Westerners who wish to tap into Africa's vast popular music resources are well advised to start with the work of the late Nigerian star, Fela Kuti. In the early 1970s, Fela pioneered a music he labeled Afrobeat, which simultaneously simplified and funkafied the more traditional-sounding genre of his homeland's highlife. Jazzy, soul-inflected horns and rock guitar made cameos throughout the lengthy groove workouts while a call-and-response chorus reinforced hooks. The closest Western counterpart (and influence) was obviously James Brown, a hero of Fela, which helped codify Afrobeat as at the very least great dance music.
Even more enticing for leery English-speakers is Fela's singing in pidgin English, a dialect no more impenetrable than the Jamaican patois of reggae. Thus it's easy to understand why this notorious enfant terrible, who probably pissed off more people in his career than Johnny Rotten and Chuck D combined, has become more palatable to Western ears. For three decades, his vociferous condemnations of Nigerian government made him the target of numerous army attacks, the most devastating one coming in 1977 when his independent Kalakuta Republic was destroyed, and his mother was thrown out of a window. She later died from her injuries.
Fela died of AIDS-related causes in 1997, prompting MCA to finally begin a reissue campaign that will culminate in the release of about 20 albums by May. In the meantime, neophytes should scarf up the superb two-disc flagship release, The Best Best of Fela Kuti. Featuring music recorded from 19721989, this 13-track, 158-minute compilation provides an excellent introduction to Fela's unique spirit.
"Shuffering and Shmiling" (RealAudio excerpt) is a scabrous indictment of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism that has Fela ridiculing religious fanaticism in a hilarious outburst of garbled Latin, Arabic and tongue-speaking. "Zombie," (RealAudio excerpt) the song that ignited the fires of the Kalakuta carnage, calls out the army for acting like automatons. And "I T T Part 2" (RealAudio excerpt) aims its invectiveness at multinational companies that exploit Africans. No matter how lethal the critique, though, each song moves past mere sermonizing and becomes instantly infectious via its call-and-response hooks. As with James Brown, Fela's inexorable groove can at times weary. Fortunately, most of the tracks here take enough detours (into sax freakouts or beguiling vocal interplay) to keep fresh the single-minded drive of the rhythms. All in all, it's a marvelous testament to one of the supreme figures of African music.
Hopefully, Fela's legacy will gain momentum through the work of his son, Femi Kuti. Femi has a lot to live up to on his debut disc, Shoki Shoki. And wouldn't you know it? The first track out of the gate, he's come up with a motherfunkin' scorcher that can proudly stand with any of his father's works. "Truth Don Die" (RealAudio excerpt) is state-of-the-art boogie fever; with his voice dissipating
into a delightful dubby echo, Femi confidently blends electronic sounds into an organic live jam.
Nothing else on Shoki Shoki is quite up to such ferocious standards, as most of the tracks are a touch too slow to keep the disco embers glowing. Still, there's not a duff cut, either. In fact, Femi's formidable talents are put into relief by the lackluster remixes by the Roots and Kerri Chandler, which was tacked on at the end (a shame because Chandler did wonders recasting Fela's "Shakara" on a 12-inch single a few years back under the name Afro-Elements). Wouldn't it be great if Femi could teach trickier spin to the nation's electronica aficionados?