You may have heard that Fela Kuti is now on Broadway. No really
I’m not sure what to make of a musical celebrating the life of this great man, but its heart seems to be in the right place. And regardless of its ultimate artistic merit, bringing even a few additional ears to Fela’s music could only be a positive development.
Fela was ahead of his time in many ways, and in his prime he was equal parts Nelson Mandela, James Brown, and Bob Marley (if you think that is hyperbole, track down the ‘69 Los Angeles Sessions and/or read a little about the beatings and imprisonment he endured, resulting from his repeated defiance of the powers-that-be).
We could do worse, given the current state of affairs, than to pay overdue attention to an artist who decried the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of many (Put another way, 1969 is 1979 is 2009: Fela’s music is timeless, in no small measure because the injustices he decried remain alive and unwell). Sure, that sounds pretty cliche; but then, so does the notion that Fela’s music is as relevant and applicable today as it was more than three decades ago. Lamentable as it may be, this is Fela’s time.
The answer, of course, is Moses Asch. This month marks the 104th birthday of Asch, who founded Folkways Records more than 70 years ago along with Marian Distler. One of the most valuable musical, audio, and cultural resources of the last century, Folkways Records aimed to document the sounds (and lack of sounds) of the universe. That included titles like Sounds of North American Tree Frogs (1958), Sounds of Steam Locomotives (1956), and Sounds of a South African Homestead (1956).
It also included folk music, not just from the U.S., but from all over the world. Here’s how Asch explained the importance of this music: “Since folk means people, and this in turn means all of us, folk represents all of us. Folk music reflects…a people’s culture, its heritage, its character.” Over the years, Folkways Records introduced the world to voices like Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Pete Seeger. In 1952, the massive six-album collection “Anthology of American Folk Music” put Folkways on the map for good and changed the face of popular music forever. That compilation turned the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith on to folk music, in particular the blues and country sounds of rural America. It was the first time most people had even heard of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, and the effect was gargantuan. (In fact, as I sit here next to my own copy of “Anthology of American Folk Music,” with its six CDs and its ghostly essay booklet, I can still sense the collection’s power, and it gives me chills.)
When the Smithsonian acquired Folkways after Asch’s death in 1987, they agreed to continue Asch’s tradition of always keeping all the label’s releases in print, regardless of record sales. In total, Folkways Records released over 2,000 recordings under Asch and, since the Smithsonian’s acquisition, over 300 more have been put out.
Music lovers owe it to themselves to check out Folkways Records. Here are some other excellent releases from the label, in no particular order, that show the enormous scope of its astounding discography:
Music of the Carousel (1961) Sounds of Sea Animals (1955) Blind Willie Johnson, 1927-1930, Blind Willie Johnson (1965) Angela Davis Speaks, Angela Davis (1971) American Favorite Ballads, Vols. 1-5, Pete Seeger (2009) Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody Guthrie (1964) Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song, Dillard Chandler (1975) Negro Prison Camp Worksongs (1956) Church Songs: Sung and Played on the Piano by Little Brother Montgomery, Little Brother Montgomery (1975) Watergate, Vol. 1: the Break In (1973) Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs (1990)
I was in my mother’s bedroom, kissing her goodbye before I caught the school bus, and I heard the horrible news on the clock radio (incidentally, I was in this same room when news of Len Bias–the other devastating death of the decade–flashed across the bottom of the TV screen). As a burgeoning Beatles fan (fanatic), this hurt. And I was old enough to know that this was a major blow: on an artistic, social, human scale.
John Lennon’s death, not too many people would debate, was our generation’s JFK. I think people my age might more easily remember where they were when the Challenger blew up on that frigid day in 1986 (or the aforementioned Len Bias tragedy, which still manages to shock, in June of the same year). But the murder of Lennon (like JFK), by gunfire, was the same brutal, irrevocable blow that never really registers. We do our best to make sense of what we’re left with, but the act itself is never really reconcilable or, in many regards, believable. I still can’t quite believe John Lennon was killed, right outside his home, a few weeks before Christmas (and less than a month after the release of what turned out to be his last proper album, the remarkable return-to-form Double Fantasy).
