In the years since Fela Anikulapo Kuti's deathand truth be told, for longer than that, because Kuti's music was increasingly overwhelmed by personal problems from the late-1980s onit has seemed more and more unlikely that we would ever hear top-dollar, flowering-top, kick-the-door-in Afrobeat again.
The golden age of the music was roughly 1973-76, when Kuti recorded a whole string of iconic albums (Gentleman, Alagbon Close, Expensive Shit, Johnny Just Drop, Everything Scatter, Yellow Fever, Zombie, Kalakuta Show) which he never bettered (although 1979's Vagabonds In Power and 1981's Coffin For Head Of State got close) and which later Afrobeat stylists have never replicated. As a bandleader, dissident, polemicist and lyricist, Kuti was so inextricably hard-wired into the music that he himself came to define itand sometimes it felt like part of Afrobeat had died with him.
But here's the good news. The aptly named Tangled Roots, the second album by the London-based Soothsayers collective, is a five-star, in-the-tradition, cross-bred monster, one for all the original sufferheads. It will feed your head and thicken your blood and with a little help might even weaken the walls of Jericho.
Part of Soothsayers' genius has been to retain the raw simplicity and drive of Kuti's original creation, while grafting on other black and African musics that have since coexisted alongside it, including conscious reggae, dub, mbalax, jonkonu, funk, hip-hop and jazz. Most of the core characteristics of Afrobeat are presentthe loping beat, long-line riffing horns (the album is co-produced by tenor saxophonist Idris Rahman and trumpeter David Hopcraft) and lyric positivitystrengthened and enriched by the cross-pollinations.
Another magic spell is cast by the singers. From the Afrika 70-ish vibe of Adesose Wallace (featured on the four most Kuti-esque tracks) through the jazz-meets-hip-hop rapoetry of Maxi Jazz ("Instant Hit"), the roots reggae style of Rikki Rankin ("Never Give Up"), and the gorgeous intimacy of chimurenga soul singer Netsayi Chigwendere ("We Must Return," "Love And Money"), the vocals are of delight.
Tangled Roots will inevitably be called nu Afrobeat, and anyone who ever enjoyed Afrika 70 or Egypt 80 will likely love it madly (as, almost certainly, would Kuti himself). As Adesose Wallace advises Kuti style, in his deep, resonant voice over the final moments of closing track, "Follow Your Path,""Stand firm / Don't allow them to push you around like zombie, yes? / OK."
Personnel: Adesose Wallace, Keziah Jones, Maxi Jazz, Rikki Rankin, Netsayi Chigwendere: lead vocals;
Idris Rahman, Robin Hopcraft, Marcus Jones, John Telfer: horns; Phil Dawson, Lucky Ranku,
Jonny Phillips: guitars; Mosi Condi: kora; Kwame Yeboah, Ned Scott, Zoe Rahman: keyboards;
Momo Hafsi: bass; Patrick Illingworth: drums; Satin Singh, Richard Ajileye: percussion.