FELA KUTI, EXPENSIVE SH*T or BEST OF, 1975
If there's any genre of music that I'm just completely overwhelmed by, it's World Music. Back in the days when there were record stores (I can't believe that we're basically in a post-record store universe-- if it weren't for Amoeba Music in SF and Berkeley, where would I go to feel cool? I don't read comic books) I could go into any section of the store and know my way around. But I'd hit the World Music aisle, and my eyes would glaze over. All those primary colors!! 437 compilations featuring "The Best Of Senegalese Underground Music"!! About once a year, I'd commit myself to at least making a dent, and I'd try to read up and figure out a place to start, and I'd have no luck. I remember going into the World Music section of the Tower Records in Greenwich Village when I was in college, standing there for thirty seconds, and actually thinking, "I'm not ready for this." I probably turned around and bought a Living Colour record.
It's not entirely my fault. Pick up a guide to World Music sometime and check it out. It will easily recommend that you must purchase somewhere around 3,500 albums to scratch the surface. The guides are written by aficionados for aficionados. The rock n roll equivalent of a World Music guide entry would feature an entry like this:
First Offense (1984)-- *****
Boy In The Box (1985)-- *****
Fields Of Fire (1986)-- ****
Young Man Running (1989)-- ****
Attitude And Virtue (1992)-- ****
Jade (1998)-- *****
"Known for his explosive debut song 'Sunglasses At Night' that propelled him to international fame, Hart is a solid introduction to the essential Canadian mid-80s male pop singer subgenre of Rock N Roll. All of Hart's recordings are must-have, sublime marriages of traditional song structure and modern instrumentation. His return to form in 1998 suggests that we might just be hearing the beginning of this startling and unforgettable artist's vision. Beginners can start with the first two albums, but you'll eventually want to have the complete works."
Since I could never figure out where to start, I just didn't for a while. Then, in 1990, I stumbled across a one dollar cassette by Fela. I had always been curious about him; he was supposed to play at Giants Stadium in 1986 at the Amnesty International concert on MTV, but he couldn't get out of Nigeria. They had played a twenty second clip of his music in the promos which had sounded great, but I had never been able to find any of his records. So I bought the cassette, brought it home, hopeful that this could be the beginning of my DeWesternization. I thought it was terrible. It had horrible production, and two thirty minute, pretty bad songs that went on forever. There were no informational notes at all on the cassette. I was totally deflated.
Turns out I had bought one of Fela's final albums, when his career was waning and he was beginning, in secret, to succumb to the AIDS that took his life in 1997. It was another ten years before I got to hear him properly, and this time, I heard the sound that had tantalized me fifteen years before. Fela started as a Highlife artist, a bubbly and charming form of Nigerian pop music from the 1960s. After trips to London and Los Angeles, where he discovered funk, he returned to Nigeria and created the darker, more political sound for which he's famous. His 1972-1977 period is truly inspired, with one terrific jam after another. And he's about the explode into national consciousness again with the Broadway musical called Fela! and the first complete domestic re-release of his entire, massive catalog.
Fela himself is an incredible story. His declared himself free from Nigerian rule, and claimed his house as his own country, the Kalakuta Republic. His bands were huge, as was his polygamist family. The Nigerian government declared him an enemy of the state, jailed and beat him, burned down his house and killed his mother in the process. Through it all, Fela made music that celebrated African pride and found strength in traditional African values. For a man who sought a musical marriage with the West, he championed Africa first and foremost.
There's no doubt that Fela has basically one thing that he does, but the man does it extremely well. All of Fela's tracks take their time. "Water No Get Enemy" is actually one of his shorter jams. They all start with an introduction to the theme, and then some keybaord warmup by Fela. Once the whole band feels limbered up and playing well, Fela starts singing in Pidgin English (chosen so that more of his Nigerian fans could understand him and to disalign himself from the cultural elite-- Fela himself received a traditional British education and spoke perfect English.) That section leads into a call and response section with his vocalists, a return to the theme, and more band interplay until he feels done.
It's a mistake, I think, to try to sit down and listen to three hours of Fela-- the law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quickly, as the sameness of the approach will become extremely noticeable. An hour at a time, though, and I find his stuff exciting and compelling. Fela is not a great singer or a great keyboard player, but he has brilliant feel for the drama of music. The tracks burn with energy without ever losing control, and he obviously inspires the best from his players. The band is loose but limber-- it's like listening to a rubber band stretch and contract.
"Water No Get Enemy" begins with a declaration by the horn section, answered by a slinky keyboard part, followed by the second theme-- a totally engaging horn line that you'll be humming all day. It's probably my favorite Fela horn part. If you head isn't bopping by the one minute mark, you need some coffee. The sound you hear for the next five minutes is truly a moment of cultural intersection. The groove is not just funk music, as it has the repeated percussive elements of African music. This is also not purely African pop music-- the keyboard is straight out of a Steely Dan song, and the track would sit comfortably on a Blaxploitation Soundtrack from the early 70s.
On this song, Fela sings in Yoruba, and then translates the line into English. It's a song that, on the surface, talks about the universal importance of water. No one survives without it. The line "Water No Get Enemy" seems to suggest that Fela is also talking about the state's relationship to its people. There is no Nigeria without Nigerians, so why would the government mistreat people so badly? The people are as universal and important as water itself. Here in America, its easy to be a "protest" artist without finding yourself in any real trouble. How many singer-songwriters were jailed by the Bush administration? For Fela, a song like this one, enigmatic as it is, meant real, physical danger. He was a truly a heroic artist who responded to his government's oppression with outspoken, artistic defiance.
There's something about Nigeria (its location, its history as a British colony, its size?) that produced a brand of funk rock that, to my ears, sounds completely authentic. An amazing collection of music released this year, Nigeria Special, shows that Fela wasn't the only person producing this kind of exciting hybrid. If you want more Fela after hearing this, The Best Of The Black President collection is the place to start, hands down. Ordinarily, I avoid Greatest Hits collections, but there's no netter way to cut your Fela teeth (or your World Music teeth, for that matter-- instead of one of those cheesy regional collections with Mount Kilimanjaro on the cover, start with Fela). I'd also like to close by making a plug for Red Hot + Riot, the Fela tribute album. I think it's terrific, and the best tribute record I've ever heard. On it, D'Angelo and friends do a spectacular cover of "Water No Get Enemy." Well worth hearing.
Finally, if you're hoping this blog will offer dozens more forays into World Music, you're gonna be disappointed. Fact it, Fela is the most Western, funk 'n' roll world music artist I've ever encountered, which is probably why I like him so much. I yam what I yam, I guess.