record an album in the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Fela’s London Scene is one of the earliest recorded examples of Fela’s groovy Afro beat: a hypnotic and pulsating mass of rhythm, guitar and horns with Fela’s taunting vocals and explosive Hammond organ atop it all. Fela’s music is an unusual act of assimilation, absorbing the music of James Brown and Miles Davis and transplanting it in native African soil. There are certainly elements of jazz in the horn arrangements, a heavy dose of R&B/soul in the electric instrumentation and a deep debt to African music in the polyrhythms, chord changes and pidgin English. This is really Fela’s scene; no one else was making music like this in 1971. Recorded in the studio but presented as a live performance, warts and all, Fela’s London Scene gets off to a great start with the opening “J’Ehin-J’Ehin.” Changing the flow in midstream, Kuti shows himself to be a musical manipulator on a par with Miles, directing monumental shifts in sound with a mere touch. “E Gbe Mi O,” which is said to feature an uncredited Ginger Baker on drums (don’t bother, you can barely hear him) is the album’s highlight and includes a sublime chorus at the end that any jazz composer would envy. The remaining tracks ply the same afrobeat style, punctuated by solos from the sax and organ. Interestingly, Kuti approaches the organ as a horn, combining clusters of notes in short bursts and often battling the melody in direct confrontation. “Buy Africa” and “Fight To Finish” close the record out with calls for political/social change, all against a powerful backdrop of groovy beats and killer horns. Fela’s music has a vitality, energy and purpose unique in the annals of history. Fela’s London Scene is an auspicious start, although the consistency and frequency of his output doesn’t lend itself to touting one album over another. This and the subsequent live record (featuring Baker in a bigger role) are of a piece, although Fela fans may find Baker an unnecessary distraction.
I have optimistically thirty years of lucidity left and, should I write a review a day while factoring for holidays and the creative aridity common to all genius (tic), might with the favorable winds of fortune arrive at the round number of 10,000. Among that horde will inevitably be the unworthy, unloved and ill conceived, but the true artist takes inspiration where he (or she) finds it, and I lie helplessly supine to the persistent overtures of art. I write “persistent” because it is a type of nervous gnawing that goads me into writing about music. Take this live album from Fela Ransome Kuti featuring Ginger Baker for example. For years, its very existence has been a small stone in my comfortable walk with the Cream drummer. Why would Baker lend his rock gravitas to this outlaw king of afrobeat who few had heard of in the west? One might take from it that Baker had resigned himself to the role of an ambassador-for-hire, but Baker, history tells us, has never sold out to anything but his own convictions (and the inevitable demons that arrive on the coattails of conviction). The subsequent Stratavarious suggests it was instead part of an exchange program between the two stars (and the absence of titular reciprocity speaks volumes to Kuti’s presence in the west). The mercurial Baker might well have been the white elephant in the room, but he had come to Africa as an observer, not a conqueror. The image I have in my head of the two men is from the film, The Man Who Would King. Kuti, with his political delusions of grandeur, and Baker in self-imposed exile, tried and ultimately failed to create their own islands, finding that even the best fences ultimately fail to guard us against reality. But at this moment, in this place, they are kings. That said, Live! is Kuti’s show. Baker is simply the honored guest, the famous observer. It is Kuti and the Afrika ’70 band who create the music with their deep polyrhythms and sensual afrobeat sounds. Baker’s presence is most keenly felt during a distinctly western drum solo on “Ye Ye De Smell.” [A subsequent CD remaster adds 16 minutes of titans (Baker and Tony Allen) at play with thunder that dates from 1978.] The focal point remains Kuti with his virile vocals (a mix of African and English) and organ solos. The music is a mass of elastic energy that expands and contracts around an axis of rhythm and melody. I can tell you that, after listening to this, I was quick to acquire more of Kuti’s music (ah, cross-marketing, you curvaceous siren). I had, after all, missed the afrobeat movement in the 70s, and only experienced it through the filter of western artists (e.g., Talking Heads) and labels (Osibisa, Edikanfo). Now, you may pity me my paucity of knowledge for an entire continent of music, or marvel at my audacity to expose said paucity. This album was likely an entrée for many into the dark and lurid landscapes of afrobeat, noting that contemporary western jazz and funk would soon assimilate elements of it into their own dialogues. The effect of hearing this with western ears, I imagine, is not unlike the African response to hearing the music of James Brown. Both Brown and Kuti are magnetic, larger-than-life presences whose songs have clear overtones of sexuality and social activism. It is, after all, a man’s man’s man’s world, which is well and fine if you’re the Man, but not so fine if you’re intent on fighting him.
