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Part 21 - Final Fela Kuti Masterpieces Reissued

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Fela Power Show: Batch 4 is the concluding, eight-disc chapter in Knitting Factory Records' 26-disc reissue program of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
1938 - 1997
composer/conductor
albums and early singles. It starts on the 1979/80 cusp of the dissolution of Afrika 70 and the formation of Egypt 80, when Kuti made the landmark Vagabonds In Power (1979), Coffin For Head Of State (1980) and Original Sufferhead (1981). It finishes with three late masterpieces—Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense (1986), Beasts Of No Nation (1989) and Underground System (1992).

Kuti did not record as prolifically during the years covered by Batch 4 as he did during his 1970s' purple period: political campaigning occupied much of his time during the first half of the 1980s, he served a 20 month prison sentence on trumped up currency smuggling charges mid-decade, and he continued to be arrested, beaten up and jailed with odious frequency right up until his death in 1997. But his music remained as rich as ever. His lyrics, which had always carried layers of meaning, became yet more complex, and Egypt 80 took on a character of its own. While the new band stayed true to the classic Afrika 70 paradigm, a succession of "rhythm pianists" added layers to Kuti's keyboards, and new kit drummers grafted their own ideas on to Afrobeat's signature rhythms. Kuti's purple period rightly gets a lot of attention, but his end game is equally rewarding.

The Knitting Factory program has been exemplary. The discs have great sound and are beautifully packaged in stout gatefold sleeves; they're available singly or in the four batches; and they're also released as downloads. The label's vinyl reissue program—the first box set is reviewed here—is high-end too.

And with talk of recently unearthed, previously unreleased live recordings being considered for issue, there's the promise of more good things to come. Let's hope so. It's been a magic carpet ride so far, and we don't want it to stop.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Afrika 70

Coffin For Head Of State / Unknown Soldier

Knitting Factory Records

2011 (1980 / 1979)

Lyrically, 1980's "Coffin For Head Of State" is in two, interlocking sections. The first half of the song deals with the harmful impact of Islam and Christianity on Africa. To the backing singers' chorus, "waka waka waka" ("walk walk walk"), Kuti sings that he has witnessed the harm done to indigenous culture by both these imports, during his walks—by which he means journeys—around Nigeria. The second half of the song commemorates a more particular, and in this case, literal walk Kuti made, accompanied by his family and members of the Young African Pioneers, in October 1979, on the day before General Obasanjo was to retire from the Nigerian presidency for the first time. Kuti held Obasanjo responsible for his mother's death, citing the trauma caused her by the army's 1977 destruction of his Kalakuta Republic commune, during which, aged 77, she was thrown from an upstairs window and badly injured. She died the following year.

Before Obasanjo left office, Kuti determined to remind him publicly of the outrage by depositing a symbolic coffin outside Obasanjo's residence at Dodan army barracks. Outwitting the army's attempt to cordon off the area (Kuti had announced his intention to the press days earlier), he succeeded. On leaving the barracks, Kuti and his party were beaten by soldiers and thrown in jail. But they'd made their point.

1979's Unknown Soldier also refers to the 1977 sacking of Kalakuta, through the prism of the government enquiry which pronounced the army institutionally innocent of causing the fire which destroyed all the buildings on the site (along with most of their contents). An "unknown soldier" was blamed for starting the fire, when the evidence—including the army's well documented obstruction of the fire brigade—pointed to coordinated, pre-planned arson. To the chorus of "government magic," Kuti sings: "Them go turn red into blue (government magic), Water dey go water dey come (government magic), Them go turn electric to candle (government magic)...." and finally, he observes, the magic whitewashes the government's violence against its own citizens.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Afrika 70

V.I.P. Vagabonds In Power / Authority Stealing

Knitting Factory Records

2011 (1979 / 1980)

From 1979 and 1980 respectively, V.I.P. Vagabonds In Power and Authority Stealing are rhetorically sophisticated attacks on the abuse of power.

"Vagabonds In Power," one of several Kuti tracks which was banned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, was in part inspired by an encounter Kuti had with Sam Nujoma, leader of the Namibian liberation movement, the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), on a flight out of Berlin in 1978. On the plane, Kuti was struck by a new insight into Nujoma's maxim "lutta continua" (Portugese for "the struggle will continue"). He flashed that Nujoma, who was traveling first class, was happy for the Namibian civil war to continue indefinitely, for while it did, he enjoyed a life of comfort overseas, while his people bore the brunt of the suffering. Kuti's suspicions were strengthened when on arrival at Lagos airport, Nujoma and his party were whisked away by officials in a fleet of Mercedes-Benz limos. Would one of Nujoma's guerrillas, Kuti asked himself, one of his actual frontline soldiers, arriving ragged and barefoot, be greeted so hospitably?

