Last October, Knitting Factory Records issued a choice cut of Fela Kuti’s music entitled The Best of the Black President, thus kick-starting a 45-title Fela reissue programme. Fortunately for the impatient and impecunious, his stylistically consistent career lends itself to the Greatest Hits format.
Fela was a Nigerian musician, radical social activist, one-time presidential candidate and large-scale polygamist (he married twenty-seven women in 1978 alone). In his musical career he created and popularized ‘afrobeat’: a fusion of jazz, funk, and West African ‘highlife’ pop, which is characterized by agitated percussion and call-and-answer vocals (as per much of West African music). The jams are typically long – the average running time across Black President’s thirteen tracks is twelve minutes – and the lyrics politically charged. Afrobeat’s effect on Western music has been profound. Just listen to Talking Heads, Roy Ayers, or TV On The Radio (whose lead singer is Nigerian by birth), and you will hear how he has managed to influence a range of Western musicians.
As a form of funk, afrobeat is only as good as its rhythm section. Add the excellent instrumental solos and the whole thing comes off like Herbie Hancock in his fusion phase. Yet ultimately, as with funk, you will not have much time for this album if you cannot tolerate its strident trumpets and saxophones, which are strewn all over the lengthy tracks like whistling kettles. I find them exhausting; but that may be the point of Fela’s music: not to calm us, nor even to make us dance, but to capture at top volume the restlessness of its social context.
Fela’s criticism of the Nigerian government – both in and outside his music – provoked a succession of increasingly violent incursions by the military on his home. The results are reflected in some of the track names: ‘Zombie’ (a metaphor for the brainwashed Nigerian soldiers); ‘Army Arrangement’; ‘Sorrow, Tears & Blood’ in which he chants, ‘Police dey come/Army dey come/Confusion everywhere’, before mimicking a police siren. The army’s attacks would lead to the death of his mother and the destruction of his home; undeterred, Fela went on to form his own political party and announce his (unsuccessful) candidacy for the presidency of Nigeria.
In his politics he was as untiring as the driving rhythm of his music. Track him down and you can’t fail to be both inspired and a little scared.