Steel pan and cumbia versions of Fela Kuti classics, alongside more orthodox Afrobeat workouts, provide delights for crate diggers and further evidence of Fela's enduring influence.
As the recent Broadway show celebrating his life and music makes abundantly clear, Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti was and remains one of those rare popular music figures who can safely be referred to by first name alone. And while Fela! continues to run to rave reviews, DJs, compilers, and reissue companies have been busy populating clubs and retail outlets with Fela-related goodies. Joining Soundway's marvelous Nigeria Special compilations and Strut's Nigeria 70 and Afro-Rock collections, Black Man's Cry provides a winter-banishing explosion of Fela-ised grooves from a variety of countries.
The album has been compiled by Eothen Alapatt, aka Egon, who is the general manager of the hip-hop-plus Stones Throw label as well as the head of his own Now Again imprint, on which this album appears. The album comes as either a CD in a hardbound book or as a box set of four ten-inch records. The packaging in both cases is an example of the kind of labor of love found in other specialist compilers such as Soundway and Analog Africa. Egon, who also writes the Funk Archaeology column for the NPR Music website and deejays sets of rare global funk, seems to be on a mission to piece together a kind of master narrative by following the thrilling connections thrown up by international cover versions and particularly sticky rhythms. So we get three steel band versions of "Black Man's Cry" and two cumbia takes on "Shacalao", the Latinized version of Fela's "Shakara".
Cumbia Moderna De Soledad kick the proceedings off with a raw, stripped-down version of the song, all skeletal cumbia percussion and scorching, barely assimilated saxophone, which managaes to simultaneously signal the distance between the two continents' musics and draw them together. Fellow Colombian Lisandro Meza's slightly more subdued version of "Shacalao" brings accordion into play in the modern cumbia style, while still not losing the thrilling Afrocentric call at the heart of the original. Another Colombian group, Phirpo y Sus Caribes, provide "Comencemos", a Spanish version of the song "Let's Start" that can be heard on the 1971 album Live! by Fela (then Fela Ransome Kuti) and Ginger Baker.
Dan Satch and his Atomic 8 Dance Band's "Woman Pin Down", a 45 from 1969, is included as a reminder that Fela was not singlehandedly responsible for creating the new sound of Nigeria, though it is arguably present as a display of subcultural capital too. Like many African records of the period, "Woman Pin Down" operates as a cultural reference point for specialist/obscurantist crate-diggers. But to note the more spectacularly curatorial aspects of a project like Black Man's Cry is not to detract from the sheer grooviness of the music on offer, and it is good to have "Woman Pin Down" in general circulation.
The contribution by the 6th Infantry Brigade of the Nigerian Army, "Black and Proud", is bizarre. It's reminiscent of the stories told by John Collins, in his book African Pop Roots, of members of the army and police force getting on stage and dancing at music events, driven by the thrill of the music to temporarily desert their posts as guardians and become participants. On the other hand, it can't help but bring to mind the violence inflicted on Fela and his family by the military regimes to whom his music was directed as protest and provocation.
Other Nigerian contributions include two cuts by Bola Johnson -- the funky "Hot Pants" (a take on the 1971 James Brown track) and the addictive groove of "Never Trust a Woman" -- and the subdued but infectious "Adebo" from Segun Bucknor, complete with spoken social commentary about Nigeria's economic situation. Ghana is represented via a cover by Jerry Hansen, of the Ramblers Dance Band, of Fela's "Sisi Mi". The Brown connection is a reminder of the influence that the Godfather of Soul had on the King of Afrobeat and on African popular music more generally. The influences went in more than one direction, of course. Rather than engage in a game of determining specific influences, it is more instructive to consider the ways in which, at this momentous period in postcolonial history, the voices of Fela Kuti, James Brown, and Bob Marley could be heard calling to each other from their respective metropolises, their voices defining and reinventing the borders of the Black Atlantic.
From the Caribbean part of that socio-historic bloc come the stars of this particular show, the Lever Brothers Gay Flamingoes from Trinidad. Their steel pan medley of "Egbi Mi O" and "Black Man's Cry" is a ten-minute tour de force of pan sweetness and intense polyrhythmic drumming. It has been compiled a couple of times before (on Crippled Dick Hot Wax's Jeff Recordings and Nascente's Tropical Funk Experience) and deserves to be compiled many more times. It's one of the most fascinatingly catchy tracks you'll hear this or any other year. Two more versions follow, "Black Man's Cry" by the Mosco Tiles Fonclaire Steel Orchestra and a brief "Egbi Mi O/Black Man's Cry" medley from the Sylvania East Side Symphony.
Whether there is a real need for three such related versions may well depend on the listener's interest in rhythms. Those with a fondness for following rhythmic variation will relish the opportunity to compare the three groups. It's also intriguing to find that the Flamingoes' version seems to require its ten minutes, while Sylvania's three-minute version is perfect as a pop miniature. Anyone except those with an allergic reaction to steel pan drums should find plenty of interest here. The next logical step in the crate-to-compilation, following Nascente's lead, might well be a series of compilations, or even an album reissue program, for these Trinidadian groups. Let's hear Sylvania's version of "Hot Pants", Mosco Tiles Fonclaire's take on Neil Young's "Down by the River", and the Flamingoes' "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" (discographical information about these is available in Jeffrey Thomas's Forty Years of Steel).
The CD of Black Man's Cry closes with three acts of more recent vintage. Brooklyn Afro-pretenders the Daktaris' "Up Side Down" appeared on their 1998 album Soul Explosion, a compelling collection of contemporary Afrobeat. The Whitefield Brothers and Karl Hector and the Malcouns are Munich-based acts featuring members of the Poets of Rhythm. Both groups are signed to Now Again and have released albums which draw on Afrobeat and rare funk grooves. Hector's contribution to this set, "Toure Samar", is taken from the 2008 album Sahara Swing, the Whitefields' "Lullaby For Lagos" from their recent Earthology; both albums are worth checking out.
If there's one criticism of what is, all in all, a fantastic collection of music, it is only that the beautiful packaging and emphasis on the obscure may send a negative message to some potential buyers, who may perceive a certain exclusivity to the endeavor. On the one hand, it could be argued that the luxury treatment this collection is offering to Afrobeat is in rather high disproportion to the cultural context in which the music was made. On the other, it seems only right that the music of Fela, those he inspired, and those who inspired him, should be valued and allowed to find its place in new cultural contexts. It would therefore be a shame if people were put off by the commodity fetishism inherent in this type of project. This music deserves a wide audience.