Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fight the Power: Fela Kuti Remembered

Twenty years ago, in another country and another time, I went down to a club called First Avenue to witness two musical mammoths share the stage.  Fela Kuti for the first hour. Jimmy Cliff for the second!  At the time Fela was about the only African music I knew and I thought he was absolutely from a different world. How could anyone make such grooving, moving, urgent, angry and arrogant music?   He seemed in some way to represent the very end of Music itself. Nothing better could ever be made.
Nigeria Anti-corruption poster

In the intervening years, I’ve had the humble pleasure of exploring the wonders of so many other brilliant African musicians: Grand Kalle, Farka Toure, Orchestre Poly-Ritmo, OK Jazz, Mbaraka Mwinsheshe, S.E. Rogie. And yet there stands Fela above and beyond. Just out of reach.

So what a surprise to learn that the big Broadway hit of the season has been FELA! The Broadway Show produced by hip hop star Jay-Z and starring, Patti Labelle.  About time, I say, the corporate-Top-40-Kasey-Kasem-encrusted  radio audiences be introduced to the funkiest of all music makers of any country, of any time. Period. Amen.  Lettucespray.

About three weeks ago FELA! landed in Lagos, Fela Kuti’s  hometown which is a bit weird. Nigerian music exported to the West who packaged it up and re-sold it back to the original owners!  Ahh Das Kapital!  How, one wonders, could the show even come close to the great man’s hot, cranking brand of politico-commentary art? After all Fela is NOT ancient history. Afrobeat and his political messaging has been kept very much alive in the music of his sons, Femi and Seun.

The mind boggles.

In any case, as an antidote to this freezing Friday evening, the Washerman’s Dog, offers several scrumptious slices of Afro-beat from the Master of the Universe aka Fela Ransome Anikulapo Kuti.

For those few who are not yet familiar with the music of Fela, please feel free to crawl out from under your stone and go to or simply click Fela into Google and find out about this Giant of an Artist.

            Track Listing: Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana (1975)
1.    Monkey Banana
Monkey Banana is Fela’s advice to those who want to work for the Nigerian status quo without social security, heath insurance, job security, etc., to think twice before slaving for nothing. In his habitual manner of putting-down the Nigerian elite, he sings the popular English expression: ‘A fool at forty is a fool forever’—implying life begins for a man at forty. Calling on the worker to stop slaving for nothing, he compares the worker to a monkey, that can only be enticed to dance if you offer it the banana. He concludes by saying: ‘…before I jump like monkey, give me banana’.
2.    Sense Wiseness
Fela, in this song, is singing of the state of alienation in which the educated elite in the African society find themselves. After their education in Western ways and mannerisms, the educated elite in Africa try to distance themselves from the ghetto. Sense Wiseness is Fela’s sarcastic way of saying: ‘book sense is different from street sense’. The song starts with: ‘You are student! You been to grammar school (college)! You graduate MA! MSe! and PhD! You go for London! You Go for New York! You come for Lagos? You start to miss your road! One boy for Mushin (ghetto)! Him hustle you! For Ajegunle (another ghetto area)! You ne get mouth! For Jankara (big ghetto market)! Your money lost!’

Listen here.

            Track Listing: Yellow Fever/Na Poi (1976)
1.    Yellow Fever
Yellow Fever, is a scathing criticism of post-colonial Nigerians who cannot shake their “colonial mentality”. Fela rails on women who bleach their skin as an act of beauty, contemptuously adding that, despite what they think, it only makes them less attractive.
2.    Na Poi 75
The notorious “Na Poi” (loosely translating to “things collide”) was banned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Company for its explicit, socially shocking sexual references. As Fela jams out, the song becomes a veritable “how-to” guide to sex, including allusions to motion and lubrication, among other taboo details.
3.    Na Poi Pts 1 and 2
This version interchanges spoken word and sung lyrics over the Africa 70 horn play, spanning not only the complete A-side of the record, but the first part of the B-side as well – clocking in over 25 minutes.
4.    You No Go Die…Unless
“You No Go Die….Unless”, is a hard-hitting funk tune that displays Fela’s bravado as he instructs people not to fear death, because, he explains, they won’t die until they’re ready to die. Again Fela is playing provocateur to the ruling regime, essentially announcing his fearlessness in the face of their brutality.

Listen here.
 Track notes thanks to Knitting Factory

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