More Music That Helped Turn a Man into a Legend
Fela Kuti is one of those figures who loom so large that it’s hard when reading his exploits or hearing his music to imagine him as a real person rather than a mythic creation. Although little known to many westerners at the time of his death in 1997, his legend has (rightfully) been growing ever since. It’s hard not to mythologize the man, given his incredible life as a globe-trotting cultural ambassador and outspoken advocate against colonialism and corruption. He was a folk hero throughout Africa in his own lifetime, and since his passing he’s become an avatar for independence, Black Nationalism, and unblinking courage in the face of oppression. It can be too easy, however, to get lost amidst Fela’s powerful ideas and personal exploits, to view him as a museum piece—admirable, important, but in some sense locked away under glass. Those looking for the flesh-and-blood man must turn to the most vital piece of his legacy—his music.
With a recording career that stretched from 1969 to 1997, comprising over 50 records with numerous bands, Kuti’s discography is daunting, to say the least—a problem that Knitting Factory started to address in 2009 with The Best of the Black President, an indispensable two-disc set containing some of his finest work. But with songs having running times that rarely miss double digits—some run over a half-hour—it would be impossible even to pretend to do justice to his work with one release, so now, some three-and-a-half years later, we finally have a follow-up album, also packed with essential songs. They are as expansive and vibrant as the continent they describe. Their sound, a potent stew of hot jazz, R&B, funk, African polyrhythms, and psychedelic rock, is delivered with that mixture of untamed passion and otherworldly skill that comes from living and breathing one’s craft. Over that musical base, Kuti lays down lyrics as bitter, loving, insightful, and even funny as any poem or political dissertation—each song could practically be a college course on the politics, culture, and future of Africa in and of itself.
Perhaps the most exciting song on The Best of the Black President 2 is the extended version of “Sorrow Tears and Blood”, a song responding to the Nigerian army’s brutal assault on his Kalakuta compound in 1977. The version here restores to the track six minutes of previously lost jamming, including some inspired brass and electric piano interplay. Another absolute knockout is “Black Man’s Cry”, a live track from 1970 featuring no less than five drummers (three conga, two kit). It’s an amazingly expansive track that manages to contain within it not only a healthy dose of the horn-driven madness of early James Brown, but also a touch of the swaggering funk that would in turn go on to inspire Brown’s later work. “Trouble Speak Yanga Wake AM” seems positively luxurious in comparison with its leisurely, mid-tempo approach to Afro-beat. It also shows a different side of Fela, as he sings of the struggles of poor “sufferheads” with sweet and soulful compassion rather than his usual sizzling anger.
Elsewhere you can hear the suppleness and range of Fela and his collaborators as they match their playing to the songs. There’s the playful bass line that opens “Monkey Banana”, as if mimicking the title, or the slinky bustle of the band in “Underground System” underscoring the song’s target—the ubiquitous, but covert, economic and political control of the continent by Western interests and corrupt African leaders. Singing in Pidgin English (chosen to reach the broadest possible audience within the linguistically diverse continent), Kuti treats his songs as civics lessons, sermons, and exhortations for the common people of Africa. Touching on everything from political corruption (“He Miss Road”) and oppression to the painful tradition of skin bleaching (“Yellow Fever”) to richly detailed and poignant social critique (“Everything Scatter”), the music of Fela Kuti, to anticipate Chuck D’s proclamation about hip-hop, acted as CNN for the African street for a quarter century.
While it would be tempting to delve into each song, fortunately that’s a task that’s already been skillfully dispatched by Chris May in the accompanying booklet. May provides an excellent resource for navigating the album, which is arrayed not chronologically but thematically. His comments put each song into musical context, allowing the listener to understand exactly what they’re hearing and providing a sense of where Kuti was personally and politically.
What ultimately makes Fela’s story eternal and his rise in popularity so deserved isn’t merely the songs or the man himself, but what they, by their very existence, represented. In an era when African nations were struggling to fully shake off the shackles of outside dominance and African peoples were trying to define themselves within a new political and economic system, Fela Kuti was a living, breathing vision of what the new Africa could be. Despite confrontationally espousing what was seen by authorities as dangerous strains of Black Nationalist religion and lifestyle, he was unwilling to bow to outside pressure and was able to succeed on his own terms, even when his very life was at stake. His defiance presented, especially to poor Africans, an alternative example of what they could do and how their continent could be. Listening to these songs, you have the chance to experience some fraction of his hope and passion. I don’t recommend missing it.