Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Fela Anikulapo Kuti

  • Zombie [M.I.L. Multimedia, 1977] A-
  • Original Sufferhead [Capitol, 1984] B+
  • Army Arrangement [Celluloid, 1985] A-
  • No Agreement [Celluloid, 1985] B+
  • Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense [Mercury, 1986] B+
  • Black Man's Cry [Eurobond, 1990] A-
  • O D O O [Shanachie, 1990] **
  • The Best Best of Fela Kuti [MCA, 2000] A
  • Confusion/Gentleman [MCA, 2000] A-
  • Opposite People/Sorrow Tears and Blood [MCA, 2000] *
  • Original Sufferhead/I.T.T. [MCA, 2000] B+
  • Shakara/London Scene [MCA, 2000] *
  • Shuffering and Shmiling/No Agreement [MCA, 2000] *
  • Stalemate/Fear Not for Man [MCA, 2000] ***
  • Yellow Fever/Na Poi [MCA, 2000] Neither
  • Coffin for the Head of State/Unknown Soldier [MCA, 2000] Neither
  • V.I.P./Authority Stealing [MCA, 2000] Neither
  • Expensive Shit/He Miss Road [MCA, 2000] Dud
  • The Best of the Black President 2 [Knitting Factory Works, 2013] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Zombie [M.I.L. Multimedia, 1977]
Fela Anikulapo Kuti is a Nigerian pianist-saxophonist who makes real fusion music--if James Brown's stuff is Afro-American, he is Amer-African. No U.S. percussion ensemble would distinguish between first and second conga, but Fela's harmonic, melodic, and improvisational ideas are all adapted from Afro-American (which means part European) models. His sax style recalls the honkers, but it's more staccato, more complex rhythmically. Not only that, there are lyrics, in English, with crib sheet--very political, very associative, explicitly antibook. A-

Original Sufferhead [Capitol, 1984]
The musical definition is so sharp it's hooky, with arresting commentary from a backup chorus that includes many of the leader's wives. And the lyrics help, especially "Power Show"'s bitter observations in re bureaucratic status-tripping. The title (and other) track, in his geopolitical mode, makes its point less cleanly. B+

Army Arrangement [Celluloid, 1985]
I've never had complete confidence in Fela's myth. By both African and Euro-American standards, his arrangements are repetitive, his singing and playing nothing special, and his political ideas ill-informed and grandiose. But as pop pros of any culture go, he's an original and a radical, and even if he weren't his music would deserve our attention and his imprisonment our abhorrence. Let's hope this Bill Laswell remix proves propitious. Rather than bedizening it with aural gee-gaws, Laswell imports sympatico cousins to beef up the groove--Bernie Worrell (on Hammond B-3!), Aiyb Dieng (on five different percussion devices), and, most spectacularly, Sly Dunbar, whose Simmons pulse could make a skinhead dance once foot at a time. Fela's best album--wonder if they'll let him hear it. A-

No Agreement [Celluloid, 1985]
Like all groove artists, Fela benefits mightily from marginal differentiation, which on this 1977 outing with Afrika 70 is provided by the blats, splats, and tuneful snatches of Lester Bowie's trumpet. The 15:36 title side is distinguished from its 15:48 companion by a few minutes of Fela mouthing off and a catchier keystone ostinato. B+

Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense [Mercury, 1986]
Fears that imprisonment has turned him into a shell can be put aside, and by tacking twelve- and fourteen-minute instrumentals in front of fourteen- and eighteen-minute songs Wally Badarou goes a long way toward solving the man's record-making problem. At half an hour apiece, his grooves have time to prove themselves, and the vinyl sound is bright enough if you pump up the volume a little. As for message, the lyrics are certainly touched by his incarceration, but his pan-Africanism seems unchanged: it's as limited, as scathing, and as justifiable as ever. B+

Black Man's Cry [Eurobond, 1990]
Maybe I know only one of these six '73-'77 titles--"Lady," who's uppity, unlike a real "African woman"--because the others shun pidgin and sometimes lyrics. As total statements I prefer "Shuffering and Shmiling" or "Zombie." But this is his fusion in its world-beating prime, back when his bitterness was still sweet to him. A-

