“Listen – Shakara (45 edit) MP3″
Here we are again, at the old digital watering hole, gathering to quench our thirst and to attempt to insulate ourselves against another week chained to the wheel.
Though my approach to the beginning of the work week is once again (predictably) dismal, it is so only out of habit. Despite the fact that any day spent as a cog in another huge corporate machine is in some way wasted, I cannot deny that the prospect of this particular week being truncated by the Thanksgiving holiday makes me happy. This is not due only to the aforementioned truncation (is that a word?), but by Thanksgiving itself, my own personal favorite holiday.
Unlike some of the holidays on the calendar, Thanksgiving is pretty much just about getting together with your friends and family and chilling. Depending on your own family situation – and your own need to sit in front of the TV watching football – the level of chill may vary, but in general it’s just a day filled with warm feelings (and delicious food) and I can’t say that there are too many of those anymore.
Today’s selection is an early 45 edit by one of the truly great musical figures of the last 50 years, the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti*. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t feel bad because despite his popularity in Africa and Europe, he is/was hardly a household name in the US.
I’m no expert on his life story – start here for that – but I think I can give you some idea of why you should be checking him out.
Fela was born in Nigeria in 1938 and his parents were both socially/politically active, especially his mother who was an early advocate of Pan-Africanism, and a staunch anti-colonialist.
He moved to London in 1958 and started his study of music, and with other Nigerian ex-pats he formed the band Koola Lobitos, which specialized in playing ‘highlife’ music. He returned to Nigeria in 1963, and reformed the band, recording several 45s before picking up lock stock and barrel and moving the unit to Los Angeles in 1968. It was during his stay in the US that the jazzy, latin influenced sound of Koola Lobitos was struck head on by the modern sounds of US soul and funk. The band was renamed Nigeria 70, and their sound changed drastically, bearing the mark of a leader that had been on the road to Damascus and was struck down by the sound of James Brown. There’s a great CD reissue entitled ‘The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions’, the first half of which is the Koola Lobitos recordings (covering the period from 1964 to 1968), and the remainder are the Nigeria 70 recordings from 1969. Though there are still elements of the earlier sound in the Nigeria 70 tunes, there is a clear difference. Fela and band bear the influence not only Brown and the JB’s, but also US/UK rock and pop. The band is much tighter, the sound more aggressive and funky.
It’s also important to mention that while in the US, Fela’s politics – already on the way to radical – were informed by his contact with the Black Panther party.
Fela and band (soon to be rechristened as Africa 70), who were in the US without work permits were forced to return to Nigeria.
Upon his return to Nigeria, Fela formed what was to become known as the Kalakuta Republic, basically a compound/commune in Lagos which included housing for Fela and his entire entourage (band, family and 20+ wives) and the performance space that became known as ‘The Shrine’. It was here that Fela began his long career as a musical innovator, political agitator and all-around social iconoclast. Africa 70 grew both in skill and size (the band, singers and dancers eventually topped out at around 80 members), and started recording the long-form songs (taking up entire LP sides, and going much longer than that in a live setting) that would be their trademark. They became hugely popular in Africa, and recorded both in Lagos, and in London where Fela would collaborate briefly with Ginger Baker of Cream, an early fan.
The early 70’s sound of Fela and Africa 70 feature Fela on vocals, sax and keyboards, and are marked by long, polyrhythmic grooves. The sound, which Fela christened “afrobeat” is marked by multiple guitar lines, African and western percussion, and powerful horn lines. Fela’s songs, alternately sung in English and pidgin (a kind of Nigerian patois) featured bold political and social themes, often directly attacking the colonial government of Nigeria. As a result Fela was targeted by that government which repeatedly tried to jail him (sometimes successfully) on trumped up drug and smuggling charges. Over the years he (and often his family and followers) was beaten, tortured and exiled, returning defiantly each and every time (even attempting to run for the Nigerian presidency). He soon became not only a musical but a political and cultural hero to not only his fellow Nigerians but Africans in general, and others under colonial repression around the world.
He was hugely important, not only for his fantastic music and direct political action, but because he embodied a unique fusion of anti-colonial politics and confrontation, as well as social and sexual freedom. The definitive biography, that captures the spirit of the man and his music, has yet to be written, but if you get a chance check out the documentary ‘Music is the Weapon’, which turns up on Sundance now and then. It’s a fantastic introduction to the life and music of a remarkably charismatic and important man.
Fela and Africa 70 (which was renamed Egypt 80 in 1980) recorded dozens of records between 1970 and his untimely death in 1996, and performed all over the world. Today’s selection, ‘Shakara’ was originally released in 1972. The track I’ve posted today is a 45 edit released in Europe in 1974 (4:41 of the tracks original 13:25 length**). The edit gets right to the rough heart of the song, creating a sharp, funky distillation of a tune that has a somewhat looser, jazz inflected vibe over its original length. The repeated guitar motif sounds like a slightly reworked take on ‘Sex Machine’, and there’s strong interplay between Fela and his backing singers.
If the sounds on this 45 have intrigued you, most of the Africa 70/Egypt 80 records are available as reissues (including some excellent live material). If you don’t want to dive in head first, and wish instead to sample at the buffet that is the Fela discography, there’s an excellent 2-CD set entitled ‘The Best of Fela Kuti’ that ought to do the trick. While the liner notes are short on facts, the music is exceptional and it’s a great introduction to Fela’s music.
*The 45 sleeve lists him by his birth name Fela Ransome Kuti. In the early 70’s he changed his middle name to Anikulapo, which means “he who carries death in his pouch”.
** For some reason the 45 label suggests that this edit is 6 minutes and 20 seconds long. This is clearly not the case.