Expensive Shit / He Miss Road
J.J.D. / Unnecessary Begging
Shuffering and Shmiling / No Agreement
The Best of The Black President

[Wrasse Records, www.wrasserecords.com]

At the time of his death in August 1997, Fela Anikulapo [formerly Ransome] Kuti was a man both hated and revered in his Nigerian homeland. Persecuted by the authorities for decades for his brave, in-your-face, socially conscious politics, he was imprisoned and beaten on numerous occasions. Whether his death [which was due to complications due to AIDS - though immediate cause of heart failure was given, along with a very weakened immunodeficiency syndrome] came as a surprise to his fans, I'm not sure. All of us knew, for someone who had undergone such degradation, humiliation and non-stop persecution, it was a success in itself that Fela lived to be almost 60 years of age. Though this doesn't mean in any sense that his death wasn't a shock to the musical community at large, to his countrymen and to the millions of fans he orphaned in the process. United Democratic Front of Nigeria said on the occasion of Fela's untimely death: "Those who knew you well were insistent that you could never compromise with the evil you had fought all your life. Even though made weak by time and fate, you remained strong in will and never abandoned your goal of a free, democratic, socialist Africa." In a nutshell, Fela fought the good fight. He fought for peace. He fought for freedom and most of all, he fought for social justice. He was so popular in Nigeria that even those who persecuted him joined over a million mourners at his funeral.
Fela's musical legacy consists of dozens of records, many of which were left behind in the old bins of record stores, collecting dust. Only in the late 90's, Universal France cleaned up and re-mastered much of his timely work. Wrasse Records has issued about two dozen releases so far. Each one comes complete with original cover art, in-depth linear notes, historical details and other crucial data that make the listening experience that much more enriching. Each one gives us a glimpse into creative mind of the true Black President of Nigeria.
No doubt, the 70's were a creative high for Fela. In fact, he named his most politically charged outfit The Africa 70. Recorded in 1975, "Expensive Shit" and "He Miss Road" [here issued on a single disc] were strong anti-government statements in the usual Fela mode. First album's title track tells a long tale of Nigerian government accusing him of smuggling. He apparently swallowed a joint to hide whatever the officials were looking for and when the shit came out, they literally found nothing. Righteous stuff but also one of a hundred tales Fela is famous for telling. As is the case with all Africa 70 releases, the thing that first must be mastered is the beat. When Fela went to the States for a brief stay in 1969, he picked up knowledge from James Brown, along with Black Panther literature to boot. He went back to Nigeria to filter what he'd learned and threw in a heap of African elements. One of the main elements of course was the beat. It is the beat that defines every single song he wrote. It is the beat that gives meaning to everything in sight. It is the same beat that gives his long tales of morality and righteousness a sense of trance. First light percussive beat, which is then followed by a single guitar rhythm. Then a couple of drummers give the horn section a run for their money. Fela liked to revel in the glory of choruses. Both albums included in this re-issue have plenty of those. Each one has slight variations - both thematic and musical. Each track builds up to a climax near the end. That's just the way Fela liked to run the show. Produced by Ginger Baker, "He Miss Road" is even more outrageously funky and downright political than its cousin. Title track revolves around a reverb-heavy beat that follows the piece from beginning to end. Usual chorus is heard, with the Africa 70 members repeating Fela's angry outcries. The thing that really puzzled me about Fela was how calm his voice was. Despite the outrage he felt inside, despite his anger at the social depravity he saw all around him, he maintained an aura of a calm ambassador of the people. Anger really only seemed to appear in the shouts during the choruses, when the call and response sections were shouted. Every single track makes that apparently clear. Add to that the crazy, freed-up drumming from Tony Allen and you've got yourself an instant classic from beginning to end [which could be said for most Fela recordings at any rate].
"J.J.D." ["Johnny Just Drop"] is a single track release from 1977. It comes packaged together with a 1976 release "Unnecessary Begging". 23 minute long "J.J.D." is full of usual funky rhythms, slowly evolving beats and those angry call-and-response choruses. Just when you think to yourself, who in the world did Fela think he was to have audacity to release one long track albums? Well, he was the only voice that mattered in Nigeria throughout most of the 70's. He was a leader of a musical uprising, which gave him enough bragging rights to do whatever the hell he wanted. Twenty three minutes go by in a snap. Listener can't really tell length of the track [is it too long? is it not long enough?] as the numerous changes and key chorus structures remain interesting enough to move things along. "Unnecessary Begging" features a 16 minute long slowly evolving groove. In fact, the title track is slow. Period. Even by Fela standards, the track would be considered rather reserved. The liveliness kicks in during "No Buredi (No Bread)". As the wild horn section signals the way for a freaky, funk-fest, the beat is firmly established, while the percussionists stabilize the proceedings. With Tony Allen once again at the helm of leading Africa 70, this is a mid-tempo, but a glaring, charged affair from beginning to end. Another successful Fela re-issue to boot.
In 1977, Fela released a number of crucial records. Amongst these were "Shuffering and Shmiling" and "No Agreement". The former is basically a 22 minute, two part track that in a nutshell attacks the encroachment of non-African religions in his homeland, which left the people scattered and unable to unify. Featuring a killer horn section, some brash, harsh words as usual from Fela and that driving, persistently funky percussion, the track is a steaming all the way through. The pulsing, trance-like structure envisioned by Fela is fully realized here. "No Agreement" is another solid album that on the title track features some wildly soaring trumpet work from AEC member Lester Bowie. Fela comes in with the vocals quite late in the game in fact, but when he does, he's sounding persistently bitter and as pissed-off as ever. Album's closer is a 15 minute instrumental "Dog Eat Dog", which features up-front flirtations of the wildest kind on the organ. The beat remains as solid as ever, while multiple percussionists add a thick, heady dose of head-spinning variety to the game. Strong release from every vantage point.
The issue I have with compilations is the amount of crucial work they actually leave out. They only allow a glimpse of the sun to shine through, rather than the whole. Though "The Best of The Black President" is not a bad compilation in itself, at the end of the 2 1 hour, 2 CD sprawl, you're left only wanting more. It's great that all thirteen tracks were especially chosen for this release by Fela Kuti's son, Femi, but fact is, you can't just pick and choose some tracks over others from Fela's enormous catalogue. Why does "Gentleman" deserve to be here more so than anything from "Underground System"? Why was nothing included from Fela's crucial "1969 LA Sessions" or the earlier "Koola Lobitos 64 - 68"? Why were the key albums "Upside Down" and the Roy Ayers duet "Music of Many Colours" not touched on? These are but some of the questions I was pounding my head for at the tail end of this fine, fine compilation. Only viable answer is obvious lack of space over the 2 CD span didn't allow for more elaborative effort. While my sound advice is stick to full length albums alone, "The Best of The Black President" still remains a definitive best-of collection, if the best-of slang could stick to the great Fela at all.

- Tom Sekowski

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