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Pitchfork OCTOBER 2, 2014 - by Aaron Leitko
FELA KUTI: VINYL BOX SET 3
Brian Eno bought his first Fela Kuti LP in September of 1973. It was Afrodisiac, a record the Nigerian bandleader had cut in London with his group, Africa 70, the previous year. In the liner notes that accompany Fela: Vinyl Box Set 3 - which collects seven recently reissued Kuti LPs that he selected - Eno writes that, at the time, he "didn't really get" polyrhythmic music. He changed his mind. "I remember the first time I listened and how dazzled I was by the groove and rhythmic complexity," he writes. "My friend Robert Wyatt called it 'Jazz from another planet' - and suddenly I thought I understood the point of jazz, until then an almost alien music to me."
A few years later, in 1977, Eno played Afrodisiac for Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Eventually he would collaborate with the band on its album Remain In Light, a record that drew heavy inspiration from African music. Amid the bonus tracks included on the Talking Heads' Brick boxed set, there's an unfinished outtake called Fela's Riff. The introductory phrase of the track - which is really not much more than a half-realised jam session - subtly mimic the ping-ponging brass figures of Kuti's composition, Alu Jon Jonki Jon, the opening track on Afrodisiac. All this is to say: Brian Eno was, and is, a big Fela Kuti fan.
For a lot of people, Eno would turn out to be an important conduit to Kuti's music, whether via his work on Remain In Light or its companion releases, The Catherine Wheel and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. And while he wasn't Kuti's only celebrity champion, he was among the most eloquently spoken. Over the next several decades, his support would steer countless rock bands, experimental artists, and dance producers toward Kuti. The significance of that music - now the subject of documentary films, Broadway musicals, and books - is well established. A Nigerian musician and political dissident, Kuti released dozens of records throughout the '70s and '80s that merged strains of jazz, funk, and African traditional music.
And with the possible exception of 1984's Army Arrangement, there are really no bad Fela Kuti records. So, a boxed set isn't a bad way to absorb his music. There's not a lot of filler to wade through. The titles that Eno has picked for Vinyl Box Set 3 are drawn mostly from Kuti's early '70s output, including Shakara (1972), Fela's London Scene (1972), and Gentleman (1971). Afrodisiac is included, as well as three highlights from the later part of the decade, Zombie (1976), Upside Down (1976), and I.T.T. (1980).
It's a lot to digest. However, by lining up a number of releases - one fifteen-to-thirty minute composition after another - it's easier to get a sense of the dramatic evolution that Kuti's music underwent throughout the decade. On the collections' earliest works - Fela's London Scene, Shakara - the influence of Western jazz and R&B music is clearer. In subsequent records, the key elements of Fela's Afrobeat sound - the call-and-response vocals, the interlocking tenor and rhythm guitar parts, for instance - become more commonplace. The compositions get longer, more ambitious, and more hypnotic, and the music's trajectory is mirrored in the LP cover art; gradually, traditional photograph-oriented designs give way to dense multi-coloured illustrations. The jacket of London Scene wouldn't seem out of place next to any number of early '70s jazz records. I.T.T., with its grotesque caricatures and quasi-psychedelic colour-palate, is from another planet entirely.
Eno's contributions to the liner notes are thought provoking, but they're also fairly slight - just a few hundred words of text that provide a handful of anecdotes and a touch of context. As a musician, producer, and conceptual thinker, Eno was a major presence in the music world at a moment when the '60s vision of rock and roll was gradually slipping away as a dominant force and punk, hip-hop and disco were emerging. The set might have benefited - at least on Eno's end - from a more substantial reflection on how Kuti's music was perceived within the context of that time.
Though, maybe it's obvious that there wasn't a lot out there like it. The innovations that Kuti's music generated are easy to take for granted now, but in the context of the mid-to-late '70s - a decade heavy with, though not necessarily defined by, blues rock - Kuti's band must have sounded pretty revelatory. The music is constantly moving and mutating, but is also conveys a sense of stasis. Unlike jazz, the songs aren't shaped by chord changes or modulations, but the gradual accumulation and subtraction of melodic and rhythmic gestures. The bass might hover on a single note or riff for an entire song. The steady crack of the snare, which helps to give rock music its steady push and pull, is constantly shifted and shuffled around. "It rolls, rocks, and snaps and makes you moves," writes Eno, speaking about drummer Tony Allen's rhythms. "And yet it isn't ever very regular - it's hard to isolate the part that Tony Allen is playing because he's constantly moving around it."
The length of the compositions is also worth noting. One Kuti record might be made up of a single, highly repetitious sitcom-length composition. Where fusion jazz worked in similar chunks of time, it involved sprawl and spaciousness. Kuti's music is taught and tight, even when it's drifting past the twenty-minute mark. Listening to it demands a different type of attention - one less concerned with events like verses and choruses and more attuned gradual build-ups and changes in density. It's hard to think of anything comparable at the time, save for the rolling, burbling, and highly repetitive synthesizer compositions being made by German krautrock acts like Neu!, Kraftwerk, and Ashra (some of which were also Eno associates).
Contemporary Afrobeat ensembles seem to have largely ditched these super-extended songs, at least on record, likely because they run so completely contrary to the marketing and promotional methods of contemporary music. Certainly, this also applied in the '70s, which required singles that could fuel radio play and, ultimately, sales. That's definitely a fight that Fela won; eventually, the record labels just built bigger boxes to put it in.