Boogiemporium: Knitting Factory’s Insane Fela Kuti Reissues

In this morning’s Boogiemporium, we’re listening to Fela Kuti. For those not familiar with the Nigerian Fela Kuti, not only was a civil rights activist and rebellious politician, dude was one of the funkiest ever. In Afrobeat/Afrofunk’s brief but colorful history, Fela is at the helm. The guy embodies all that the Afrobeat culture was and is today. Charismatic, a ferocious perfumer and the guy played several instruments including one helluva saxophone.

And as bad as Fela was, I’m not entirely convinced that Knitting Factory’s reissuing of all 45 of Fela’s recordings was anything but a completely foolish (yet admirably ambitious) undertaking. As they were flowing into the mailbox up at work like freaking tsunami at a rate that they couldn’t possibly be enjoyed (much less consumed), I couldn’t think of even five people that I thought would have any interest in these reissues, but nevertheless, Knitting Factory persisted. The result was undoubtedly and undeniably one of the funkiest collective sets of recordings to pass my ears. Moderately remastered, they capture the sweltering ferocity of the original sessions where jams become songs and songs become endless musings along a theme.

I began listening to the reissues in the kitchen when I was doing mindless tasks: putting away groceries, cleaning countertops, folding laundry in the nearby utility room, cleaning and putting away dishes. I gotta lot of listening while my lovely wife was deeply pregnant with Ellison. Keeping her off her feet and taking up the duties made me very familiar with his work. Even more so when I dedicated the iPod that friend Cory gave me entirely to funk (all 30GB) and gave Fela a huge block of it in the Afrofunk genre.

Given that the kitchen is a Fela-friendly zone in our house and that’s precisely where Ellison and I spend our mornings after feeding, Ellison’s caught more than a healthy earful of Fela. And what we’ve found in our exposure to Baby Ellison, even at a young age, is the rhythmic aggression of the recordings, while pinning sometimes at or over blustery 120 BPM, it’s fitting for morning listening sessions in the sunroom/kitchen where little Ellison drifts somewhere between a sedated awareness to REM sleep. Rarely a pout, moan or grunt as she swings back and forth to the sounds of Fela. Also, she seems to be particularly struck by the sounds of Fela’s sax which is played with the reckless abandonment of an early Coltrane and sometimes Ornette. Other times, he fires through phrases with the agility of Bird.

Besides running around in his underwear and smoking copious amounts of marijuana, as you can see, Fela was a performer. His band was super tight. They harnessed the childish energy, bizarre antics and straight-up sexuality of a James Brown performance. They danced, gyrated and blasted those horns deep into the night…even if for their own delight. Rare a display of both committed musicianship and diehard performance where expression and talent are equally emphasized. In fact, I can only think of James Brown as the other. Where the audience becomes more spectators to a true spectacle that is performed seemingly only for the fulfillment of the band, but leaves both truly satisfied.

Via Fela’s band was notable for featuring two baritone saxophones, whereas most groups were using only one of this instrument. This is a common technique in African and African-influenced musical styles, and can be seen in funk and hip hop. Fela’s bands at times even performed with two bassists at the same time both playing interlocking melodies and rhythms. There were always two or more guitarists. The electric West African style guitar in Afrobeat bands are paramount, but are used to give basic structure, playing a repeating chordal/melodic statement, riff, or groove.

Some elements often present in Fela’s music are the call-and-response within the chorus and figurative but simple lyrics. Fela’s songs were also very long, at least 10–15 minutes in length, and many reaching the 20 or even 30 minutes, while some unreleased tracks would last up to 45 minutes when performed live. This was one of many reasons that his music never reached a substantial degree of popularity outside Africa. His LP records frequently had one 30 minute track per side. Typically there is an instrumental “introduction” jam part of the song, perhaps 10-15 mins. long before Fela starts singing the “main” part.

His songs were mostly sung in Nigerian pidgin, although he also performed a few songs in the Yoruba language. Fela’s main instruments were the saxophone and the keyboards, but he also played the trumpet,electric guitar, and took the occasional drum solo. Fela refused to perform songs again after he had already recorded them, which also hindered his popularity outside Africa.

Fela was known for his showmanship, and his concerts were often quite outlandish and wild. He referred to his stage act as the Underground Spiritual Game. Fela attempted making a movie but lost all the materials to the fire that was set to his house by the military government in power. Kuti thought that art, and thus his own music, should have political meaning.

It’s worth mentioning that his political exertions stem closely from a moment when, in a riot between members of his commune and thousands of Nigerian soldiers, his elderly mother was tossed from a window in the melee by two soldiers. In true Fela fashion, he delivered his mother’s coffin to the Military Headquarters and recorded many compositions which reference the event. Conversely, Fela was also a notable womanizer having 27 wives and believing that a man should just marry as many women as possible instead of seeking relationships outside of marriage. No religious significance behind it. He just liked women. Not sure if his personal life is any model for a kiddo, but the music he left behind was incredible.

Given that his music is generally performed in Nigerian, language is not much of an issue although he does venture from time to time into English. The subject matter and themes his lyrical content revolves around is social unrest, revolt, sex and politics. If you spoke Nigerian, they’d probably mean something completely different. Being that I don’t speak Nigerian and neither does my two-month old daughter, we’re going to go ahead and give Mr. Kuti a Fresh Prince content rating only because, in the end, if this was a 100% English recording, a parent would probably use good judgement and not let their child listen to it until they got their drivers’ license. On that alone, we can’t give it a Rufus content rating.

There’s no lullabies in Fela’s music. There’s no “No Woman, No Cry.” There’s no ballads. His music is loud, brash, fantastically expressive. It doesn’t sub in for Bach near bedtime, but it does make those Putumayo recordings of really lame “shopping mall” World music performed by disgruntled and underpaid studio musicians from Brooklyn look pretty pale. If you’re going to expose your child to other music, cultures and languages, this would be my preference. Until, of course, they start asking what in the hell he’s saying. At which point, you move on to Raffi or Yo Gabba Gabba. Four dirties for Fela.

Went to Kindermusik again last night. Again, the only guy in there except for a little 18-month old named Tate. He was getting a lot more attention than I. Good thing that he was there. The instructor came over to me and urged, “You know, we do have a lot of daddies that come to the classes too.” I nodded and told her that it takes a lot more to embarrass me. That’s only partially true. Had a good time with Ellison and her beautiful mother, though. That’s all I really care about. Ellison’s not doing quite as well this morning. Started screaming at 0500. She gets just one dirty this morning.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s