Monday, January 23, 2012

Fela Anikulapo Kuti

He was probably one of the first African musicians north of the Limpopo I ever took notice of. When I was a kid, there was Fela Ransome Kuti, as he then was, and Osibisa, and that was it. Not that I had any idea what Fela's music sounded like. In the mid-Eighties the NME championed the high life sounds of King Sunny Adé and mentioned Fela Anikulapo Kuti every now and then and the most basic facts I learnt about him, was that he was very political, opposed the then Nigerian government and often suffered incarceration and violence for it, and that he had a bunch of wives and a very large band. He had dropped the colonialist name of Ransome and adopted Anikulapo or reverted to it, to emphasise his African roots. He was called the king of Afrobeat and Ginger Baker played with his band once in a while when Baker was living in Lagos and running Airforce. Fela died of AIDS in 1997. There might have been more bits and pieces of information I have now forgotten.

I still had no idea what the music sounded like.

All that changed on a sunny Saturday afternoon in early 2000 in a car on its way to Clanwilliam. In the car were Braam Botha, Margaret Follett, their two daughters Emma and Tessa, Kim Pinkerton and me. Margaret had recently become owner of a piece of land fronting on the Clanwilliam dam and we were going there to see it and spend the night. The trip was eventful for two reasons. The first was that Kim and I became lovers, and the second, and with perhaps a more lasting effect, was that I heard the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti for the very first time.

Somewhere 13h00 and 15h00 of a Saturday afternoon one Richard Mawemba presented a radio show in which he showcased a selection of mostly contemporary music from all over Africa. Braam who listened to the radio a lot and who liked all manner of slightly off-beat music religiously tuned in to Richard Mawemba's show when he was at home and it was no different on the long journey along the N7.

I'd heard this show before and although I never made an effort to listen to it when I was at home; I enjoyed the music, as I like music in general and African music in particular. It was one more genre amongst dozens out there that had merit and moved me. It had a good beat and you could dance to it. There was always a language barrier but because music is a language that transcends language barriers and cultural divides as well, it did not matter to me that the lyrics were, well, foreign to me. The fact that I could not understand what the singer was going on about simply made the whole effort, words and instrumental backing, one big, integrated piece of music.

Anyhow, Richard Mawemba announced that he was going to commemorate Fela by playing one of his songs. The track he chose was "Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense." It is over 25 minutes long and blew my fragile mind a little to the extent that I went to the African Music Store in Long Street, Cape Town, to look for the album, also called Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense. To my delighted surprise they had the CD in stock and I bought it. There are 2 very long tracks on the album: the title track and "Look and Laugh," which is longer than 30 minutes

If the album had been a record "Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense" would probably have been divided into 2 parts over two sides of vinyl, with the instrumental opening on one side and the section with the vocal on the other. I guess the CD version makes the best sense and as it has the impact of the full power of the build-up of the tune, because it can be played as one organic piece with the instrumental section constructing the groove slowly but surely, before the song moves into the political diatribe that is the point of the exercise. There were all manner of funky percussion, fluid bass, lots of interweaving guitar parts, hot saxophone and slinky keyboard parts. There is the message, which sounds a bit like an Africanised "Another Brick In The Wall, part II" and is sung in some kind of pidgin English that makes sense some of the time and no sense a lot of the time, but I guess that could be just me. The intro has electronic organ and saxophone and a loping bass and a riffing horn section and this mix is something between funk and big band jazz without sounding exactly like either. Tony Allen's drumming, precise and strong throughout, is a joy. It must have been a gas to be at a Fela concert. The band might not have played many songs but the endless groove would have driven an audience into a frenzy.

"Looking an Laughing" follows a similar pattern but the instrumental opening section is a lot more restrained and cooler, with electric piano leading the way.

Anyhow, this song and this album was my introduction to the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and I absolutely loved it. "Look and Laugh" was every bit as exciting as the title track.

It must be the never-to-be-repeated impact of the new that makes this record seem so brilliant to me, but I nonetheless believe that is great and thrills me each time I hear it. When I saw that it was released in 1986 I was slightly shocked. I am used to what Eighties music sounds like in general, and it is not a good sound, yet this record does not seem to have dated at all, though I do not yet know what the Seventies style of Fela's music sounds like. Even in South African, though, there was a marked, and in my opinion not very wonderful, change in local African music during that decade where African pop producers adopted the feel of White rock and pop product from that era and manufactured a more sophisticated hybrid that utterly turned me off. Fela's music does not have any of that influence as far as I can tell; it is not primitive but it is of its own.

