Reissue Series Focuses on Fela Kuti's Mid-'70s Peak

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A decade ago, most American listeners probably wouldn’t have wanted to hear any pop music from 1970s West Africa, mostly because few of us even knew there had ever been such a thing. An outpouring of reissues and crate-digging compilations over the last few years, though, has created (and then tapped into) a market for pop obscurities from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Benin. The variety of the music is vast, in both style (from fuzzy psychedelic rock and gut-bucket soul to traditional highlife and, especially, propulsive long-form funk jams) and quality (from neglected groundbreaking gems like Geraldo Pino’s “Heavy Heavy Heavy” to one-off singles and blatant rip-offs and cash-ins).

One musician casts a gigantic shadow over all this newly unearthed music: Fela Kuti. The Nigerian singer/composer/bandleader is one of the single most important figures in West African popular music of the last 40 years—only King Sunny Ade rivals him in stature and worldwide influence—and Knitting Factory Records’ excellent ongoing series of Kuti reissues provides a broad expanse of music that puts other recent African pop re-releases in context and perspective.

The latest batch of reissues collects 14 albums, from Why Black Man Dey Suffer (recorded in 1970 but released in 1975) to the 1977 live album J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop) on seven CDs. It’s a uniformly fertile period, representing Kuti’s rise out of the clubs with his long-running backing band, Africa 70, and his mid-to-late ’70s peak, when his music became more overtly political and he first clashed with the Nigerian government. Kuti had studied music in London and served apprenticeships in the nightclubs of Los Angeles and Nigeria, where he learned to fuse highlife, a West African brand of jazz, with American jazz, soul, and funk and traditional African rhythms; by the time he recorded Why Black Man Dey Suffer, his style was fully formed. Kuti called it Afrobeat. It’s marked by funky beats, Kuti’s chanted vocals and call-and-response exchanges with the horn section and back-up singers, and horn and guitar parts borrowed from James Brown. The defining element, however, is the locked groove—a short, repetitive drumbeat that repeats for the length of an entire song (Kuti’s songs were typically between 10 and 15 minutes long) and provides the framework for the rest of the band to vamp. (Tony Allen, who played drums in Africa 70 throughout Kuti’s career, should probably be regarded as just as important as Kuti to Afrobeat’s development.) The seven-year span captured on these discs are a high point of the form, and Kuti’s career—he recorded less in the ’80s and toured internationally, and spent 20 months in prison on a bogus smuggling charge. He recorded very little in the ’90s and died from complications of AIDS in 1997.

These reissues—nine early albums were released in February, with more scheduled to come out in the fall—are part of a greater Fela Kuti revival that’s been underway for a couple of years. The choreographer Bill T. Jones is currently directing a Broadway production, Fela!, based on Kuti’s life and music (a recording by the original cast is due in June), and the British film artist Steve McQueen is set to direct a biopic starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.

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