According to the late jazz bandleader Sun Ra, the inherent dignity of the black man is nowhere better realised than in the proud riffs and complex harmonies of the big band, wherein the collectivist tribal spirit of African ancestry is best retained.
Ra was doubtless referring to the bands of such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson, but this exhaustive 27-disc retrospective of the career of Fela Kuti, on which some 46 individual albums are squeezed on to 26 CDs, alongside an additional DVD of archive film footage, makes the point equally as well.
There is an integral strength and power to the way the various layers of Kuti's Afrobeat sound link and lock together, from the sinuous rhythms of the drummer Tony Allen, through the insistent vamps of the rhythm and tenor guitars, which keep the riffs buoyant, to the majestic horn fanfares and chanted vocal refrains that nailed home the bandleader's declamatory political lyrics.
It was a style which, once devised, Kuti never seriously varied for over two decades, so one can pick almost any of these discs at random and be guaranteed maximum propulsion. A trip to Los Angeles in 1969 proved pivotal in two ways, firstly by acquainting him with the hypnotic guitar interplay employed on James Brown's funk grooves, and secondly by Sandra Izsadore's introducing him to Black Power ideology. Fela may have left America singing, in "Viva Nigeria", "Let us bind our wounds and live together in peace," but his mind was already set on the course that would lead to his establishing the Kalakuta Republic and espousing pan-African, anti-colonial revolution.
He made a deliberate shift from the Yoruba tongue to singing in pidgin English, so as to be wider understood among a broader African audience. And if critiques of neo-colonial attitudes such as Why Black Men Dey Suffer (1971) and Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana (1976) ruffled feathers among the political elite, it was 1976's Zombie – a scathing attack on the Nigerian military – that brought the most serious storm down upon Fela's head. Its huge popularity both inside and outside Nigeria infuriated the establishment, and the Kalakuta compound was burnt to the ground, its inhabitants mercilessly beaten by soldiers. Fela suffered a fractured skull, and his elderly mother was thrown from an upstairs window, sustaining injuries from which she later died. Fela's response was to take a symbolic coffin to the home of General Obasanjo, the retiring Nigerian president, as recounted in 1980's Coffin for Head of State.
Fela's heroic stubbornness persisted through that decade, with blistering musical tracts like ITT (International Thief Thief) and Beasts of No Nation, culminating in 1992's Underground System, the last album released in Fela's lifetime. Musically light and texturally subtle, but furious in pace and mood, it attacked the covert system by which Africa's military and political elites killed off forces for change in the continent. Ironically, while their efforts couldn't silence him, Fela was eventually brought down by the Aids which, in retrospect, was a huge danger to one of such polygynous appetites.
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