Monday, September 3, 2018

Fela Ransome-Kuti And The Africa '70 - 1969 - Fela Fela Fel

Fela Ransome-Kuti And The Africa '70
Fela Fela Fel

01. My Lady's Frustration
02. Viva Nigeria
03. Obe (Stew)
04. Ako
05. Witchcraft
06. Wayo
07. Lover
08. Funky Horn
09. Eko
10. This Is Sad

Fela Ransome-Kuti: trumpet, vocals
Lonnie Bolden: tenor saxophone
Isaac Olasugba: alto saxophone
Tony Allen: drums
Lekan Animashaun: baritone saxophone
Felix: bass guitar
Tunde Williams: trumpet
Christopher Uwaifo: tenor saxophone
Henry Kofee: congas
Fred Lawal: guitar

Fela Fela Fel was originally recorded in 1969 when Fela Kuti was living in Hollywood. The band performed six nights at the Citadel de Haiti on Sunset Boulevard and these songs were recorded there. Originally released in 1970 in Nigeria, the cuts featured here would later end up on an album called The '69 Los Angeles Sessions.

It's almost impossible to overstate the impact and importance of Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti (or just Fela as he's more commonly known) to the global musical village: producer, arranger, musician, political radical, outlaw. He was all that, as well as showman par excellence, inventor of Afro-beat, an nonredeemable sexist, and a moody megalomaniac. His death on August 3, 1997 of complications from AIDS deeply affected musicians and fans internationally, as a musical and sociopolitical voice on a par with Bob Marley was silenced. A press release from the United Democratic Front of Nigeria on the occasion of Fela's death noted: "Those who knew you well were insistent that you could never compromise with the evil you had fought all your life. Even though made weak by time and fate, you remained strong in will and never abandoned your goal of a free, democratic, socialist Africa." This is as succinct a summation of Fela's political agenda as one is likely to find.

Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, Nigeria, north of Lagos in October 1938, Fela's family was firmly middle class as well as politically active. His father was a pastor (and talented pianist), his mother active in the anti-colonial, anti-military, Nigerian home rule movement. So at an early age, Fela experienced politics and music in a seamless combination. His parents, however, were less interested in his becoming a musician and more interested in his becoming a doctor, so they packed him off to London in 1958 for what they assumed would be a medical education; instead, Fela registered at Trinity College's school of music. Tired of studying European composers, Fela formed his first band, Koola Lobitos, in 1961, and quickly became a fixture on the London club scene. He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and started another version of Koola Lobitos that was more influenced by the James Brown-style singing of Geraldo Pina from Sierra Leone. Combining this with elements of traditional high life and jazz, Fela dubbed this intensely rhythmic hybrid "Afro-beat," partly as critique of African performers whom he felt had turned their backs on their African musical roots in order to emulate current American pop music trends.

In 1969, Fela brought Koola Lobitos to Los Angeles to tour and record. They toured America for about eight months using Los Angeles as a home base. It was while in L.A. that Fela hooked up with a friend, Sandra Isidore, who introduced him to the writings and politics of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver (and by extension the Black Panthers), and other proponents of Black nationalism and Afrocentrism. Impressed at what he read, Fela was politically revivified and decided that some changes were in order: first, the name of the band, as Koola Lobitos became Nigeria 70; second, the music would become more politically explicit and critical of the oppression of the powerless worldwide. After a disagreement with an unscrupulous promoter who turned them in to the Immigration and Naturalization Services, Fela and band were charged with working without work permits. Realizing that time was short before they were sent back to Nigeria, they were able to scrape together some money to record some new songs in L.A. What came to be known as the '69 Los Angeles Sessions were remarkable, an indication of a maturing sound and of the raucous, propulsive music that was to mark Fela's career. Afrobeat's combination of blaring horn sections, antiphonal vocals, Fela's quasi-rapping pidgin English, and percolating guitars, all wrapped up in a smoldering groove (in the early days driven by the band's brilliant drummer Tony Allen) that could last nearly an hour, was an intoxicating sound. Once hooked, it was impossible to get enough.
Upon returning to Nigeria, Fela founded a communal compound-cum-recording studio and rehearsal space he called the Kalakuta Republic, and a nightclub, the Shrine. It was during this time that he dropped his given middle name of "Ransome" which he said was a slave name, and took the name "Anikulapo" (meaning "he who carries death in his pouch") . Playing constantly and recording at a ferocious pace, Fela and band (who were now called Africa 70) became huge stars in West Africa. His biggest fan base, however, was Nigeria's poor. Because his music addressed issues important to the Nigerian underclass (specifically a military government that profited from political exploitation and disenfranchisement), Fela was more than a simply a pop star; like Bob Marley in Jamaica, he was the voice of Nigeria's have-nots, a cultural rebel. This was something Nigeria's military junta tried to nip in the bud, and from almost the moment he came back to Nigeria up until his death, Fela was hounded, jailed, harassed, and nearly killed by a government determined to silence him. In one of the most egregious acts of violence committed against him, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers attacked his Kalakuta compound in 1977 (the second government-sanctioned attack). Fela suffered a fractured skull as well as other broken bones; his 82-year old mother was thrown from an upstairs window, inflicting injuries that would later prove fatal. The soldiers set fire to the compound and prevented fire fighters from reaching the area. Fela's recording studio, all his master tapes and musical instruments were destroyed.

