The Old Testament: Fela Kuti
I haven't wanted to listen to anything but Fela Kuti for weeks. It's getting a little weird. In the car, Expensive Shit/He Miss Road has monopolized my stereo. and at home, rather than feebly attempt productivity, I've burnt countless hours scrounging around miscellaneous legally dubious corners of the web vainly attempting to acquire his entire discography. This isn't the first time I've been on a Fela kick either. When I bought Expensive Shit, a few years back, I had a nice few weeks driving around Los Angeles, letting the afro-beat horns shower my eardrums with a soft copper rain and occasionally doing my best white-boy afro chants along with Fela (it wasn't pretty, we'll leave it at that.).
But this obsession is different and I'm not quite sure what to ascribe it to. Maybe it's that after having pretty much ignored jazz for my first 26 years of living, I've been listening to a lot of it over the past few months, digging (I believe this is the only suitable verb) Miles, Coltrane, Andrew Hill, Mingus, Pharoah Sanders, and Tony Williams, among others. Or maybe it's the way in which Fela's hypnotic, afro-beat contains a protean quality that's mirrored Los Angeles' schizophrenic weather of late; with violent storms passing with almost tropical impatience, thundering for an hour or two and breaking into pale unbroken sky and bright, cold sun.
I guess it's this sort of duality that makes Fela's so music so compelling. It sounds like the music of a man who's seen both heaven and hell, a wounded triumphalism suffused with radiance and pain, ecstatic vision and plaintive sorrow. There's an atavistic wisdom there, the beatific notion that no matter what happens, transcendence is available at a slick burst of rainbow-colored keys and a golden wail of saxophone peals that twist towards the sky. Every culture's got its own myths, a different path to that hazy notion of transcendence, and for me, Fela's music is the Nigerian manifestation of god (well, that and Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon).
Cooler Than A Polar Bear's Toe Nails
Such praise would be hyperbole were it lavished upon anyone else, but when you factor in the details of Fela's Greek Tragedy existence, his music gains an added resonance. Inspired by the Black Panthers, whom he encountered during a short stay in Los Angeles at the tail-end of the 60's, Fela's music is rooted in a sense of struggle and resistance. When the immigration authorities deported him back to Africa, Kuti re-christened his backing band, Africa '70 and sought to impart this new-found philosophy into song. Building himself a compound (The Kalakata Republic) that was part commune, part disco and part recording studio, Fela declared himself independent from the Nigerian state and married 27 woman. Sort of like Brigham Young, if Brigham Young were really cool. Naturally, his ideology flew contrary to the corrupt military dictatorship then ruling Nigeria (not like Brigham Young), and when you factored in Fela's wild popularity, he was bound to draw static.
The shit went down (literally) in 1974 when the police raided his compound, hoping to plant a joint on him and frame him on drug charges. Wisely, Fela immediately grabbed the J and swallowed it, leaving the fascists dumbfounded. Beside themselves, the army officers hauled Fela into prison anyway and waited for him to shit out the joint, only for him to switch feces with another prisoner and walk off scot-free, mocking the government in song months later. A song, oh so subtly entitled, "Expensive Shit."
The most toothless cliche around is the notion of the "brave artist." Most recently, a spate of newspaper eulogies used the phrase to describe Heath Ledger and as much as I like "10 Things I Hate About You" the notion of bravery being defined as an actor playing a gay cowboy seems pretty laughable. Bravery is releasing an album called Zombie (no Cranberries) , flipping the metaphor to indict the repressive savagery of the Nigerian Army, watching them come to your disco crib with 1,000 blood-thirsty soldiers and throw your elderly mom fatally out of a window, while barely escaping death yourself. Bravery is delivering your dead mother's coffin to the main army barrack in Lagos, and writing two hit songs, "Coffin for Head of State" and "Unknown Soldier," about the ordeal.
Does This Guy Know How To Party Or What?
Among the music-nerd world. Fela's a pretty well-known commodity, but in the world o' the normals, the name Fela Kuti is more likely to be confused with an imaginary disease you may or may not have acquired from a girl in the first grade. That's a shame. If anyone deserves the lucrative world of dorm room martyrdom a la Bob Marley, it's Fela. If you haven't heard him, there's a sampler below. It's good stuff, I promise. In the meantime, I'm going to start google searching for hotlines to wean me from this addiction. Do they use methadone for this sort of thing?
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.