“The scene was littered with glass and band equipment, so we went to work salvaging our gear as the paramedics arrived. That’s when I had one of those life-defining moments. I found my vocal microphone out in the middle of the freeway, and I knew right then that music was what I was supposed to be doing. The mic still works; I sing on it every show.”
This is how Damon Castillo, songwriter and vocalist for the San Luis Obispo, California-based Damon Castillo Band, describes the revelation that visited him after a freeway accident in which his band’s van flipped over a number of times. The group later memorialized the moment for their fans by including an image of the wrecked vehicle on a t-shirt: a celebration of a serious and life-changing event… with a sly grin.
This kind of interplay between the deadly serious and the humorous, and the steely perseverance required to keep-on in spite of it all, is something Damon Castillo does with deceptive ease. His gorgeous voice, which can alternately caress a melody with a tender jazz feel, seduce a crowd with slow-jam sizzle, or spit rhymes with rhythmic yet characteristically laid-back precision, is a real-life wonder; one of my personal favorite discoveries of the past decade. His lyrics run the gamut from the whimsical (“Annie Hall”) to the quietly philosophical (“Revolving Door”) to the confrontational (“Claim to Fame”), while his ridiculously tight band cooks like a living, breathing, road-tested, California-pop-soul organism.
“Welcome to Paradise” first surfaced on Green Day’s second album, the 1992 Lookout! Records release Kerplunk. Re-recorded for Dookie, the 1994 version packs a much more effective punch than the original. As the composition is unaltered, the Dookie incarnation demonstrates what wonders better production and an extra two years of practice can do for a song. Here, the guitar tone is less brittle, the drums hit with a greater wallop, and Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals have more conviction and less of a warbling quality compared to the performance on Kerplunk. Reprising this song for Dookie (where it fits in naturally, despite having been written for another album) almost note for note was the best piece of evidence Green Day could produce to shut up holier-than-thou punks who criticized the group for “selling out” by signing to a major label.
In both forms, “Welcome to Paradise” is an exhilarating listen, a sheer roller coaster of musical momentum that knows how to deliver at the right spots. Opening with a verse riff that vaguely recalls The Clash’s “Complete Control”, the band then launches into a sharp drop at the start of the chorus, rising up and down as the chords change, and ultimately screeching to a halt for a brief instrumental pause (during which Billie Joe Armstrong sarcastically utters the title phrase) before setting out for another go-round. As usual, Armstrong carries the song’s melody with his vocals; this allows him to twist simple lines like “It makes me wonder why I’m still here” into indelible hooks that burrow into the listener’s head. The highlight of “Welcome to Paradise” is the interlude section, a demented surf/punk breakdown centered on chromatic chord progression that builds up in intensity until all three musicians in the band are blazing away on their instruments at full charge. That section alone made “Welcome to Paradise” my favorite song on the album for years.
Lyrically, the song was inspired by Armstrong’s crash pad experiences in the rougher areas of Oakland, California. The song’s verse structure relies on a basic framework where key lines are repeated throughout, while certain words are swapped out for others over the course of the composition for effect. For example, in the first verse Armstrong is singing “Dear Mother can you hear me whining”, but by the last verse the line has become “Dear Mother can you hear me laughing”, which highlights his gradual acceptable of “a wasteland I like to call my home”. This approach may give the impression is that Armstrong is playing lyrical Mad Libs, but the end result is more accomplished than that implies. He isn’t hindered by the framework he has set up, and he’s always willing to swap his patterns for evocative lines like “A gunshot rings out at the station / Another urchin snaps and left dead on his own” when necessary. Using these techniques, what Armstrong is ultimately able to convey is his gradual acceptance of living away from his parent’s place, going from trepidation to exhilaration in the process.
“Welcome to Paradise” is one of the highlights of Dookie, but it remains its most underappreciated single. This probably has to do most with the lack of a music video. The band refused to let Reprise do a huge promotional push behind the track, in spite of receptive rock radio airplay (it peaked at number seven on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, and reached number 20 over in the United Kingdom). For Armstrong, the song reflected a certain period of his life and that was that; he didn’t care if there wasn’t a music video to help make the song a monster hit like “Longview” and “Basket Case” had been. Despite its lower profile compared to the album’s other hits, “Welcome to Paradise” is an excellent track that proved that Green Day lost none of its spark by leaving its indie label roots behind.