After the Kalakuta tragedy, Fela briefly lived in exile in Ghana, returning to Nigeria in 1978. In 1979 he formed his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People), and at the start of the new decade renamed his band Egypt 80. From 1980-1983, Nigeria was under civilian rule, and it was a relatively peaceful period for Fela, who recorded and toured non-stop. Military rule returned in 1983, and in 1984 Fela was sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of currency smuggling. With help from Amnesty International, he was freed in 1985.

As the '80s ended, Fela recorded blistering attacks against Nigeria's corrupt military government, as well as broadsides aimed at Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (most abrasively on the album Beasts of No Nation). Never what you would call progressive when it came to relationships with women or patriarchy in general (the fact was that he was sexist in the extreme, which is ironic when you consider that his mother was one of Nigeria's early feminists), he was coming around to the struggles faced by African women, but only just barely. Stylistically speaking, Fela's music didn't change much during this time, and much of what he recorded, while good, was not as blistering as some of the amazing music he made in the '70s. Still, when a Fela record appeared, it was always worth a listen. He was unusually quiet in the '90s, which may have had something to do with how ill he was; very little new music appeared, but in as great a series of reissues as the planet has ever seen, the London-based Stern's Africa label re-released some of his long unavailable records (including The '69 Los Angeles Sessions), and the seminal works of this remarkable musician were again filling up CD bins. He never broke big in the U.S. market, and it's hard to imagine him having the same kind of posthumous profile that Marley does, but Fela's 50-something releases offer up plenty of remarkable music, and a musical legacy that lives on in the person of his talented son Femi. Around the turn of the millennium, Universal began remastering and reissuing a goodly portion of Fela's many recordings, finally making some of his most important work widely available to American and European listeners.

With Fela Fela Fel we're finally at Afrobeat. Well, nearly anyway. The tracks are still short! So no 15 minute jams, and Fela is still going about vocal performances in a very James Brown way. Don't get me wrong, he's quite good at it, and all these songs are great fun. They're just a bit toned down and simplistic compared to the masterpieces that are coming just down the road in the next couple years. 

It's easy to skip over these early releases and jump straight to better known names, but if you're a fan of Fela's London Scene you should make a point of getting back here and checking these out. 

Fela Ransome Kuti & His Koola Lobitos - 1966 - Afro Beat Swings Live At Afro Spot

Fela Ransome Kuti & His Koola Lobitos
Afro Beat Swings Live At Afro Spot

01. Everyday I Got My Blues
02. Moti Gborokan
03. Waka Waka
04. Ako
05. Oloruka
06. Lai Se

Fela Kuti (vocals, trumpet, Keyboards)
Tony Allen (drums)
Ojo Okeji (bass)
Yinka Roberts (guitar)
Isaac Olasugba (saxophone)
Tunde Williams (trumpet)
Eddie Aroyewu (trumpet)
Tex Becks (tenor saxophone)
Uwaifo (tenor saxophone)
Fred Lawal (guitar).

Fela Kuti is mostly known as being the man who invented Afrobeat (with assistance from Tony Allen) and for releasing more good music in the 1970s than any other single musician (from 1972-77 alone he released no fewer than 25 albums. Anyone who doesn't consider him one of the top 5 funk artists of all time probably has no idea what they're talking about, and his influence on music of all styles is totally incalculable. This isn't that Fela, though.

As a historical document, this record is indispensable. When this came out in 1966 Fela was only 27 years old and still hadn't found his original voice as an artist. He was still one hell an entertainer, though, and that's what really shows on this record. As a standalone piece of music, this is simply a really good highlife record. The first side has three lively pieces on it that are plenty of fun, and you can hear how good Fela was at working a crowd. But the real attraction is side 2.

