Fela Kuti – Live in Detroit 1986 [Strut Records, 2012]

Fela Kuti - Live in DetroitAs a format, the live album serves numerous purposes: memento for fans of a concert recently attended, historical document of an important point in a band’s career. But, all too often, it’s a cynical cash cow to fleece the faithful. The best, however, make you wish you’d attended the concert in question. So it is with Live in Detroit, a recently exhumed 1986 recording from the first American tour by king of afrobeat Fela Kuti’s final band, Egypt 80, a year after he was freed from a bogus sentence for smuggling in his home country of Nigeria.

The memory of his incarceration is clearly fresh for Fela as he introduces the first song, Just Like That. “In my home country,” he says, “They can put you in prison, just… like… that…” The song’s theme wouldn’t have been lost on the audience; while no corrupt militaristic hell-hole like Fela’s Nigeria, the Detroit of 1986 was a neglected, decaying post-industrial ghost-town. The recording’s bootleg roots – heavy with reverb, capturing the crackle and buzz of the audience – lend the music an electric presence.

Just Like That is the first of four songs over two-and-a-half hours, which won’t surprise Fela aficionados: his albums typically chased a single tune across one or both sides of vinyl. Still, not a moment is wasted. While Fela’s 80s output isn’t quite as fiery as his work with Africa 70 – there’s nothing here as blistering as the agit-bleat of ITT or Original Sufferhead – the slow-burn of the material is every bit as insurgent, as life-affirming.

The lengthy track times – Just Like That is the shortest, at just under a half-hour; a seething Confusion Break Bones boils away for over 40 minutes – are part of this music’s power, as Fela and band coax their grooves into meditative, conversational exchanges and roaring, intense peaks.

Witness Just Like That’s crescendos, saxophone solos writhing between blasts of righteous horns, Fela and his wives scattering chants between the polyrhythms, carving a martial funk from the chaos. Or the infernal slow build of the closing Beasts of No Nation, translating anger and pain into the sweetest, most-bristling, most-ecstatic party music. You’ll wish you’d been there. You’ll wish it would never end.

Stevie Chick

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

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Weirdomusic Review: Fela Kuti – Anthology 2
Weirdomusic Review: Fela Kuti – The Best of the Black President 2
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Fela Kuti @ Wikipedia
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Fela Kuti & Thetalkingdrum.com

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