Given that I love Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense so much, it is perhaps strange that this was the only Fela album I owned for a couple of years. I guess I did not want to buy anything else by him for fear that another album would be a relative disappointment.

Then I found an album called Music of Many Colours (1980), an interesting combination of one track each by Fela and American jazz / funk musician Roy Ayers, at a sale at a CD shop in Cavendish Square and I bought it because it was cheap and I was intrigued to hear this combination of African and Afro-American musical styles. Roy Ayers contributes "2000 - Blacks Got To Be Free", a somewhat prophetic song for 1981, when South Africa was still very much in the throes of apartheid, as it not only foretold a more liberated Africa in general but also spoke of a free and democratic South Africa. Fela gives us "Africa – Centre of the world", which (I guess) is your early version of the kind of African boosterism that is now quite prevalent and the result of which is all the furore about the first FIFA soccer World Cup being hosted in Africa in 2010, some 30 years after this tune was recorded. It took Africa a while to get there.

Why the record is called Music of Many Colours is a mystery to me unless it is a reference to the "rainbow nation" cliché of South African after 1994, which it obviously is not. Black seems to be the only colour thought I guess you can say it has a few shades of black in it, given the cultural differences an American and an African must have, for all the vaunted back to the roots claims of African-Americans. There is plenty of funk groove to it, but at first listen it was not as wonderful as Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense. It's taken time and repeated listening before Music of Many Colours started working for me. The Ayers tune sounds pretty much like a conventional funk track from the late Seventies, with added political consciousness, and the Fela track is more horn driven and more overtly Afrobeat, as it would be, somewhat lighter and more jazzy for it. The musicians backing both stars are mostly from Fela's Africa 70 band and the big guys play on each other's tracks. One explanation for the difference in mood and swing might be that Flea writers his tune whereas Ayers relies on somebody else, two of them in fact.

My Fela Anikulapo Kuti collection suddenly grew over a few weeks in August and September 2010.

In mid-August I was at The African Music Store, primarily looking for the latest album by Tinariwen, pretty much my favourite African band of the moment, and saw that the shop had a whole selection of Fela's music, part of a recent programme of re-issuing the entire catalogue, of Fela albums, mostly value for money two vinyl release per CD album and often with bonus tracks. Amongst this lot I saw the CD album Original Suffer-Head / I.T.T (2000),
featuring the title track from 1984 and another well-known diatribe called "I.T.T (international thief thief)" from 1981 plus "Power Show", a much shorter track.

Some months ago I upgraded my contract cell phone and when I messed around with the set-up I found that I could download a bunch of so-called welcome tones and individual ringtones from a strange list of tracks. One of the tracks I could download was the Fela song "Original Suffer-Head" and I did download it, thinking that this would be a brilliantly different ringtone to have. Well, I tried to download it and somehow the download just did not happen, or if it did, I could not find the tune on the cell phone to allocate as ringtone.

So, when I saw the eponymous album, I had to buy it, and I did.

As I often do, I checked out Robert Christgau's consumer's guide website to see what he had to say about Fela Kuti. He had a lot to say and had his trademark potted reviews of a whole lot of Afrobeat, including the two albums I owned and he also referred to Army Arrangement (1985) as probably Fela's best album. The next time I visited The African Music Store, I bought this album.

Then, on another visit to the shop (it is conveniently located on my route from Labour Court to High Court) I not only found the latest Tinariwen album, Companions, but also again had a look through the Fela albums and saw Teacher, Don't Teach Me Nonsense there. I had started writing this piece and could not remember the second track of the album, and could not look it up on my CD of it, as it is packed away in a box in our outside room, so I picked up this copy in the store and saw that this CD had a bonus track as well, called "Just Like That", 22 more minutes or Fela music added to two other quite long tracks. Of course I had to have it. For good measure I then also bought a CD entitled Fela Ransome Kuti with four tracks recorded in the early Seventies.

"Just Like That" starts off with a mix of chanted vocals and stabbing, raging horns before it settles into Fela's tale, starting with him and the chorus exchanging call and response exhortations, much like an entertainer on a stage asking his audience to respond by completing a catch phrase of which he shouts the first word.

Shakara is a collection of 4 tracks from the early years of Afrobeat, when Tony Allen was the drumming powerhouse. The sound is slightly more inclined towards funk and R & B but the African influences are there, all right.

Why Black Men Dey Suffer is another album of early Fela, recording as Ransome Kuti and allegedly featuring Ginger Baker who settled in Lagos for a few years in the early Seventies. The particular album I have is not part of the re-issue series of albums with additional tracks and sleeve notes. This CD has just 2 tracks on it, that would originally have been the A and B sides of the LP release. I have to confess that the R75 selling price was the decisive factor in my decision to buy it.