O D O O [Shanachie, 1990]
ragged and unbowed **

The Best Best of Fela Kuti [MCA, 2000]
There is one true Fela experience, and that experience is long. L-o-n-g. Unless qawwali counts, no one in pop has ever gone on so unceasingly for so long. Even Phish and such mix in song-type fragments to give folks a rest. Fela's practice was to release 30-minute albums with two cuts on them, or to dispense with this formality and designate the sides parts one and two. As a result, this 158-minute double-CD comprises all of 13 titles. But of these, more than half are edited or cut unceremoniously in half, which is great, because long can wear out fast. Most Fela albums, including the 20 MCA has arrayed across an overdue reissue blitz of 10 CDs that pass by such renowned releases as Zombie, Black President, and Army Arrangement, are listenable enough. Few, however, are the knockout punches his notices lead thrill seekers to expect--their attractions are more unfocused than an artist so militant requires. Here that's not a problem. Long though they still are, all are marked by top-notch tirades, explosive horn blasts, riffs he'll never improve no matter how often he tries. Certainly some original albums are of a quality that renders the usual duplication caveats moot. But this is the one you need, a masterful piece of compilation for an artist who deserves the best. A

Confusion/Gentleman [MCA, 2000]
At 25:36, the 1974 "Confusion" is one Fela song/track/album it would be a waste to edit--from free-form intro to multiple solos to Tony Allen's one-man polyrhythms, it's the proof of Africa 70's presumptive funk. The horn work introducing "Gentleman," omitted from the Best Best version, embodies the contradictions of that song's anti-European message. Two eight-minute Africanisms carry the package off into the bush. A-

Opposite People/Sorrow Tears and Blood [MCA, 2000]
From defiance to defeat, and guess which has the beats and solos ("Opposite People"). *

Original Sufferhead/I.T.T. [MCA, 2000]
Emerging from a groove that maintains, the find is the sole non-title cut. Called "Power Show," it's nothing of the sort. It may not be thoughtful--Fela always reacted more than he reflected. But the laid-back bpms and sour sax make thinking sound like a good thing. B+

Shakara/London Scene [MCA, 2000]
Early funk experiment more interesting, early Afrobeat excursion more satisfying ("Shakara," "Egbe Mi O [Carry Me]"). *

Shuffering and Shmiling/No Agreement [MCA, 2000]
Worthwhile really long one, good 15-minute one, vamp-plus instrumental ("Shuffering and Shmiling"). *

Stalemate/Fear Not for Man [MCA, 2000]
The old ways are best, in sound and story ("Palm Wine Sound [Instrumental]," "Don't Worry About My Mouth O [African Message]". ***

Yellow Fever/Na Poi [MCA, 2000] Neither

Coffin for the Head of State/Unknown Soldier [MCA, 2000] Neither

V.I.P./Authority Stealing [MCA, 2000] Neither

Expensive Shit/He Miss Road [MCA, 2000] Dud

The Best of the Black President 2 [Knitting Factory Works, 2013]
Compiled by U.K. Afropop advocate turned Fela specialist Chris May, this follow-up to the first volume (which adds naught but a DVD to MCA's essential 2000 Best Best of Fela Kuti) sets itself to showcasing the hero's stylistic range and political significance--rather than, for example, selecting another dozen slightly less compelling jams to spread over another two slightly less compelling CDs. There's a soulful slow track, a hoarse late track, a longer version of the first volume's "Sorrow Tears and Blood," and not one but two Ginger Baker features, the earlier of which is, by the artist's very high standard, untogether groovewise. Fela's striking clarity reflects an arrogance his singing progeny Femi and Seul can't duplicate. His power to project like the rebel son of a politically prestigious mother he was lends authority to his ideas whether right-minded or wrong-headed. Most righteous by me is the song May can't resist repeating, an attack on state repression where Fela repeats "Sorrow tears and blood" again and again and a council of men and women chants back "Dem regular trademark." Why shouldn't it go on for 17 minutes? A-

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