In "Authority Stealing," Kuti declares that the corruption and theft endemic among Nigeria's ruling elite are worse crimes than the armed robberies committed by hungry people in their efforts to survive from day to day. "Different way be them way," he concludes, "na similar style be them style: authority stealing pass armed robbery." Nigerian record companies, anxious to keep on the right side of the kleptocracy, refused to press the LP, so Kuti had it manufactured in Ghana and smuggled back into the country.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt 80 / Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Afrika 70

Original Sufferhead / I.T.T. International Thief Thief

Knitting Factory Records

2011 (1981 / 1980)

Like V.I.P. Vagabonds In Power and Authority Stealing, 1980's I.T.T. International Thief Thief and 1981's Original Sufferhead address the moral vacuum at the heart of the Nigerian state—and its use of violent reprisal against dissent.

In "International Thief Thief ," Kuti makes fiercely insulting attacks on two of his biggest enemies, former Nigerian president General Obasanjo, and the local chief executive of the multi-national corporation Internal Telephone & Telegraph (ITT), Moshood Abiola, who was also the boss of Decca Records in Nigeria. Obasanjo Kuti regarded as a crook, an incompetent and a thug, and he held him directly responsible for the death of his mother following the army's 1977 pillage of Kalakuta. Abiola, he believed, with evidence, had both cheated him out of royalties and conspired with Decca's London bosses to neuter him after the 1977 attack, in order to maintain favorable relations with Obasanjo's regime. Both men, Kuti sings, are "thieves," "rats" and of "low mentality."

The original back cover illustration used for Original Sufferhead—later replaced by the design inside the gatefold of this edition—was a black and white photo taken shortly after a particularly savage beating Kuti received from the police in 1981 (the only beating, among dozens that he received over the years, during which he felt that his life was in danger). Clad only in a pair of Speedos, Kuti displays his bruised and battered body. Extraordinarily in the face of the evidence, no-one was ever prosecuted, much less punished, for the assault. Arguing from the personal to the political, Kuti sings that his injuries are part and parcel of the vicious treatment meted out indiscriminately to Nigerians.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt 80

Live In Amsterdam

Knitting Factory Records

2011 (1984)

Recorded by British dub specialist Dennis Bovell at Amsterdam's Paradiso on 28 November, 1983, Live In Amsterdam has also been available as Musik Is The Weapon. It was first released as a double LP: the first track alone, "M.O.P. Movement Of The People (Political Statement Number 1)," its title taken from the name of Kuti's political party, clocks in at over 37 minutes. The three tracks deal with the debilitating legacy of colonialism, and the post-colonial mindsets of governing elites, in Nigeria and throughout Africa,

The Egypt 80 lineup is rocking and powerful, tightly arranged and includes some fine soloists. The horn section, expanded to seven players, is anchored by two baritone saxophonists (Kola Oni joined Lekan Animashaun, who'd been with Kuti since 1965) and also includes Kuti's son, Femi, on alto. Fela himself is heard on soprano, the instrument he'd been obliged to take up in place of the heavier tenor following the beating referenced on Original Sufferhead. There are also two keyboard players: Kuti, mostly heard on organ, is accompanied by rhythm pianist Dele Sosimi. Drummer Ola Ijagun (mistakenly identified as a conga player on some previous editions of the album) is a more than competent replacement for Afrika 70's Tony Allen
Tony Allen
Tony Allen
b.1938
, who was with Kuti from 1964-79, from whose trademark rhythms he rarely strays.

Live In Amsterdam was mixed by Kuti and Bovell in London. The sound is excellent and Bovell's presence assured plenty of bottom.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt 80

Army Arrangement

Knitting Factory Records

2011 (1985)

In November 1984, Kuti was sentenced to two concurrent five-year prison sentences on a charge of attempting to smuggle some £1,500 out of Nigeria on a flight to New York. The charge was blatantly concocted (among other abuses of process, the currency declaration form Kuti had completed at Lagos airport was "lost" by the police), and a year later he was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He was released after serving 20 months.