Fela introduces the side as he and his band trying out a little Afrobeat. I can't imagine what the crowd thought he was talking about when he said it, but they seem receptive after the performance he's given on the first 3 cuts. And then they hear it: "Ako" is a long way from fully formed, but there's no way you can't hear Afrobeat in that track. I don't think the band was fully comfortable playing that style just yet but Fela sells it as best he can and the whole group continues straight into the best highlife track on the album, "Oloruka." By this point Fela is howling like a man possessed, you can hear the crowd loving it, and the band has settled in, playing looser and funkier after the stylistic experimentation. This leads straight into "Lai Se," which is another primitive version of Afrobeat, but this time the band is in a groove. It's violent, loud, free and ecstatic. Fela's trumpet soars here, and the album closes on a tribal rhythm that had to have had the crowd dancing to the last.

This is the very definition of "genius in chrysalis." "Ako" and "Lai Se" are by no means on the level of Fela's 70s Afrobeat masterpieces, but you can tell he believes in this sound and the effect is contagious. There's no way any member of the crowd could've known they were witnessing the wave of the future, but you couldn't blame them for thinking it. Do you think any of them were surprised this man became a legend?

Fela Ransome Kuti And His Koola Lobitos - 1965 - Fela Ransome Kuti And His Koola Lobitos

Fela Ransome Kuti And His Koola Lobitos
Fela Ransome Kuti And His Koola Lobitos

01. Signature Tune 0:23
02. It's Highlife Time 5:20
03. Lagos Baby 3:35
04. Omuti 3:52
05. Olulufe 5:22
06. Araba's Delight 4:58
07. Wa Dele 4:07
08. Lai Se 4:10
09. Mi O Mo 4:40
10. Obinrin Le 4:49
11. Omo Ejo 5:04

Fela Kuti (vocals, trumpet, Keyboards)
Tony Allen (drums)
Ojo Okeji (bass)
Yinka Roberts (guitar)
Isaac Olasugba (saxophone)
Tunde Williams (trumpet)
Eddie Aroyewu (trumpet)
Tex Becks (tenor saxophone)
Uwaifo (tenor saxophone)
Fred Lawal (guitar)

Is greatness there from day one, does it evolve or suddenly strike? Do artists in any discipline develop in steps or arrive fully-formed? How does the quotidian become exceptional?

Kuti had recorded in London in 1960 while he was studying at Trinity School of Music and two singles were issued, but it was his return to Nigeria in 1963 which kick-started the run of tracks collected here. At this point, the trumpet – which he had studied – was his instrument. The saxophone came later. Jazz was the focus: his first Nigerian band of the Sixties was the Fela Ransome-Kuti Quartet, which soon became Koola Lobitos. This was musical evolution, not the arrival of a fully-formed, original voice.

Before Afrobeat, there was Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul. Highlife music, originally from Ghana and widely popular across West Africa, dominated the music scene in Lagos when Fela Kuti returned to the newly independent Nigeria in 1963. Fela had been studying trumpet at Trinity College of Music in London where he met drummer Tony Allen, who also joined him in new group Koola Lobitos as they sought to mix things up by introducing the sounds they had heard in the capital's jazz clubs.

While Fela's Afrobeat compositions took the groove to its limit over side-long tunes, the first disc of early 7" singles here demonstrates the group's desire to take existing sounds and create something new, if not the extended focus and political message that would come later. The group were still developing ahead of the curve though and the abstract sounds were new to listeners in Nigeria, incorporating jazz chords into highlife arrangements.

The group's mid-60s self-titled debut album opens with 'Signature Tune', a short, sharp blast of percussion-led brass that leads into 'Highlife Time', which provides a statement of intent as Fela introduces the music that's "got the beat". You get a feel for how the group could ignite a dancefloor, as the group's highlife rhythms fuse with Fela's jazz licks on the trumpet, inspired by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. 'Ofulufe' shows a steadier side of the group, as snaky saxophone lines weave around Fela's vocals, transporting the influence of American jazz musicians back to Africa. The horn blasts around the extended dance rhythms of 'Obinrin Le (Women Are Unpredictable)' is perhaps the closest to the kind of arrangements that would be developed later.

The Koola Lobitos lineup visited the US in the late 60s and made recordings later released as The '69 Los Angeles Sessions, under the name Nigeria '70, ahead of the prolific period that followed. Around the time of this trip Fela met American black rights activist Sandra Izadore, who introduced him to the Black Panthers and revolutionary writings by Malcom X and Angela Davis that inspired his political thinking and to use his "music as weapon". Fela and Allen's musical partnership continued into the 1970s, along with another long-time collaborator, baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun, who had joined Koola Lobitos in 1965, as they developed their progressive musical vision in the form of a new music – the Afrobeat sound.