Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Fela Ransome-Kuti & the Africa 70 [extended]

  • Zombie [M.I.L. Multimedia, 1977] A-
  • Black President [Arista, 1981] B+
  • Original Sufferhead [Capitol, 1984] B+
  • Live in Amsterdam [Capitol, 1984] B-
  • Greatest Hits [EMI, 1984] B
  • Army Arrangement [Celluloid, 1985] A-
  • Shuffering and Shmiling [Celluloid, 1985] B
  • 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-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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-

Fela: Black President [Arista, 1981]
Building steadily off unpolyrhythmic traps, underpinning/undermining the beat with multiple drums, stating and embellishing horn phrases and then stating and embellishing them again, repeating verbal taglines countless times again or varying them by a few words to strengthen his points, Fela has constructed Afrobeat, which to my ear is as like and unlike any competing African pop style as it is like and unlike any American pop style. It's just Fela, instantly recognizable, although not always instantly distinguished from other Fela. Distinguishing themselves here are "I.T.T." ("international thief thief") and "Sorrow Tears and Blood" ("dem regular trademark"). That's three-quarters of the record. B+

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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+

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti & Egypt 80: Live in Amsterdam [Capitol, 1984]
There are obviously significant political differences between Fela and the musician he most resembles, James Brown--JB has never been imprisoned for his egomania, which is the least inflammatory construction that can be put on why Fela is in jail at this moment. More likely it's the ingrained defiance of the Nigerian government voiced (though my pidgin isn't so advanced that I get all the details) by the three songs he squeezes onto this live double. That's right, three songs--like JB, Fela is a true son of vamp-till-ready. Unfortunately, since he's not a world-class saxophonist or singer, and since his touring unit is long on brass and short on things to hit (one conga total), eighty minutes of steady but not quite uplifting groove punctuated by interesting horn arrangements is what you get. B-

Greatest Hits [EMI, 1984]
Read the fine print: "Recorded in Lagos Nigaria [sic] and EMI, London 1971-1973." In other words, in the early days of Afrobeat, while Fela was (a) in the throes of inspiration or (b) getting his shit together. Or, as you'd figure, some combination. Familiar riffs and beats are already in place on these four-minute songs, and harsh rhetoric, too. At times the singing goes for a feral power abandoned later. But the sonority and build and staying power of great Fela are missing, and missed. B

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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-

Fela: Shuffering and Shmiling [Celluloid, 1985]
Circa 1977, shortly after the Army torched his compound, an incorrigible troublemaker raps about the limits of God, sometimes in outrageous mock Arabic. Only one drawback: label's marketing the 12:21-minute song plus 9:47-minute version as an $8.98-list LP. As a single, this makes my top twenty-five. As an album it's docked two notches for forced format. B

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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+

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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+

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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-

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: O D O O [Shanachie, 1990]
ragged and unbowed **

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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-

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

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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+

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

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

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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]". ***

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: Yellow Fever/Na Poi [MCA, 2000] Neither

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: Coffin for the Head of State/Unknown Soldier [MCA, 2000] Neither

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: V.I.P./Authority Stealing [MCA, 2000] Neither

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: Expensive Shit/He Miss Road [MCA, 2000] Dud

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 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-