When Kuti was jailed, Army Arrangement was awaiting release by Paris-based Celluloid Records, who had made a deal to rerelease some of his back catalogue along with the new album. Believing, misguidedly, that the tapes needed invasive attention, Celluloid first asked Dennis Bovell to do a remix. Because Bovell was unavailable immediately, Celluloid house producer Bill Laswell
Bill Laswell
Bill Laswell
b.1955
bass
was drafted in. Laswell was dismissive of the album, scrubbed all Kuti's solos, added synthesized percussion, speeded it up and brought in Bernie Worrell and Sly Dunbar to overdub new keyboard and drum parts. Friends smuggled a tape of the Celluloid album into jail for Kuti to hear. "Listening to it was worse than being in prison," he said later.

Fortunately, the original version of Army Arrangement survived, and that's the one presented here. The lyric is astonishingly brave, even by Kuti's standards, accusing Nigeria's recently retired president, General Obasanjo, still an extremely powerful man (he later returned as president), of complicity in the disappearance of millions of US dollars generated by the export of oil.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Afrika 70

Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense

Knitting Factory Records

2011 (1986)

Outside producers were only infrequently engaged for Kuti's albums. Sometimes the results were good: Dennis Bovell's Live In Amsterdam, and Ginger Baker's He Miss Road (1975). Sometimes they were spectacularly bad: Bill Laswell's Army Arrangement. On one occasion the outcome was pitch perfect: Wally Badarou's Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense from 1986, a rich, dense, at times almost orchestral production which gave greater prominence to keyboards than anything Kuti had recorded before.

Interestingly—and unknown to Kuti at the time this album was recorded—Badarou was during the 1980s also often featured on Laswell productions (saxophonist Manu Dibango
Manu Dibango
Manu Dibango
b.1934
saxophone
's 1985 Celluloid album Electric Africa being one of the best ones). But Badarou's modus operandi was eons away from Laswell's insensitive approach. Years later, explaining how to produce Kuti, he wrote, "You don't. You keep the tape running, you have a second machine standing by, you make him feel comfortable, and you are wholly transparent throughout the process. Fela knew very little of me—I can't recall ever being formally introduced—and I clearly felt his reluctance to the having a 'producer' on board....But Fela loved the sound."

The album was recorded shortly after Kuti had been released from jail on the currency smuggling charges referred to in the Army Arrangement commentary (son Femi had kept Egypt 80 rehearsed during the incarceration). Basic tracks were laid on day one; overdubbing, including sax solos, on day two. Mixing took place in Paris later. The result is magic. The title track and "Look And Laugh" made up the original Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense; "Just Like That" was first heard on 1989's Beasts Of No Nation.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt 80

Beasts Of No Nation / O.D.O.O. Overtake Don Overtake Overtake

Knitting Factory Records

2011 (1989 / 1990)

Beasts Of No Nation and Overtake Don Overtake Overtake are well-argued indictments of the corruption and oppression rampant in post-colonial regimes in Nigeria and throughout Africa. Beasts Of No Nation also took on the South African apartheid regime of P.W. Botha and the support given to it by Britain's Margaret Thatcher and America's Ronald Reagan. In addition to being vilified in the lyric, Botha, Thatcher and Reagan were portrayed as satanic figures on the front cover.

Kuti rarely focused on individual overseas politicians in his songs, preferring to expose the incompetence and brutality of contemporary black African rulers. And it's worth emphasizing that he didn't possess an ounce of racism or feel any animosity to individual whites (providing they weren't exploiting Africa in some way). He was sufficiently secure in himself even to find some humor in racial tensions....

In 1979, the British film maker Jeremy Marre visited Nigeria hoping to meet and film an interview with Kuti. Already made jumpy by what he'd seen on arrival in Lagos (soldiers and police beating people in the streets, corpses left to rot on the beach), he was made doubly so by the journey to Kuti's house. Driving late at night through unlit back streets, to avoid army patrols (an encounter which would at best result in the payment of a bribe), Marre's party found the building in total darkness, outside and in. Gingerly making his way inside, Marre tripped and fell headlong into a room where Kuti was relaxing with friends. Somebody turned on the light, revealing Kuti lying on a sofa, naked except for pink Speedos and smoking a massive joint, and Marre lying face-down on top of several young women. "Hey, white man," Kuti said, "what are you doing with my wives?" Marre got his interview.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt 80

Underground System

Knitting Factory Records

2011 (1992)

The last album of newly recorded material to be released during Kuti's lifetime, 1992's Underground System is a fitting swansong. Instrumentally, the rocket-fuelled title track's spotlight is as much on piano as it is on the horns, in line with the shift in emphasis introduced on Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense. Lyrically, it is as deep as it is hard-hitting.

