It was about 18 months ago when the Knitting Factory label undertook the task of re-releasing all 45 of Fela Kuti’s albums. Over the course of four batches—“Chop & Quench,” “Na Poi,” “Zombie” and the current “Power Show”—the overwhelming task of examining Fela has been rolled out in relatively bite-sized portions, much in the same way we’ve broken up our coverage into two parts. This is a look at the last five records released by Fela before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1997.
Under the best of circumstances maintaining the work pace of sometimes six albums a year would be difficult. By the late ’70s and early ’80s things were far from great in Fela’s world. In ’77, as retaliation for Zombie, his Kalakuta Republic commune was raided, which resulted in a severe beating for Fela and the beating and raping of the women who lived there. Fela’s mother was also a victim of the raid and was thrown out of a second story window. She later died from her injuries. The close of the ’70s saw the formation of Fela’s Movement of the People political party, the dissolution of Africa 70 and the emergence of the Egypt 80 band. Then, in 1984, Fela was jailed for 20 months over a dubious currency smuggling charge. So the combination of both the personal outrages and political climate would give even a lesser artist plenty to write about, let alone someone like Fela who couldn’t seem capable of not speaking out.
Before his imprisonment, Fela released his fourth live record, Live in Amsterdam, in 1983. Comprised of just three songs, by that point standard procedure as most of his songs averaged 20 minutes, Live in Amsterdam is hardly a perfect document, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The most glaring misstep is the hilariously out of tune and almost atonal keyboard accompaniment on “M.O.P. (Movement of the People) Political Statement No. 1.” It’s like a nine-year-old going ape on a display Casio at Kmart, which is a shame because the rest of the song has a slow building groove that really never gets the chance to explode. Things are finally set right with “You Give Me Shit, I Give You Shit.” The cheap keys are unplugged (or at least muted) and the band locks in on a spirited back and forth while Fela gives a little proto-Kanye settling of facts and confirms the promise of the title. The closer, “Custom Check Point,” is a manic gallop that shows Fela could still summon the unhinged energy of the early days.
When Fela was finally released from prison, he took the unusual step of bringing in an outside producer. Wally Badarou was an Island Records session keyboardist who worked on Grace Jones’ classic releases Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light as well as with a grocery list of other artists. Maybe it was a combination of his prison stay or just the presence of Badarou, but 1986’s Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense may be the most relaxed vocal performance on any of Fela’s albums. He’s noticeably less fiery, but he doesn’t shy away from his longstanding MO in attacking the political system. The one major departure is that the record is far less Afrobeat and has more in common with Marvin Gaye’s score for Trouble Man. While the call and response and sax work are still present, they’re used in a straightahead soul-jazz context. The LP’s bonus track, “Just Like That,” is more confrontational and has more of the high-energy spark than the other two tracks, almost like a concession to longtime fans.
Badarou returned behind the boards for ’89’s Beast of No Nation and O.D.O.O. The three-year gap between records, while not that unusual for most artists, was unthinkable for the prolific Fela. The downtime didn’t diffuse his edge as the cover of the anti-apartheid focused record featured then current South African president P.W. Botha, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan as horned vampires with blood dripping from their mouths. For all intents and purposes it was business as usual. But a closer listen reveals something new going on. There are times on “Beast of No Nation” and “O.D.O.O. (Overtake Don Overtake Overtake)” where both Fela’s voice and sax playing crack a little bit. It’s like all of the past 20 years of struggles have caught up with him, and while he’s still defiant, he’s also a little vulnerable. It adds an unexpected pathos to the proceedings. As with much of Fela’s catalog, it’s as much how he says something as what he says, so those exposed moments are unexpectedly sobering.
Fela’s swan song was 1992’s Underground System. Who knows if Fela knew that this would be his last record, but the title track explodes with an urgency missing from the other records. It plays as if Fela was trying to prove something to himself. After all, with 44 previous albums and a staggering amount of concert dates under his belt, he was long past the point of having to do anything. He could have easily coasted on his legend. Instead, he and Egypt 80 play with a frantic focused power so overwhelming it seems almost impossible that it was captured on tape. But the final word on Fela is given to the downtempo hypnotic “Confusion Break Bones.” Originally on O.D.O.O., the song is less combustible but no less insistent. There’s a weary tone that makes Fela seem fed up that he’s still addressing the same problems. As the closer, it’s a sparse, almost eerie coda to Fela’s illustrious career.
Dorian S. Ham