MORE DARK THAN SHARK - FEATURE
FELA KUTI VINYL BOX SET 3 (COMPILED BY BRIAN ENO)
On September 29, 2014, Knitting Factory Records released a third vinyl box-set of seven albums by the Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti. Curated by long-time admirer Brian Eno, the package comes with a twelve-page booklet that includes lyrics and photos as well as commentary from Afrobeat historian Chris May.
BRIAN ENO: Before about mid-September 1973 I didn't have much interest in polyrhythmic music. I didn't really get it. That all changed one Autumn day when I walked into Stern's Record Shop off Tottenham Court Road.
For reasons I've long forgotten, I left the store with an album that was to change my life dramatically. It was Afrodisiac by Fela Ransome-Kuti (as he was then known) and his band The Africa 70. I remember the first time I listened and how dazzled I was by the groove and the rhythmic complexity, and by the raw, harsh sounds of the brass, like Mack trucks hurtling across highways with their horns blaring. Everything I thought I knew about music at that point was up in the air again. The sheer force and drive of this wild Nigerian stuff blew my mind. 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.
Of course, a huge part of Fela's impact was his highly political stance, and the anger that came with it. I don't know enough about the history of Nigerian culture to be sure of this, but it seems to me that Fela was one of the first Africans to take such an overtly political position in his music. It wasn't as friendly and smiling as much of the music I'd heard from that continent: it was powerful and aggressive, and often cynically humorous too. Its subject matter included official corruption, exploitation by transnational companies, women, soldiers, obedience and defiance. Fela used the great wealth of Nigerian aphorisms and proverbs to create a forceful new lyrical language - often completely baffling to non-Nigerians like me. Songs with titles like Original Sufferhead, Chop And Quench, He Miss Road and Expensive Shit let you know that something new was going on.
Fela was a very sophisticated musician. He'd lived and played in London (where he studied) and America and his music reflected that. He'd lived through the '60s and seen how music had become a political force in the West, but he didn't return to Nigeria to copy what he'd heard abroad: instead he invented a new Nigerian music. Over the years I started to realise that his way of composing was actually very African. The songs weren't written from the top-down - a prewritten song to which was then added 'accompaniment' - but the other way round. The complex rhythm carried within it all the seeds of the song, and the music - guitar parts, horn parts, vocals - grew out of that rhythmic web. In Africa 70 the centre of the web was one of the truly great musicians of the twentieth century: the astonishing drummer Tony Allen. As I listened to more and more of the music I realised that, if Fela was the fiery brain of the enterprise, Tony's playing was the deep heart of it. To this day he remains an important musical force. The producer Joe Boyd told me a story about him. As a young musician in Lagos, Tony subscribed to Downbeat, the American jazz magazine. He'd become dissatisfied with the kind of drumming that was being used in the popular Nigerian highlife music, and had been casting around for some other approaches - especially to the use of the hi-hat. As if by magic, his shipped-across-the-ocean copy of Downbeat arrived - carrying a long tutorial by Max Roach about hi-hat playing. Tony went into retreat for several weeks, and emerged with the style of drumming that was to become Afrobeat. It is that drumming more than anything else which distinguished those early albums from any other music. It rolls, rocks and snaps and makes you move. And yet it isn't ever very regular - it's hard to isolate the 'part' that Tony's playing because he's constantly moving it around. If you chop a piece out and make a loop of it, it loses its energy: the power is in the incessant invention, the way the beat and accentation is shifted around through different drums.
I heard another story about Fela from the drummer Chris Vatalaro, who in turn heard it from Tony Allen. Fela would count the musicians in individually, but in an unusual way: he would often give them different 'ones'. To explain this: in most music, everybody plays to the same 'one': that means that everybody agrees as to where the beginning of the bar is. That's why you hear, at the beginning of many songs, '1, 2, 3, 4' and then everybody starts playing. They're all in sync. Fela apparently had a different approach. He'd count some of the players in on different 'ones', so that the emphasis of their rhythmic playing was at odds with that of the other players. The effect of this is to produce an unbalanced, constantly modulating music where the rhythmic feel is unresolved, always finding new internal balances.
Some of the music in this set is over forty years old, but it still sounds fresh. When I first met the Talking Heads in 1977 I played them my well-worn copy of Afrodisiac and said 'This is the music of the future'. That still seems true to me.
• Fela's London Scene  J'Ehin J'Ehin / Egbe Mio / Who're You / Buy AFrica / Fight To Finish
• Shakara  Lady / Shakara
• Gentleman  Gentleman / Fefe Naa Efe / Igbe
• Afrodesiac  Alu Jon Jonki Jon / Chop And Quench / Eko Ile / Je'Nwi Temi (Don't Gag Me)
• Zombie  Zombie / Mr. Follow Follow
• Upside Down  Upside Down / Go Slow
• I.T.T.  ITT (Part 1) / ITT (Part 2)
• 12"x 12" twelve-page book that includes a foreword from Brian Eno, album notes from Chris May, translated lyrics, and photos from Bernard Matussiere
• 16.5"x 22.5" poster
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