Fela Kuti
“Chop ’n’ Quench” Batch
Knitting Factory

As we've made mention of before, Knitting Factory Records will be reissuing the entire catalog of Fela Kuti during the next year and a half. It’s an ambitious undertaking, given the breadth of his oeuvre (45 albums) and the fact that he is sadly still unfamiliar to a large majority of Western ears. Still, the timing couldn’t be better, with Fela!, a musical drama interpreting the legendary musician’s life, currently playing on Broadway, and Focus Features said to have a biopic in the works. If ever Fela, who died in 1997, will get the widespread recognition he’s long deserved, it will be in this decade.

The label began its reissue series this month with what’s it is calling the “Chop ’n’ Quench” batch, named after the English interpretation of Kuti’s first hit in his homeland of Nigeria, “Jeun Ko Ku,” which sold more than 200 thousand copies as as single. These six releases, covering nine albums, represent Fela’s earliest recordings, from 1964 to 1975. On these albums, he was still going by the name of Fela Ransome-Kuti. He eventually replaced Ransome, which he considered a “slave” name, with Anikulapo, which translates as “he who carries death in his pouch.”

The series begins with The ’69 Los Angleles Sessions. Nearly all of the releases in the Knitting Factory reissue series have been issued before; the releases are noteworthy for the simple fact that the entire catalog will eventually be in print both as CDs and on vinyl. However, this edition marks the first official North American release of Kuti’s recordings under the band name of Koola Lobitos. Unfortunately, these are just the same six songs that have appeared on prior (import) editions of this CD and do not include the other songs the band recorded, of which there are many more, done for such labels as Parlophone, Polydor and Philips.

Given his lifestyle (living on a compound—the self-declared independent state, the Kalakuta Republic—with 27 wives) and the fact that most photographs usually show him clad in little more than some briefs, Kuti is often mistaken for being some sort of primitive insurgent. He was, in fact, educated in London and lived in the United States before returning home and choosing to live as he did, however anachronistically it may have seemed, as an extension of his pride in his African heritage.

Koola Lobitos was the name of Fela’s band that he formed while attending the Trinity School of Music in London. That group, however, was disbanded when Kuti returned to Nigeria, where he formed another band with the same name, in 1963. The recordings here were done between 1964 and 1968, and are firmly entrenched, as exemplified on leadoff track “Highlife Time,” in the popular style of the time in West Africa, highlife. As the name implies, this was club music suited to good times, and these five tracks swing with the best of them, with “Omuti Tide” reprising “When the Saints Go Marching In” at times.. These songs may be less iconoclastic than the music Kuti was yet to create, but “Olofue Mi” does hint at the form it would eventually take.

In 1969, Kuti took Koola Lobitos to Los Angeles. The rest of the album is culled from the recording the band, soon to be renamed Nigeria ’70, did while they were there. Fed by American R&B and jazz, these songs reveal what would become Afrobeat taking shape, and “Viva Nigeria,” though clumsy in its delivery, shows the awakening of Fela’s African consciousness.

By 1970, Fela had returned once again to Nigeria, where he started a club at a hotel called the Shrine. His performances there became the stuff of legend and Ginger Baker (of Cream and Blind Faith), who was in Africa on a rhythmical research expedition, traveled to Lagos, where he befriended the musician. The following year Kuti travelled to London on EMI’s dime to record an album, and while he was there Baker secured his friend gigs around town. While further details are scarce, I’m going to guess that it was at one (or more) of these shows that Live! was recorded (with Baker sitting in), as Fela takes pains to translate each song’s title in English beforehand. (However, we do know that the final immensely long and immensely boring “Ginger Baker and Tony Allen Drum Solo” was recorded at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival and added by MCA when they reissued the album in 2001.)

Rather than just old songs dragged out in a live setting, though, these are cuts that never appeared elsewhere. As such, one gets a sense of the impromptu, albeit highly orchestrated, nature of the Nigeria ’70 band. These songs probably existed nowhere but in Kuti’s head and hear they pour fourth in a mixture of African rhythms and funk-punctuated horns. This isn’t some ganga-fueled, inconsequential jamming, but a constant ebb and flow of a building musical tide.

The album Fela recorded while he was in London (at Abbey Road Studios, no less), was Fela’s London Scene. It’s preceded here by 1972’s Shakara, which is comprised of just two lengthy songs, “Lady” and the title track. They are some of Fela’s best work. The former mocks Westernized African women, complaining of their lack of respect for their male counterparts. However sexist the sentiment, the song develops at a slow pace into an epic mix of horn blasts, syncopated beats and a call-and-response refrain. “Shakara (Oloje)” is a bit brisker, with a crisp riff and tenor tax trading blows until the song swells with an unbridled groove. On Fela’s London Scene, Kuti and his band still show signs of development, and more specifically, Western influences. “Egbe Mio,” on which Ginger Baker played uncredited, is reminiscent of James Brown, chicken-scratched riffs layered with Kuti’s gruff howls.

Roforofo Fight, originally released in 1972, is looser in its feel than the other albums in this batch and suffers a bit for it. “Trouble Sleep Yang Wake Am,” the highlight of the record, is probably the closest Fela ever got to a slow jam, sax melting over simmering beats. The reissue includes two singles, “Shenshema,” from the same year, and “Ariya,” released the following year. The former combines a primitive keyboard sound with disjointed beats and sax skronks, while the latter reveals some unrestrained bombast. Both seem rather off-the-cuff and aren’t Fela’s best stuff.

The pairing of Open & Close and Afrodisiac makes for the one of the strongest sets in the series. The four lengthy cuts on Open & Close (from 1971) rattle with a penetrating groove. The title track shows Kuti’s sound to be nearing fruition, with the varied elements of influence very nearly fused together. Afrodisiac, though released in ’73, comes from the 1971 sessions at Abbey Road, and includes “Jeun Ko Ku.” These songs are more cut and dry, favoring gut-feeling over cerebral extrapolations.

With Gentleman in 1973, Fela had firmly established what became known as Afrobeat. His sax player, Igo Chico, had left Nigeria ’70, and rather than replace him, he learned the instrument himself. This set starts out quietly, though, with the title (and one and only) track from 1975’s Confusion. Things shift gears with “Gentleman,” which soon builds into an indictment of Fela’s fellow men who have lost sight of their African identities.

Listening to just these six CDs, the immensity of Fela’s work is already clear. While Knitting Factory could have made improvements to the prior releases of these albums (better pairings and added rarities), it’s good work that they’re doing simply be getting these important records back into circulation.
Stephen Slaybaugh