Fela Kuti – Box Set #4 (Curated by Erykah Badu)
Erykah Badu's Fela Kuti Box Set – the fourth re-release from Knitting Factory – is a fine Afrobeat introduction, but check out the other “course selections” before you invest
It's not easy to comprehend the breadth and depth of Fela Kuti’s influence on contemporary music. If you’re listening closely, you can hear him in everything from J Cole’s Born Sinner to Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light to Blur’s The Magic Whip. Approaching the music of 'The Black President' can be even more daunting than charting his impact. His songs are 15 or 20 minutes long, thick with polyrhythms, lyrics in Yoruba-Pidgin-English and full of obscure references to Nigerian cultural and political life in the last third of the twentieth century.
Then there’s the matter of Kuti's politics and personal life: on one side, his Pan-Africanist message of uplift, his rejection of Western standards, and his brave stances against corrupt powers at home; on the other, his homophobia, misogyny, his polygyny, his autocrat’s arrogance and revolutionary’s naiveté. Put on any Fela record as background music and the uninitiated will find the songs dull and repetitive, Fela’s horn playing amateurish and blundering, the lyrics as indecipherable and unprovocative as the ramblings of a drunk in a bar... unless they find it fascinating, fecund, an “original fever.”
For decades, Fela’s music – what he eventually called Afrobeat – has spread through European and American audiences through personal (and usually urgent) recommendations. Once upon a time, Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt shared a Fela record with Brian Eno, then of Roxy Music, who shared it with David Byrne of Talking Heads, who passed his appreciation on to St. Vincent among others, and so on. Today your mate might commandeer the Uber’s aux cord and queue Water No Get Enemy, off Fela’s 1975 album Expensive Shit. 'Check this out', he'd say. '?uestlove – you know, from The Roots? He digs this guy. Fela. Fela Kuti.'
And that’s sort of the idea behind the Knitting Factory Records re-release series. Almost all of Fela’s music is already available – but where to start? You might tap a trusted friend (such as ?uestlove, Ginger Baker, Brian Eno, or, now, Erykah Badu) for an introduction. You might think of these as three- to four-hour mixtapes, or maybe undergraduate seminars.
In Fela’s music, a guitar lick might serve the same purpose drums do in rock, muscling a song along. Meanwhile, drummer Tony Allen (who’s still active, give his most recent work a listen) snakes a kick-and-snare rhythm around behind your back and starts to coil until he’s tied you up. Walls of horns wave and wobble, riding earthshakes beneath them. Fela’s voice is another, holy horn – a horn for denouncing, declaring, seducing. And the shekere. Always the shekere.
Badu’s curation, the fourth in the Knitting Factory re-release series, showcases all of this fairly well. J.J.D. Johnny Just Drop is a high point, as is the languidly insistent Coffin for Head of State, which Fela wrote after the Nigerian government’s sack of his home – the Kalakuta Republic, which he had declared an independent state – and the subsequent death of his mother. Also interesting is the original recording of the 1984 album Army Arrangement, which many consider to be Fela’s only 'bad' album. As Chris May explains in this box set’s liner notes, Celluloid Records producer Bill Laswell mixed the record “in five minutes” while Fela was in a Nigerian jail; Fela was not pleased by the result. The reappearance of the original here is something to cheer.
But with a choice of four Fela mixtapes – or four Fela seminars – we’d hesitate before picking Erykah Badu’s. The first box set installment, from ?uestlove, is kinetic, forceful, various; equally valuable to the newcomer as an entry point as it is to the aficionado for its exciting, angular approach. The second box set (Ginger Baker’s) draws from Fela’s wilder first decade on record, and also features the extraordinary combination of Baker and Allen together on percussion; it pulls together uniformly excellent work. The third box, from Brian Eno, introduces us to Fela as a saxophone player; the work in this selection is some of his most virile and daring. Badu collects good work, but the second half of the collection trails off; the whole doesn’t stand up to sustained listening without herbal aids (which, to her credit, Badu recommends).
Badu’s approach is interesting in what it reveals about her take on Fela’s politics and enduring relevance; likewise her liner notes fix Fela squarely under the LEDs of the present day, especially when she manages to put a rhythm-like narrative behind them. Box Set #4 is a collector’s item for the obsessed and obsessive. It will serve as the right lock-and-key combination for thousands who will enjoy and benefit from Fela Kuti’s music – especially for those who relate to Erykah Badu as they would a trusted friend, that friend, the one who always has the next new music. But check out the other 'course selections' before you invest in this much vinyl.