One of the world’s true musical revolutionaries, Fela Ransome-Kuti’s life and work embody most of the contradictions inherent in any major collusion of Western and African styles of thought and art. Born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1938 to an affluent Christian family and educated in London, Fela was just another minor highlife bandleader until he received funk’s call via Sierra Leonese James Brown-imitator Geraldo Pino in 1966. By weaving funk rhythms into highlife, Fela developed Afrobeat, a mesmerizingly potent style he has spent years refining.
Most of Fela’s recorded pieces take up to an entire side of an LP, beginning slowly, with a lengthy electric piano and/or saxophone introduction (Fela plays both instruments) before breaking into exuberant horn fanfares, followed by call-and-response vocals between Fela and chorus and interlocking polyrhythmic percussion patterns.
During a 1968 Los Angeles stint with his group Koola Lobitas, Fela was introduced to American black radical politics. Fela’s stock rose considerably when EMI released Fela’s London Scene in 1970, leading to a friendship and collaboration with ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker. (Their Live! album provides a fairly tame example.) Nigerian authorities tormented the bandleader after his triumphant return from London in the early ’70s, for as Fela’s fame grew, so did his influence. (Fortunately, Kuti’s name translates as “He who emanates greatness, who has death inside his quiver and who cannot be killed by human entity.”) Castigatory songs about government corruption (on Black-President‘s “I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)”), military fascism (“Zombie,” on the album of the same name) and national apathy (“Army Arrangement,” ditto), sung by a rich marijuana smoker with a couple of dozen wives who isolated himself in a concrete fortress called the Shrine, challenged the local authorities in a manner they couldn’t ignore.
Since 1974, Fela has been arrested several times for various crimes; during a particularly vigorous 1981 crackdown, a beating by soldiers left him temporarily incapable of playing saxophone. His most recent incarceration came in 1984, on the eve of his first major American tour. Arrested on a trumped-up money-smuggling rap, he was released from his five-year sentence after two years, thanks to intercession by Amnesty International.
Celluloid began re-releasing some of Fela’s many records in 1985. Upside Down dates from 1976; No Agreement from 1977. But the most controversial of these was Bill Laswell’s remix of Army Arrangement, on which he added tracks by keyboardist Bernie Worrell, drummer Sly Dunbar and talking drummer A‹yb Dieng. This reportedly displeased Fela greatly, and one need only compare the remix with the rough yet stirring original to understand why. Roy Ayers joins Fela on Music of Many Colors (originally released on Phonodisk in 1980), eliciting the vibraphonist’s meatiest playing ever. Zombie is one of the classics of the Celluloid batch.
PolyGram cashed in on Fela’s successful and long-delayed 1987 American tour by releasing one of his hits from the show, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense. The wild master hadn’t lost his chops. Beats of No Nation is a fine example of vintage Fela, while O.D.O.O. is simply spectacular. With compact disc technology catching up to Fela’s long-form Afrobeat creations, the two half-hour compositions that comprise the disc provide ample room for ensemble workouts, saxophone solos, high guitar stepping, polyrhythmic noodling and call-and-response groovulation. Indeed, Fela even reprises his classic “Zombie” in the middle of the title track.
The 1991 release of Original Sufferhead is a twofer also containing Black-President.