(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

CD review - Fela Kuti and Egypt 80, Live in Detroit 1986 (2012)

Looking for an answer in Afro-beat exploration, Fela knows his heart

Every life sends out its ripples. But in his time, Fela Kuti raised waves that continue to rock the world. Fela is credited with creating Afro-beat by melding jazz, funk, and African elements into a potent stew. This distinctive sound still largely defines what many people understand as African popular music.

But music was more than entertainment for Fela; it was a political lever. His songs were uncompromising in confronting the corruption and oppression he saw in his own Nigeria, as well as across Africa. He asserted his belief in an Africa built from its own cultural strengths and values. The Nigerian political leadership responded to his criticism and rising popularity with force. Attacks on him and his commune were followed by trumped up charges.

Fela was released in 1986 and he participated in Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope tour in the US that June. After that tour, Fela continued to perform in the US, including at Detroit's Fox Theater in November 1986.

New York's Knitting Factory Records is releasing Live in Detroit, 1986 this May. This bootleg recording captures Fela's live show feel: four songs spread out over 2 hours. This long form approach gives Egypt 80 the chance to effectively set a hypnotic groove that's more a shared ritual than a simple song. Fela's stage presence shines through this recording as he talks to the audience, teaches them the call and response parts, and leads the band out into wide open spaces.
In my country, you know, things happen just like that. You go on your way, mind your business. You don't do shit, don't do nothing. Next thing, man, you're in prison, man. Just like that.

Then sometimes you want a drink of water. Open the tap. No water. Just. Like. That.
In my country, things happen. Just. Like. That. Not only in my country. All in Africa. Hey, when I say my country, I mean Africa.
Fela's matter of fact tone during his simple spoken intro for Just Like That belies his troubled history. The music starts with a syncopated beat and a jazz vamp. Additional parts slowly layer in and build up the complexity. The rhythms are unmistakably African, but the groove captures astrong 1970s, Miles Davis vibe. When the horns kick in with a Latin flair, it shifts the feel into a more recognizable Afro-beat sound. By the time the chanted, interlocking vocals kick in, the song has built up a deeply complex polyrhythm.

Egypt 80 adroitly drops parts in and out, allowing the jazz vamp to reassert before falling again under the waves of crossing instruments. The horn solo is another Miles touch. The band drives the tight, repetitive groove to support free floating horn solos.

Then, while the the song slips into a holding pattern, Fela sets up the crowd for their part. He teaches the call and response, explaining the words. He tosses the lines with the audience a few times, then he starts in with his lead vocals. With a rapper's sense of flow, he free styles a bit and then settles into the story of the song. The balance here is wonderful. Like a plate juggler, he moves between his solo vocals, a call and response with his own choral singers, and the call and response he taught the audience.

The song drifts ever onward but never gets boring. Even better, each of these longform tracks has its own style and sound. Confusion Break Bones leans experimental, using discordance and time differences to create a muddy, confused sound that resolves into order when Fela is ready to let it. Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense has a more joyous, driving tempo, with looser horn solos and Fela's hypnotic voice. Beast of No Nation uses a heavier bass line to set up a reggae style groove to underlie the Afro-beat polyrhythms to come.

This show demonstrates Fela's chosen path to rankle political feathers and challenge an audience with long, jazzed out explorations. He succeeds because his message comes through and the base groove anchors the chaos. Like his music, Fela is a man looking for an answer, all the while knowing his own heart.

As a bootleg recording, Live in Detroit, 1986 has its weaknesses. The sound quality is compromised with a strong electrical hum that stands out during the pauses. But when the music's playing, there's nothing to hear but a great man and his band.

Here's a very brief excerpt from Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense that focuses on the central vocal section of the song:

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