Kronomyth 3.0: WHAT WILL BE THE SACRED WORD? There’s a poem by Amiri Baraka, “Ka’Ba,” that closes with the lines “We need magic now we need the spells, to raise up, return, destroy and create. What will be the sacred word?” In a sense, Baraka and Fela Kuti were looking for the same thing. The title track, “Why Black Men Dey Suffer,” is more than a cogent argument for the African condition set to music. It’s a magic spell of sorts, designed to cure African nation-states of a centuries old malaise that has taken the form of slavery and colonialism while erasing the culture and even the co-fraternity of Africans. The song begins as a military march of drums joined by percussion, guitar, bass and electric piano, shifting the rhythm as new instruments are added until it morphs into a kind of religious chant that Kuti refers to as a kanginni koko. From that point on, Kuti assumes the role of a cantor/griot, recounting the history of African suppression from abroad and calling for a unified Africa. As his most overtly political song to date, “Why Black Men Dey Suffer” was a rallying cry for African independence, both in thought and art. The result is a powerful message wrapped in a mesmerizing groove. The album’s other song, “Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality,” takes more provincial aim by using Lagos’ rich (Ikoyi) and poor (Mushin) neighborhoods as proxies for a broader discussion on class distinction. Here again, the music is a single, massive groove that Kuti uses effectively to stage his message. Why Black Men They Suffer became a kind of template for subsequent albums from Fela Kuti and Africa 70, which arrived with surprising frequency and were structured more like extended singles with one long song on each side. As with several of the 70s records, Ginger Baker makes a guest appearance, although I couldn’t tell you if he was filling in for Tony Allen or playing alongside him.
Na Poi is basically Fela’s attempt to set the act of making love to music. It starts out with a simple riff and a spoken intro that Fela refers to as “talk talk chorus,” then expands the riff into a full-blown groove complete with the usual horns, drums and bass. The song is basically one long, extended groove that changes very little over the course of twenty-five minutes; Fela’s future wives (all 27 of them) could only hope that Fela was more imaginative behind closed doors, although the song’s stamina boded well. Fela would revisit the song over the years in several versions. I’m not sure why; it’s not one of his better ideas, but maybe the salacious nature of the song appealed to him. The original album also included “You No Go Die… Unless,” which is in line with the better music from this period: strong groove, powerful singing, complex horn charts and lots of music crammed into the crevices. The song echoes a personal philosophy of Kuti’s that his destiny and death were in his own hands, which could be seen as an active challenge against a Nigerian government that might have it otherwise. Fela Kuti has released dozens of records, and Na Poi wouldn’t make my list of his best dozen efforts (it might top the list of his dirty dozen). While Kuti expected a lot from his band, he wasn’t a perfectionist as a producer. Na Poi feels like it was recorded live in a single take (which is probably the case); in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t bootlegs around from the period that sound as good. You could argue that a celebration of sex (“Na Poi”) and death-defiance (“You No Go Die… Unless”) are quintessential themes for Kuti, but Na Poi is not one of his most essential recordings. [Note: Some of the re-issue information below may pertain to later recordings of Na Poi; hopefully, I’ll sort all that out in the coming months.]
Fela doesn’t seem to have as a much on his mind on Open & Close—a new dance and people who don’t do their jobs correctly dominate the discussion—but there’s a lot happening in the music. The most significant change occurs in the guitar chairs, as Fela employs two guitarists for the first time (Tutu Srunmu on rhythm guitar, Ohiri Akigbe on tenor guitar) to give the arrangements an added texture and richness. Fela also contributes a lot of musical ideas on top of the music with his loose, semaphore-styled keyboard playing. (Is it just me, or does he sound like he’s wearing mittens when he plays?) If Na Poi was a step back in terms of musical development, Open & Close is clearly a step forward. The opening moments of “Swegbe And Pako Part 1” slow down the Afrobeat sound and arrive at something completely new, before pursuing a more distinctive groove, and it’s this kind of experimentation that makes Open & Close an exciting discovery for Fela’s fans. With some lineup tweaks along the way, Africa ’70 had grown even stronger; bass player Ayo Azenabor, while not as pronounced as his predecessor, has a certain nimbleness that blends nicely with the sounds around him. The closing “Gbagada Gbagada Gbogodo Gbogodo” is the only overtly political track, recounting a military uprising against colonial rule, but even here the mood is upbeat and light on its feet. The pervading feel on Open & Close is one of confidence and professionalism. Some of Fela’s albums felt like hurried first takes. Open & Close, by contrast, feels well rehearsed and is nearly perfectly executed. Here, the music takes center stage while the politics take a brief rest, resulting in one of his most refreshing records.