Friday, February 22, 2013

Fela Kuti, Revolutionary Dream.

In 1971 I was sixteen, turning seventeen in October. It was the age when music was becoming my life’s blood and starting to influence how I saw the world and related to it. My friend Mark and I would float around Camberley town centre, from coffee bar to record store talking about the value of this band and that band; we’d also crowd into the listening booths and beg the older bloke (at least twenty two) to let us hear whole sides of albums. It was Mark who dragged me into the booth and said “You gotta hear this!” and played me Heroin by the Velvet Underground; I dragged him in to hear Dirt by The Stooges. Record shop guy sort of tolerated us and then one day said “You two need to hear this”. It was Why Black Man Dey Suffer by Fela Kuti.

I never really listened to music the same again.

Over the years this early openness to what was out there musically has brought so much joy to my life. Disco, reggae, soul; the list is endless. For ages I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness, or at least a member of a small gang who used strange words like Fela, Franco, Sunny Ade or Joujouka. It didn’t make me a purist, it just made me open. Then it got called World Music and somehow in two simple words this magical music was put into a box marked “Liberal Middle Class Muesli Eaters”.

For me Fela is revolutionary music, by a man who walked the walk, talked the talk and took all the beatings handed out to him by an oppressive state. A man who articulated the problems that Africa faced from rapacious multi-nationals and corrupt governments many years before NGOs and pressure groups caught up with him was a giant. He was educated, sophisticated and informed; he chose to sing in pidgin English because it was a language that was pan-African, it enabled his message to travel beyond the borders of Nigeria and brought the issues he sang about, and highlighted, into the consciousness of the wider populations. He was a lot more scary than The Clash.

Now Knitting Factory Records are re-releasing several of Fela’s most important albums and they’ve led off with a pretty good compilation. Actually it’s a fucking great compilation but if you’re a Fela fan you’re always going to gripe that this song should be there, and that song, oh, yeah, and that one. I guess one of the problems is that so many of his songs clock in a big time so in an effort to introduce as many songs as possible you either edit or find the shorter ones.

That said this compilation has such towering greats as Everything Scatter and Expensive Shit, the breathtaking Sorrow Tears and Blood and the angry, and politically exact, Colonial Mentality.

For a true illustration of the power of music you cannot do better than anything by Fela. Right now we are living in difficult times, we have a government pressing down on the poorest in society, we have a middle class with a shrinking share of the national wealth and we have the youth of our country being priced out of education and work. Now, more than any other time, we need artists to step up to the plate and make common cause. I appreciate that pop music never changes much, but it changes the general environment, the water we swim in. When we are fed a diet of One Direction and Emelie Sande, when even the “challenging” bands are wary of speaking out about politics then we must delve into Fela Kuti. We must throw ourselves into his music like fishes desperate to breathe.

Everything Scatter

Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go
Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go
Them go write big English for newspaper, dabaru we Africans
Them go write big English for newspaper, dabaru we Africans (I.T.T.)

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