The other factor was the sleeve's indication that Ginger Baker plays on the album. After a few listens I still do not detect any presence of Baker on any track and it sounds to me like only one drummer after all, which would be Tony Allen. I know Baker's style of restless, relentless polyrhythmic drumming from Cream and believe that he would have fitted in well with Afrobeat. Tony Allen's style may be polyrhythmic as hell but it sounds too much like funk drumming to me. Baker's propulsive drive is not discernible at all. For all that the 2 tracks are pretty good anyway.

True story. In early January 2012 I popped into The African Music Store to check out whether there was anything worthwhile. I was still looking for the debut album of Cape Town rock band Machineri and wanted to see if there was a new Tinariwen release. The Machineri album was there, as well as the third album by another Cape Town band called Hot Water and for good measure I thought it might be time to increase my collection of Fela music. After browsing through the Fela albums on display it came down to choose between a collection of very early recording under the name Fela Ransome Kuti or the album Zombie from about 1977. I picked Zombie. When I got back to my office, where I was keeping most of my recent Fela acquisitions, I saw that I already had Zombie. The point was that I had not really completely acquainted myself with the Fela albums I'd bought after Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense and therefore had no strong memory of what I did or did not own. Fortunately I could return to the shop the following day to exchange the duplicate copy of Zombie for Confusion / Gentleman, two vinyl albums collected on one CD and credited to Fela Ransome Kuti and the Africa 70.

When I played the very long track "Confusion" the unfocused, free form keyboard intro, unlike any other intro to any Fela song I'd ever heard, did not impress me. It sounds like a kid messing about on his doting dad's instrument and the dad then thought it would be a bit of a lark to splice that "improvisation" onto a proper track as intro. I wondered whether I had made the wrong choice of Fela album even though I deliberately selected a Ransome Kuti set as being of earlier vintage than the Anikulapo Kuti albums. The weird drumming gave way to a fat, deep bass groove and perhaps one of the best Fela tracks I've heard. The lyrics, as usual, may be important and significant but it is this monster Afrobeat groove that shakes the floor and fills the room. Even at 25 plus minutes it feels too short when it comes to an end.

The slightly strange thing about collecting Fela's collected works is that there is a whole slew of product available under Flea Ransome Kuti & Africa 70, Fela Anikulapo Kuti & African 70 and Fela Anikulapo Kuti & African 70 and then there are re-issues of the original albums in single record per CD format and in two albums per CD format. The latter is the best deal not only because you get two albums on a CD but also because there are often previously unreleased tracks too.

My collection currently consists of Why Black Man Dey Suffer (1971), Shakara (a single record) (1972), Shuffering and Shmiling (1978) / No Agreement (1977), Confusion (1975) / Gentleman (1973), Zombie (single album with previously unreleased tracks) (1977), Music of Many Colours (single album) (1980), Original Sufferhead (1981) / ITT (1980), Army Arrangement (single album with one previously unreleased track) (1985) and Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense (two different versions: one the original single album and one with unreleased tracks)(1986).

That is quite a lot of Fela product yet is but a drop in the ocean.

The thing about owning this much Afrobeat, much like owning a bunch of Tinariwen albums, is that it is difficult for me to have anything but a vague recollection of the tunes. Obviously it partly has to dot with the fact that I have hardly lived with these recordings. I have listened to "Teacher ..." and "Looking and Laughing" more than to any of the other tunes because it was the first Fela album I bought and because I had lots more time to listen to music when I bought it. Music of Many Colors comes second and as for the rest, most of them have had one or two spins on the CD player. On the one hand I have limited time to devote to listening to any kind of music and on the other hand I keep buying new albums that I also need to listen to at least once. It is not only Fela that does not get the attention his music deserves. It is the case with just about everything I buy nowadays.

I like the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The polyrhythms of Afrobeat, with the grooving basslines and stabbing horns, is very much to taste. This music has a kinship to the Parliafunkadelicment Thang, which is where I first learned to appreciate and enjoy deep funk. Flea's lyrics are often inscrutable and almost unintelligible because of his patois but where I do understand them, they are sharp, funny and make points about (his) society that give pause. I like the fact that most of these tunes go on for a very long time. Dance parties with Afrobeat as the rhythm must be insanely great.

