Friday, May 04, 2007
I first came across Fela Kuti at the SF Public Library, where i found a copy of his "Expensive Shit!" album. I was pretty much sold on the cover, which featured fela surrounded by a bunch of nekkid ladies with his fist in the air. The story of the album is that the nigerian government was trying to bust fela for pot (which they may have planted on him), so he swallowed it, at which point the government jailed him so they could get his feces and prove he had pot. Fela managed to smuggle his poo out of the prison, hence the title of the album.
In a lot of ways, that title sums fela's music up. Absurd, funny, joyous, yet angry and anti-oppression. Fela sang about issues - the failure of trying to impose European values in africa (gentleman, lady), the oppressive government (zombie, expensive shit), trying to create unity (water). That's a lot of the reason why everyone from Uber hipsters at Pitchfork and hip hop heads like Blackaliscous are so into him.
The other reason is that his music is really, really good. It's the perfect combination of funk and jazz, all mixed in with more traditional african rhythms and musical tendencies. Fela called it Afrobeat. To me, it sounds like a close cousin of funk and r & b music from the seventies, and an uncle of modern day hip-hop.
The songs are long, and almost all of them revolve around the same repetive rhythm, the endless drum. Often they will have three minute intros before they even get to the main body of the song, and it is not uncommon for his songs to hit the 13 minute mark. In fact, they weren't ever really meant to be records. Fela was all about the live experience, and once he cut a track to vinyl, he stopped peforming it. His songs seem more like experiences and movements than careful compositions, masterful freestyles and improvs.
Fela kuti is also world music in the best sense, because it allows you to share in the experiences and emotions of another culture without feeling like a tourist. This isn't some hippy ass shit, this is the real deal, music that makes you feel alive (although I guess people that like hippy ass shit might think it makes them feel alive, too).
There is a readily available double disc greatest hits called "The Best Best of Fela Kuti that is pretty indispensible. At the very least it is proof that other countries besides the us and uk can rock out.
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