Fela Kuti – Individual Vinyl Reissues: Fela with Ginger Baker Live! | Confusion | Expensive Shit | He Miss Road | Sorrow, Tears and Blood | Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (Knitting Factory Records)
LP w/ DL code
10/10 for all 6 albums (yes, they’re that good!)
Knitting Factory Records has reissued six classic albums by one of the most astonishing performers of the 20th Century, presented as they should be, with the original arresting artwork rendered in all its glory on full 12” x12” album sleeves.
I first heard Fela Kuti when I moved to Dundee in 1985. My rather eccentric room-mate was in the habit of playing ear-splittingly loud music by his two favourite artists all day. Given that we were sharing a tiny student bedsit in the mid-eighties, I’m eternally grateful that it wasn’t Deacon Blue or Hue & Cry that were being blasted out. In fact, I was very fortunate as I was given a baptism of extreme volume into the wild and enlightening worlds of The Fall and … Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Ever since then, I’ve thought of the two hip priests, Fela Kuti and Mark E Smith, as being kindred spirits in certain respects. A deeply subjective and personal comparison of course, but both share a penchant for inspired song-titles, radical and innovative album sleeve artwork and incisive social critique. This is the first time these classic albums have been individually released in vinyl form since their original Nigerian release in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Throughout this review, I will continue to draw some fairly tangential comparisons with British and American rock / punk musicians; this may seem odd to some, but when I discovered Fela’s music for the first time, my reference points were underground rock ‘n’ roll, punk, blues and r&b, and I was struck by the commonalities between certain rock / punk pioneers and Kuti’s own, unique Nigerian Afrobeat. Others will make connections with dance music, jazz, funk and of course other strains of African music; it’s all there in these astonishing, revelatory records.
The six vinyl albums in this current reissue are a fantastic representation of Kuti’s oeuvre. Confusion (1974) displays influences including Bitches’ Brew era Miles Davis and the original Funky President himself, James Brown. Fela Kuti with Ginger Baker Live! (1971), the famed concert album featuring former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, is a driven, aggressive and spirited collaboration, while Expensive Shit; Sorrow, Tears and Blood; and Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (1975, 1977, 1986) are quintessential, peak-time Fela.
He Miss Road (1975), meanwhile, is an eye-opening, oft-overlooked album which the label rightly describes as having psychedelic elements. It’s a beautiful album which essays a gorgeous psych-jazz strand of Afrobeat. Tremendous stuff.
The album sleeves feature vivid and politically-charged paintings by the now-celebrated artist Lemi Ghariokwu which typically satirised the Nigerian Government and military of the time. Ghariokwu’s artwork was another defining feature of these albums; back in 1985, it immediately reminded me of the cover art of Funkadelic LPs and early Fall albums such as Grotesque (After the Gramme). These albums were sought out by collectors and prized as highly as the limited issue albums of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, which featured similarly fascinating unique hand-made sleeves.
At the heart of most of Kuti’s essential albums was Tony Allen, the visionary drummer, composer and band-leader who was just as much responsible for creating Afrobeat as Kuti. Allen is familiar to Western audiences through his collaboration with Paul Simonon and Damon Albarn on The Good, the Bad and the Queen, but his own albums are as weighty and powerful as his work with Fela.
(Image of Fela Kuti by Bernard Matussière.) Allen was as vital to Afrobeat ‘s development as Jaki Leibezeit was to Can; in fact, the extended grooves of Fela’s music have much in common with the revolutionary German band; the James Brown-inspired addictive rhythms which induce a trance state in the listener; the bold, experimental approach to structure and the shamanic frontman, whose stage presence and presentation bore intriguing similarities with the radical new form of performance Iggy Pop was pioneering in Detroit in the late 60s and early 70s. This is no coincidence; both Fela and the young Jim Osterberg were dedicated, serious acolytes of The Godfather of Soul, and their stagecraft- as wild and spontaneous as it was in both cases- was a further development of Brown’s sensational prototype.
Kuti was politicised following his introduction to the Black Panther Party and civil rights movement by his then girlfriend Sandra Smith, while working in America. His artistic and political approach to African identity is multi-layered, making very deliberate, but playful, use of pidgin English to create a humorous yet scathing lyrical language with which to attack his targets, militarism, multi-national corporations and the Nigerian authorities.
Fela and his followers paid a truly horrific price for his combative defiance; his Kalakuta Republic compound was raided by government troops and Fela’s mother Funmilayo Ransome Kuti- a fearless, pioneering feminist- sustained fatal injuries after being flung from a window by the soldiers. Kuti himself was routinely arrested and savagely beaten on numerous occasions for his outspoken political activism.
Despite this, Fela refused to compromise his message, even releasing the extraordinary track Coffin For Head of State, which documents the aftermath of the raid on Kalakuta, when Fela and his followers carried a symbolic coffin to the army barracks residence of General Olusegun Obasanjo. Perhaps it was no wonder that Fela felt invincible; this incredibly powerful music has an extraordinary effect on body and soul; listening to any of these six records will leave the listener feeling exhilarated, charged and rejuvenated.
This is revolutionary music, in the truest sense, and also some of the greatest, most powerful music you are likely to hear in your life. The backing singers and horns are crucial ingredients and are deployed in a manner distinctive to African music. It’s a rich, intoxicating, highly idiosyncratic stew, and utterly addictive.
Fela’s spirit remained unbroken throughout his lifetime, but he died as the consequence of AIDS in 1997, his followers ruefully pointing out that all the years of imprisonment and ill-treatment couldn’t have helped Fela’s constitution and ability to fight the virus which has caused such devastation in many parts of Africa. Fela’s eldest son Femi has since become a dedicated campaigner for HIV / AIDS awareness.
With Fela’s legacy being kept in the public eye by a successful musical and the new documentary film Finding Fela (our review) hitting cinema screens, the timing of this reissue programme couldn’t be better. These six vinyl albums are extraordinary artefacts and essential purchases.
The human spirit is stronger than any government or institution” (Fela Kuti).
All six albums can be purchased directly from Knitting Factory Records.
Knitting Factory Records is also on Facebook.
All words by Gus Ironside. More writing by Gus can be found in his author’s archive.