Kuti originally conceived the piece as a tribute to Burkina Faso's revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. The two men knew and liked each other: Sankara admired Kuti's music as much as Kuti admired Sankara's espousal of African values and commitment to social change. But following Sankara's assassination in 1987, Kuti broadened the lyric, turning it into an attack on the "underground system" by which military and political elites throughout Africa conspired together to remove any emergent leader threatening the status quo (and the post-colonial hegemony's ability to keep its trotters in the trough). In passing, General Obasanjo and Moshood Abiola (see the I.T.T. International Thief Thief commentary) are also named and shamed.

"Pansa Pansa," also taken at a furious pace, was first performed (but not recorded) by Kuti in mid 1977, one of several brave responses to the army's destruction of Kalakuta earlier that year. Citing some of the 1970s albums which particularly angered the authorities—including Alagbon Close, Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana, Zombie and Kalakuta Show—Kuti vowed never to be muzzled. The more injustices Nigeria's rulers heaped on its people, the "pansa pansa" (literally, the "more more") he would protest against them. The final track, "Confusion Break Bones," in which Kuti turns his attention from state-sponsored brutality to government economic incompetence, was originally released on Overtake Don Overtake Overtake.

And so the life of Afrobeat's founding father drew towards its close. Will Seun Kuti and Egypt 80's From Africa With Fury: Rise, due for release in early April 2011, take up the flame? Stay tuned.

Tracks and Personnel

Coffin For Head Of State

Tracks: Coffin For Head Of State (Parts 1 & 2).

Unknown Soldier

Tracks: Unknown Soldier (Parts 1 & 2).

V.I.P. Vagabonds In Power

Tracks: V.I.P. (Parts 1 & 2).

Authority Stealing

Tracks: Authority Stealing (Parts 1 & 2).

Original Sufferhead

Tracks: Original Sufferhead; Power Show.

I.T.T. International Thief Thief

Tracks: I.T.T. (Parts 1 & 2).

Live In Amsterdam

Tracks: M.O.P. Movement Of The People (Political Statement Number 1); You Gimme Shit I Give You Shit; Custom Check Point.

Army Arrangement

Tracks: Army Arrangement; Government Chicken Boy.

Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense

Tracks: Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense; Look And Laugh; Just Like That.

Beasts Of No Nation

Tracks: Beasts Of No Nation.

O.D.O.O. Overtake Don Overtake Overtake

Tracks: Overtake Don Overtake Overtake.

Underground System

Tracks: Underground System; Pansa Pansa; Confusion Break Bones.

Collective Personnel: Fela Anikulapo Kuti: lead vocals, keyboards, saxophones; Femi Kuti: alto saxophone; Yinusa Akinibosun: tenor saxophone; Oyihade Adeniran: tenor saxophone; Lekan Animashaun: baritone saxophone; Kola Oni: baritone saxophone, alto saxophone; Rilwan Fagemi: baritone saxophone; Achampong: baritone saxophone; Moses Sobowale: trumpet; Akameah: trumpet; Stephen Niken: trumpet; Akomeah Dodoo: trumpet; Bola Taiwo: trumpet; Keji Hamilton: piano; Dele Sosimi: keyboards; Clifford Itoje: rhythm guitar; Itam Mann: rhythm guitar; Oyinade Adeniran: tenor guitar; Festus Okotie: tenor guitar; Soji Odukogbe: tenor guitar; Femi Oladegunwa: bass; Emmanuel Edoube: bass; Jonas Anyako: bass; Tony Allen: drums; Atiba Tiamiyu: drums; Ola Ijagun: drums; Ajayi Adebeye: conga; Michael Obeata: conga; Whale Omabuwa: conga; George Kasim: shekere; Lamptey Addo: shekere; Ihase Anikulapo Kuti: backing vocals; Fehintola Anikulapo Kuti: backing vocals; Keuwe Anikulapo Kuti: backing vocals; Folake Anikulapo Kuti: backing vocals; Idolo Umokoro: backing vocals; Kemi Williams: backing vocals; others.

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