Fela Kuti – Anthology 2 [Wrasse Records, 2010]

Fela Kuti - Anthology 2Fela Kuti died back in 1997, and since then his popularity and reputation have grown as a new generation discovers the music of this extraordinary Nigerian musician, bandleader, composer and rebel politician. Quite right, too, for Fela was the originator of Afrobeat, the fusion of funk, jazz and Yoruba influences that continues to inspire musicians worldwide. And his life was so extraordinary and extreme that it’s no surprise that it became the subject of a hit Broadway musical.

But during his lifetime it was all rather different. He had a devoted following in the West, for sure, but when African styles first began to win an international following in the 1980s, he was never as commercially successful as fellow Nigerian King Sunny Adé. His lengthy songs were too adventurous for audiences that didn’t understand his furious political messages, and the fact that he was at times unable to tour because he was jailed by the Nigerian authorities clearly didn’t help his career. Now, at last, the West has caught up, and this thrilling set, the second part of the excellent Fela Anthology, is a rousing introduction to his work.

The best place to hear Fela’s blend of musical invention and firebrand politics was at his Lagos club, the Shrine, where he would arrive at two or three in the morning, invariably puffing on a joint as he launched into furious attacks on Nigeria’s military governments. The authorities hated him, especially when he declared the area around the club to be an independent state, the Kalakuta Republic, and in 1977 the military launched a full-scale assault on his ‘republic’ during which Fela said his singers and dancers were raped, and his mother killed by being thrown from a window. These horrific events led to the classic Fela songs on this set, which covers the period from 1975-80. They include the furious Unknown Soldier, dealing with the attack, to the more thoughtful Coffin for Head of State, telling how Fela presented the soldiers with a replica of his mother’s coffin (getting himself beaten yet again in the process).

Other great songs here include Kalakuta Show, dealing with an earlier attack on his club, along with Zombie, on which Fela shows off his keyboard work, and Africa Centre of the World, featuring Fela’s fine saxophone duets with vibraphone star Roy Ayers. This set also includes a DVD of Fela playing in Berlin in 1978, and excellent sleeve notes by his daughter Yeni. It’s crucial listening for any African music enthusiast.

Robin Denselow

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. Originally published on BBC Music.

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