This past week Knitting Factory Records completed the project it began more than a year ago: reissuing the entirety of Fela Kuti’s discography. In four batches, the label reissued all 45 of the albums Fela created during his all too short lifetime. It’s an impressive legacy, and just trying to absorb it all has been a feat itself. As such, it’s become necessary to break each batch down into even smaller portions, and here again that’s the case.
Labeled the “Power Show” batch after a song on Original Suffer Head, this last group of records represents the last music Kuti made before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1997. But several of these records also contain Kuti’s greatest indignation in the face of oppression. While he long sang against the poor treatment of the Nigerian people by their militant government, on these albums he proffers a more deep-seeded condemnation.
This heated fury is no doubt the result of the 1977 raid of his Kalakuta Republic compound, which resulted in the raping and injuring of the women who lived there with him. His mother, who also lived there at the time, was thrown from a second-story window and later died from ailments resulting from her injuries. The two-fer of Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier collects two of his strongest responses to this injustice. The former, released in 1980, is a musical indictment of General Olusegun Obasanjo for his mother’s death. Fela had taken his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Barracks where the general lived, and the record’s lone 22-minute title track depicts that trek literally, metaphorically and musically. The song is cut with sadness and both Kuti’s grief and anger are palpable. Unknown Soldier, this CD’s other half, refers to the police reports that unknown soldiers were responsible for the raid. Since authorities played dumb as to what happened, Fela took the opportunity to give his own eyewitness report over the course of a half-hour of punctuated grooves.
The combination of ITT (International Thief Thief) (1980) and Original Suffer Head (1981) represents Fela’s transition form his longstanding Afrika 70 band on the former to his new band Egypt 80 on the latter. ITT, which also consists only of one long title track, is one of Fela’s greatest works. The track is a convergence of themes, which lifts it to a higher level, as does its up-tempo funk. Here the singer takes ITT CEO Moshood Abiola to task. He likens him to an African who, in the days of slavery, would sell his own people to abductors, and also calls him out for his involvement in ousting Chilean president Salvador Allende, a Marxist elected democratically. That ITT owned Decca, the label to which Fela was singed and who was refusing to release his records, also no doubt helped ignite his ire. He also takes on the Nigerian leadership and suggests, “We go fight them well now.” Also utilizing a metaphor relating to how the British once employed Nigerians to dispose of their excrement, Fela’s clearly not taking shit from anyone.
Original Suffer Head, however, isn’t as moving. On both the title track and “Power Show,” his band fails to deliver the power of his past work, and both sound lite by comparison. Kuti seems less focused as well, putting forth a long list of complaints rather than zoning in on the real malfeasances at hand.
Army Arrangement, which like its 2001 MCA version contains a track not originally appearing on the album, “Government Chicken Boy,” shows Egypt 80 beginning to gel just as their arrangements become lengthier than those of their predecessors. The title track again shows Fela’s wrath as he lashes out against the usual villains. The song’s big swells of horns are its greatest asset, though, taking on an almost orchestral quality. “Government Chicken Boy” is largely a throwaway, however, and sadly is just a stagnant mix of repetitive keyboard lines and horns that goes nowhere. Not the best note to end on for sure, but like I said, there’s still more to cover.