INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Audiophile Audition OCTOBER 13, 2014 - by Rich Morris
FELA KUTI: BOX-SET 3 - CURATED BY BRIAN ENO
That the influence of Nigerian singer/songwriter and political firebrand Fela Kuti is woven into the last thirty-odd years of Western pop music is due almost entirely to Mr Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, his relentless quest for new sounds and inextinguishable passion for championing them. After all, it was Eno who introduced Talking Heads to Kuti's polyrhythmic Afrobeat, which informed their ground-breaking, Eno-produced Remain In Light, as well as Eno's seminal collaboration with David Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
Nowadays, Kuti's legacy and political stance are the subject of books, documentaries, heritage rock magazine articles, even a Broadway musical, but it's always good to go back to the man's music and its message. This seven-album boxset, curated by Eno, isn't necessarily the best way to get introduced to Kuti (there are plenty of compilations for that), but for those looking to explore his music in more depth, this is a good place to start as it collects many of his greatest works.
Kuti was prolific in a way which makes even Bowie and Prince look a little tardy, but his musical template remained largely unchanged. Which was fine, since it was radical and ingenious - a mix of James Brown funk, avant-jazz, rock posturing, and traditional Nigerian sounds. He was helped along by truly great musicians such as drummer Tony Allen, a man so preternaturally talented that when he quit Kuti's band, so the story goes, six men were recruited to replace him.
Yet while Kuti's sound appeared to arrive almost fully-formed, it did evolve throughout the '70s. The earliest releases here, debut album Fela's London Scene (1971) and Shakara (1972), are rooted in gritty US soul and R&B sounds, yet the long instrumental passages and call-and-response vocals which would become his trademark are already emerging. Tony Allen's drumming is revelatory, although, on Fela's London Scene, Cream's Ginger Baker also provides some typically meaty backing. You can sense that, like Bob Marley, Kuti was already producing a form of non-rock music which white, Western audiences could tune into.
Starting with 1973's Gentleman, both extended jazz improvisation and traditional Nigerian sounds come to the fore, placing the sweaty, dirty funk workouts in a more expansive scape. The album's title track, for example, begins with an extended, meandering, blues-tinged sax solo before a military beat starts up and suddenly shifts in a rolling, polyrhythmic boogie.
Also released in '73, Afrodisiac was the album which introduced Eno to Kuti's world, a sound his friend Robert Wyatt described as "Jazz from another planet". The music here is simply ferocious, a gale-force mix of torrential, constantly shifting drums, stabbing brass and Fela's guttural exhortations. It was a sound which reflected Kuti's growing reputation as a rebel and political dissident in his native Nigeria, a stance which swiftly brought him into brutal conflict with the country's military junta.
It was the title cut of 1976's Zombie which would bring him greatest grief yet stands in its bravery and sheer chutzpah as his enduring triumph. Lyrically, the song took mocking aim at Nigeria's army, dancing joyfully when by rights its makers should have been running scared. In retaliation, the army stormed his commune, attacking him, his wives, and throwing his mother from an upstairs window. They then set about destroying and pillaging the surrounding area, stopping only to attack the fire brigade which arrived to put out the blazes they had started.
Kuti never fully recovered from this atrocity but Zombie endures as the most perfect summation of his sound and political stance, its liquid grooves and his irrepressible, impish yet steely energy making it the essential album for anyone who wants to know why the man remains a hero. That doesn't mean the remaining two albums in this boxset, the slicker Upside Down (also 1976) and I.T.T. (1980), aren't worth a listen, although you do have to be a committed fan to keep your attention from wandering during the latter's twenty-four-minute title track.
Like The Velvet Underground, The Monks, Stooges, Neu!, Arthur Russell, and Les Rallizes Denudes, Fela Kuti's influence on various genres of music continues to grow in inverse proportions to the general listening public's awareness of him during his peak creative years. Meanwhile, he remains an impeccably cool reference point for any up-and-coming act. A decade hence, we will no doubt still be discussing and dissecting these albums, while some newly-formed group of nerdy white kids will be working out how to inject their tunes with Fela's deathless Afro-groove.