PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Various: Black Man's Cry: The Inspiration of Fela Kuti

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.


Black Man's Cry: The Inspiration of Fela Kuti

Label: Now Again
US Release Date: 2010-02-23
UK Release Date: 2010-03-15
Label Website

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.