Mojo FEBRUARY 2015 - by Geoff Brown



Prolific, provocative, profound, personal, the breadth of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti's '70s output still astonishes.

So consistent, controversial and creative was the 1970s output of Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti that despite this third box of vinyl re-releases again majoring on the decade, the music's quality is maintained to as his fresh his ideas and aims are revealed. This instalment, curated by Brian Eno, is easily as good as its predecessors, stretching from 1971's Fela's London Scene to 1980's I.T.T. (International Thief Thief) to trace the breakout of Afrobeat, the emergence of fine soloists like trumpeter Tunde Williams, and the invention of drummer Tony Allen as he meshes jazz and funk into the polyrhythmic Kuti sound.

At the start of the '70s, Fela Kuti's journey had already been long and eventful. He'd played in London in the early '60s but it was back in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1966-67, when he heard the Sierra Leonean bandleader Geraldo Pino's mix of US soul, notably James Brown, and Congolese rumba that the ideas behind Afrobeat took root. They were not fully formed by l972's Shakara, but were advancing at a prodigious pace, and there is a constant trade between African musical dialects and American jazz, soul and funk. Thus the clipped melody that opens Shakara's title track echoes Miles Davis's Milestones. Like many of Kuti's albums, Shakara is made up of just two pieces, each occupying a side and sounding as if they could groove on all night. Not all of Fela's innovations here were musical - he now frequently sang in broken English rather than Yoruba, widening the appeal of his songs and raising the threat to authority from his increasingly politicised lyrics. But on Shakara, side one's Lady brought controversy of a different stripe, its urgings to women not to adopt Western ideas, values, clothes etc at odds with '70s feminist thinking. He would be just as strident in his opinions of men who adopted Western dress codes in the Nigerian climate, the title track of 1973's Gentleman lacerating those who pile on suits, shoes, socks, pants and shirts, sweat profusely as a result and "smell like shit".

There are similar invectives and lambastings throughout the 1970s canon, but it got serious when he turned his ire on the political establishment. Fela's London Scene, recorded at Abbey Road, has musical treats like J'ehin-J'ehin, where two-thirds in the Afrobeat gets funky as the horns source The J.B.'s, but Buy Africa, written in 1970, urges Africans to boost local economies by shunning imports.

He is equally positive on Afrodisiac (1972, also cut at Abbey Road): Eko Ile translates as "there's no place like Lagos"; Alu Jon Jonki Jon grooves on funk bass as Kuti's electric piano solo lifts off; Chop And Quench ("eat and die", a warning about gluttony) has terrific horn work from the band, now styled The Africa 70; Je'Nwi Temi warns the authorities "don't gag me". The least typical of his '70s albums, the title track of '76's Upside Down has a vocal from American activist Sandra Izsadore encouraging Nigerians to get their act together, not be so upside down.

After '73's aforesaid angry Gentleman, on which Igbe moves his sound forward with funkier guitars, 1976's Zombie was an even angrier outpouring of fury aimed at the government and army. Its music - funk bass, scratchin' guitars, confident horns (Tunde Williams' trumpet especially fine) - is a well-drilled yet fluid delight; its inflammatory title track likens the military rulers to, well, zombies.

Alagbon Close (1974) and Kalakuta Show ('76) (the former appeared on the Ginger Baker curated Box Set 2) had so incensed the rulers that there were numerous attacks on Fela and his entourage. Now Zombie's title track ridiculed the army.

In response, in February 1977 the military 'invaded' his barb-wired compound and burnt it to the ground, destroying his home, studio, band equipment, the clinic built for the community, threw his mother out of a window, and assaulted every man, woman and child they could find, Fela included.

Undaunted, his attacks in music continued. By 1980's I.T.T., the seventh and final LP in Vinyl Box Set 3, he had trained his sights on both the specific - a former Nigerian president; a record company boss - and the general - non-African countries and companies sucking the money and resources out of the continent. Although Tony Allen had left the ranks of what was now essentially Fela's next band, Egypt 80, there is still a wealth of wonderful playing, particularly the guitarists Wordo Martino, Tunde Brown and Dele Oslo, and Kuti's own soloing - on electric piano on I.T.T., but his alto and tenor sax solos catch the ear throughout the long-players.

Some of the early Kuti vinyl was not always well served by pressings, but these sound strong. Eno's introductory note is interesting on the development of Tony Allen's drumming and gives due importance to him as a player, but the description of Fela's habit of counting in his musicians by giving them separate "one's", starting them at a different part of the bar to anyone else might bring all players out in a nervous cold sweat. Chris May, who was championing Fela Kuti back in the '70s, succinctly explains the LPs' content and context for the uninitiated. Go explore.