[3 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Red, Hot + Fela is not the first time that the Red Hot Organization assembled a Fela Kuti tribute album. Red Hot + Riot was released a little over ten years ago. And it only makes sense that a musician/activist like Kuti would be a posthumous posterboy for the Red Hot Organization. A celebrity in his homeland of Nigeria, he fought to give a voice to the oppressed in a continent where oppression was all too rampant, only to die of the very disease that Red Hot has been fighting against for over twenty years. Red Hot + Riot was a reverent homage to the Afrobeat pioneer. Some liberties were taken, but hip-hop probably doesn’t count as a big, dangerous liberty when dropped in a sea of Afrobeat. Red, Hot + Fela carries Fela’s music further, finding some very unlikely contributors along the way. Tony Allen, Baloji, Akua Naru are shoe-ins for a project like this. And the involvement of Questlove, or ?uestlove if you prefer, is not a far fetched idea. But what if I told you that one track on Red, Hot + Fela had My Morning Jacket collaborating with Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs and Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes? And that another track finds the Kronos Quartet teaming up with Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio? The album has variety for sure, but its varied roster is not its undoing. Red, Hot + Fela hangs together very well when you stop and think of the number of artists involved. If the sounds aren’t consistent with one another, then they at least feel like they are.
The songs that cross over into club culture make for a fine mashup with Afrobeat. Spoek Mathambo and Zaki Ibrahim do this for “Yellow Fever”, but Nneka, Sinkane, Amayo, and Superhuman Happiness take “No Buredi (No Bread)” even further into electronic territory. The beat is quick, dark, and urban but never furious. For “Sorrow, Tears + Blood”, the Kronos Quartet provides its own loop with a pizzicato that could pass for African banjo. Kyp Malone, Tunde Adebimpe, Stuart Bogie fill in the fatalistic message, what invariably happens when an uprising from the downtrodden occurs. “Gentleman” and “Who No Know Go Know”, both covered by Just A Band along with Baja, Chance the Rapper, and Childish Gambino, are about the closest that Red, Hot + Fela comes to a pure form of hip-hop. And even then, the smooth horns are more akin to the ‘90s fusion experiments like Buckshot LeFonque or the Jazzmatazz series. The added verses of “Gentleman” give a darker shading that the original didn’t necessarily lack; “You hate me just because I’m limpin’ / I’m limpin’ just because I saved you”.
Oddly enough, the track that pits My Morning Jacket with Merrill Garbus and Brittany Howard is one of the instances where Red, Hot + Fela swings back around closer to a traditional Afrobeat sound. If you are looking for any musical curveballs within the album, you won’t find them in their rendition of “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am”. The electronic elements added to Fela Kuti staples like “Lady” and “Zombie” are probably more likely to raise eyebrows and/or shake rumps than “Trouble Sleep…”. Another point of interest is how I’ve never fully realized just how distinct Tony Allen’s drumming was. Never the flashiest man to sit behind a kit, he nonetheless has the ability to broadcast his musical personality far and wide just by lightly tapping his snare.
Red, Hot + Fela is a tribute album. And tribute albums always enjoy mercurial reactions from listeners. What some may perceive as a misstep may strike others as a curious diversion. So if anything, this album will give you something to sift through should you care to peel back any layers. If you are happy with passive listening and want to pass some cash along to AIDS research, you are also well-served. The album probably won’t transform you, but parts of it can transfix you. One track had me going, but I won’t say which one.