Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: Afrobeating Myself Sensible

Last May I had the luck and privilege to be in Seattle to see the wonderful musical Fela!, during its short run there and, indeed and alas, one of its last performances. I was reminded that despite personality traits like egoism and misogyny, which many people find repugnant, Fela was rebellion incarnate. He used his creative genius to attack repressive forces at every opportunity, using words to beat the oppressors and beats to animate the oppressed. 

During the show I thought about the universality of Fela's messages, and how once it was easy to decry injustices and despotism in other countries, and struggle in solidarity with people elsewhere. Now with an income distribution in the U$ described by a mainstream economics radio program as like those typically found in "third world dictatorships," with urban police forces equipped, trained and deployed as paramilitaries to crack down on peaceful dissent, with unbridled surveillance of every communication that you or I make, by countless cloistered technicians, with municipal and commercial jails filled with pot smokers while corrupt politicians and criminal financiers smoke pot on their yachts, I realize that Fela's many songs apply to us.

Imagine my interest upon homecoming to find Femi Kuti's angry new release No Place Like My Dream waiting for me. Songs like the opening "Nothing to Show for It" begin a series of songs that describe how the world's masses are crushed under the weight of corruption, theft and poverty, with little hope for a better life. "When you see what is going on in the world today, you will agree that poverty is winning the day," begins "The World is Changing." Femi's dream is for peace and prosperity, as it is for most of humanity, but there is no place for his dream in a world where "great men" keep that dream for themselves only, through "corruption and oppression."

The outrage is clothed in urgent Afrobeat, packaged into radio friendly chunks that are easily distributed. Lovely, authentic Afrobeat that seems to channel Fela's challenge to authority. There are no long, symphonic songs — Femi wants his message to be immediate and concise. Yet with unity of theme and varied textures, the whole album is effectively a suite, though not at all sweet. One of the most satisfying songs musically is "One Man Show," which is like a mini-Fela composition that urges revolution. Take any three or four Fela albums and distill them, and you would have something approximating this tough, important release. Perhaps this is Femi Kuti's clearest statement and musical vision, but it, like his visage, is uncannily reminiscent of his father.

Much as the National Security Agency (NSA) uses one email or text message or whatever to begin tracing the infinity of connections that are obliquely linked to it, I used my monitored internet connection to order a genetically related album from Seun Kuti, released a couple of years ago. Femi's younger brother is leading the venerable Egypt 80 band on his excellent From Africa With Fury: Rise, on the Knitting Factory label like his brother's new one.

The album opens with spare instrumentation that establishes a furious rhythm until robust horns enter, along with sirens. "African Soldier" is an indictment of self-perpetuating militaries that use their armed power to secure economic and political control. "You Can Run" incorporates a wonderful funky beat and its own fury. One great song follows another, including the powerful title track "Rise." This track begins with a slower rhythm and a lament similar to Femi's, "Our ear don full for your words, Our stomach all empty," before settling into an instrumental introduction that gives Seun space for a dreamy sax solo. It develops into a plea to rise up against the multinational companies extracting resources and leaving poverty, and "all of the African rulers."

While From Africa With Fury: Rise is available on vinyl, I am glad to have the digital version because I already would have worn out the grooves on a recording I have listened to so many times in two weeks. The tenor of this album is a bit different than Femi's; both decry an unjust world, but Femi's reflects anger and despair while Seun's exhorts rebellion. Perhaps that is the difference between generations that I can feel personally. My only regret with Fury is that the songs could be longer. Sometimes they just seem to be hitting the groove when they end, though maybe I am just subconsciously expecting a Fela epic.

So to satisfy my need I queue Afro Disco Beat, and let it roll. For a number of reasons I have thought about The Beat magazine frequently lately, and while I miss writing for it, I realize that I depended on it to find essential music, and that nothing has taken its place since it stopped publishing. Or perhaps it was just my life at the time that caused me to miss this great 2007 release. Tony Allen is, of course, the drumming genius who helped Fela give shape to Afrobeat, and this compilation of recordings from the 1970s demonstrates not only unity with contemporary Fela albums, but also Allen's individual vision that he has continued to develop over four succeeding decades.

This lavish, two-disc set from VampiSoul is full of extended instrumentals that give Allen lots of room for drum solos, and while many tracks feature his soulful vocal improvisations, it is the beat that is crucial. The album compiles four Tony Allen records from 1975-1979, the first three, and in my opinion strongest, were made with Fela's Africa 70 band led by the master himself. "Afro-Disco Beat" is a wonderful, twelve-minute instrumental featuring Fela on sax, but my favorite is the splendid "No Accommodation For Lagos." Beginning with a soft conversation, it ramps up the percussion and the horns kick in, and then a discordant keyboard chop punctuates the Afrobeat, providing an irresistible hook. This essential album is full of hooks and some groovy wisdom, but it appears to be deleted from the VampiSoul catalog. So if you do not own it already (and you should), hurry because there do not seem to be many copies available.

Remixing classic recordings is not a new concept, and Fela has been remixed more than many artists. When Red Hot + Fela was announced, I was curious because one of my most-played albums is another Red Hot charity Fela remix, 2002's Red Hot + Riot. A new remix for a new generation? Perhaps. Certainly rap is much more in the forefront of this collection, and for long stretches it can be hard to find Fela, apart from words. Another remix of a master came my way this week, the son's remix of Bob Marley's Legend album, and it left me cold. Too often the subject gets lost in remixes, buried beneath the musical egos that pay token homage while strutting their stuff.

This Red Hot begins promisingly with Baloji & L'Orchestre de la Katuba taking a stab at "Buy Africa," but after the following "Lady" I began to lose interest as electronics took over and I forgot there was any Fela there. The version of "Sorrow Tears and Blood" was so somnolent that I almost had to stop driving: Who would entrust that searing song of outrage to the Kronos Quartet? It's not all bad, though; I liked several songs like the creative version of "ITT", 
the sultry "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am" and, well. . . maybe that is it. Maybe you would be better off searching for a used copy of the original Red Hot Fela remix, which is long out-of-print, for that is a true masterpiece worthy of the "African original," as Fela dubs himself in "Gentleman."


David said...

Strangely, I've just been renewing my acquaintance with Fela, and perhaps feeling something's missing in his sons' various approaches (probably length!!)

I've also been reading Chimamanda Adichie's new book "Americanah" (I do like her work!) & there's a lovely piece of social comment (about the UK this time) in there when one socialite comments how outrageous it is that Nigerian doctors are leaving & coming to the UK, they owe a duty to their fellow-countrymen; and another ripostes that this loyalty to countrymen obviously doesn't apply to English doctors (etc) who are abandoning the run-down areas in the UK...

In short, I think Fela's message is so powerful because, while it is outwardly focused on the injustices in his own experience where he is, he challenges all of us not to be outraged about Nigerian injustice a generation ago, but about injustices where we are, inequalities where we are, now. If we simply 'read' his message as a historical document about Nigeria, we are kidding ourselves about our own societies' failings.

Rhythm Connection said...

Agreed, David. That of course is the theme of my post, disguised as a music review! Cheers.

David said...

(didn't mean to imply otherwise - or perhaps rather, wanted to bring your message about the US into a UK context as well. All best :-)