Fela Kuti
“Zombie” Batch, Part I
Knitting Factory

By now, you should be aware of Knitting Factory Records’ Fela Kuti reissue campaign. By the middle of next year, they plan to have re-released all 45 albums in the Kuti catalog. They are now up to the third installment, what they are calling the “Zombie” batch after Fela’s biggest hit. As this installment includes 11 albums (on six CDs), we’re going to examine this batch in two parts.

By 1976, Fela’s popularity with the Nigerian people was equal to his unpopularity with the Nigerian government. His music’s critical message had elicited raids on his Kalakuta Republic compound. The critiques found on “Zombie” were juxtaposed with an up-tempo, elastic groove stretched out to more than 12 minutes. This danceable indictment of the military and the album of the same name became the biggest hits of Fela’s career, even while the remainder of the album favored a jazzy lilt not capable of garnering the same level of excitement. The reissue adds a live version of “Mistake” taken from Fela’s notoriously divisive performance at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival. No doubt part of the problem was that this certainly wasn’t jazz. Aficionados looking for something to complain about would have had plenty, as Fela and the band emphasized spirit over technical proficiency.

The following year, 1977, would be the Fela’s most proficient 12 months, as he released eight full-length albums. This despite things at the Kalakuta reaching a fevered pitch; the compound was attacked by a thousand soldiers, his master tapes were destroyed, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, leading to her eventual death. Fela poured his undiminished indignation into “Fear Not for Man,” and the track begins with an angry growl, but the song never captures the same intensity of feeling. Fear Not For Man’s other cut (standard Fela format for albums was one lengthy song to a side), “Palm Wine Sound (Instrumental),” shows some of Kuti’s highlife pedigree, its airy groove seemingly somewhat incongruous but no less charming.

Fear Not has been packaged with Stalemate, released the same year. This record’s tracks are perhaps two of the most innocuous by Fela standards. Both the title track and “Don’t Worry About My Mouth O (African Message)” are jaunty mid-tempo cuts that neither work up a head of steam or find a narcotic pace in which to get lost. And while the latter has some interesting commentary on Fela’s points of reference, it’s hardly revelatory.

Better is Upside Down, released a year earlier. The title track is one of the few songs in Fela’s catalog where the lead vocals are handled by someone else, in this case, Sandra Isadore, who introduced Fela to the Black Power Movement while he was in the U.S. In many ways, her muscular voice is the female equivalent of Fela’s, as much a chant as singing. The other cut, “Go Slow,” is equally stirring, a syncopated rhythm mixing with Fela’s sax at a pace counter to its title. Upside Down is packaged with Music of Many Colours, an album Kuti recorded with vibraphonist legend Roy Ayers and released in 1980. Ayers, like Fela, was rooted in jazz, but had expanded upon the tradition with funk and groove. The pairing works well, with Ayers taking the lead on “2000 Blacks Got to Be Free,” and Fela taking over on “Africa Centre of the World.”

Making as much music as Fela did during this period, it’s to be expected that not everything is his best work. Nonetheless, these five albums reveal his innate ability to seemingly pull something out of the aether. With all he went through, one might expect him to have simply recorded great balls of noise and confusion to document his rage. Instead, he was able to find a righteous groove through which to channel any emotion.
Stephen Slaybaugh