Monday, March 15, 2010

Music Monday: Fela!

The name Fela Kuti has only recently elicited more than blank stares outside of small pockets of those in the know. While Fela is famous worldwide, especially in his home country of Nigeria, his acceptance in the U.S. has taken much longer. A major factor in his resurgence has been the premier of Fela! The Musical, which I've desperately been wanting to see. (Check out the cast of Fela's performance of "Zombie" on the Colbert Report).

I'd be lying if I claimed to be an earlier discoverer of Fela's music which he dubbed "Afrobeat," but it was a natural progression with my love of R&B, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Jamaican music. I started listening to Fela in college, but only a few stray tracks until I started looking deeper. Most of his music is not available anywhere, and some songs are lost forever (he was rumored to play some songs live only once).

Fela's songs are long and winding (sometimes over 30 minutes long), but retain their coherence through a polyrhythmic beat that keeps the song grounded, now matter how far Kuti's voice and saxophone may wander. Often, there will be a long instrumental opening before Fela's distinct "wooooooooaaaahh" enters, deep and bellowing with a power rarely heard outside of James Brown and Otis Redding. Yet unlike these two scions of American soul, Kuti's vocal power is rarely used to mourn a lost love or ask for a baby back. His intense voice was focused on African liberation, and against the Nigerian government that continuously harassed him and murdered his elderly mother.

"Sorrow Tears and Blood" is one of the first Fela songs I heard. I instantly knew I was hooked.

I wish I had seen Fela Kuti live, because the power of his voice and presence can reach through even in a grainy Youtube video. Fela died in 1997, but his son Femi has added his hip-hop own imprint to Afrobeat, collaborating with artists such as Mos Def, among others.

Here's a live clip of Fela singing "Teacher Don't Teach Me No Nonsense."

Have a fantastic Music Monday.

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