The myth or reality of Fela as man, activist and rebel is interesting but not something I dwell on too much. He was an articulate libertarian with a social conscience and the means of expressing his worldview in a commercially viable way. He did not change Nigeria and did not change the word yet he was a powerful force that deserves to be heard and remembered. If there can be a Bob Marley legend, there certainly should be a Fela legend.


Fela's sons Femi and Seun carry on their father's tradition, albeit with far shorter songs on their CD releases. At the time of writing this I have not listened to anything by the two Kuti offspring and I suppose I should, even if it is just to find out what they have done with the legacy. My fear is that they will have updated Afrobeat in a way that is not as satisfying as the template is. There is an organic feel to Fela's music, probably because he had real musicians playing real instruments and did not go for an "Eighties production" sheen even when he was recording in the Eighties. I can believe that contemporary producers would want to make Afrobeat hip for today's young audiences and although this may not be a bad thing, it would not be an authentic thing. Having said that, one cannot be hidebound and reactionary about music. If it works, it works, regardless of which traditions have been adapted or destroyed.






Sunday, January 08, 2012

Miles Davis on the corner

My god! This is just the most amazing shit! I wanted to play On The Corner on iTunes on my laptop and somehow I managed to play Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" and thought it was a pretty extraordinary type of thing for Miles Davis to be doing in 1972, until I discovered my mistake when David Byrne started singing. Then I switched to On The Corner and was blown away. Talk about visceral, kick in the guts, gobsmacked and highly charged up! This is awesome stuff and I not use "awesome" lightly in any context. It WAS a pretty extraordinary type of thing for Miles Davis to be doing in 1972.

The interlinked suite of tunes on the first side of what was once a record are connected by restless Africanised funk drumming, a relentless groove that sounds like a vamp on one chord, much like the best of James Brown from the same era, minus the grunting vocals, interspersed by all manner of weird soloing in short bursts of intensity.

If this is jazz fusion I am all for it! This music is so totally unlike the tunes on Kind of Blue, recorded 13 years earlier than On The Corner, and a lifetime away from the pretty, pastel tunes of that typical cool jazz album from the late Fifties. On The Corner does not sound like background jazz; it does not sound like anything that belongs in a smoky after hours joint on the legendary 52nd Street in New York. On The Corner is just some kind of monstrous groove thing that grabs hold and does not want to let go. Man, this is great!

In my comments on Kind of Blue I made the point that it is the kind of pleasant listening album that does not demand much attention and could easily fade into the background and that I cold visualise the kind of movie scenes for which its tracks could serve as soundtracks. This kind of jazz may be hell of impressive to musicians but to my ears this is cool jazz by any other name and not qualitatively too much different from the hundreds of similar records recorded during the Fifties and early Sixties.

I understand that Miles Davis was one of the most important jazzmen ever and that the musicians on Kind of Blue were stellar and not merely side men but potential band leaders too. The thing is: for all the talent in the room when those tracks were recorded, they produced a work that is not different to the competition but, at best, only a superior sound-alike to the many acts hoeing the same row.

The cuts from On The Corner are startlingly different to any jazz album I've ever heard and startlingly different to almost anything else I've heard in any other genre. Having said that, I can hear echoes of music that came later as much as I can hear the influence of contemporary funk. The Miles Davis of Kind of Blue could have been copies wholesale to great commercial effect. I cannot see how anyone would have copied the Miles Davis of On The Corner in the same wholesales fashion and hoped to retain any kind of audience. Yet elements of this record have obviously more or less directly emerged in popular music, both from the northern and southern hemispheres.

I should mention, again, that I have only recently for the first time listened to Kind of Blue because I bought the remastered CD at a second hand book shop in Montagu where my wife and I spent a couple of days in the week before Christmas 2011. Emma Follett-Botha, who now lives with us, spent a couple of days over Christmas with her father Braam Botha in Darling and brought back a bunch of music on her flash drive that she took off her father's portable hard drive. In this haul she copied three Miles Davis albums: Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain and On The Corner. I have no idea why she chose these albums, as she is not much of a jazz aficionado, as far as I know. Anyhow, I copied these three albums to my laptop and elected to listen to On The Corner before I tackled Sketches of Spain, for the older album is orchestral jazz which I've listened to before and found a tad boring and pretentious, and I think of it as of a piece with Kind of Blue even if it was recorded by a nineteen piece orchestra as opposed to a sextet.

Well, On The Corner has warped my fragile little mind. Apart from the fleeting touches of trumpet or saxophone emerging from the monolithic percussion and bass grooves, it does not sound like my idea of jazz, or anything else for that matter, or like Miles Davis. This is not Jamiroquai. That is a good thing. This record is an astonishingly good thing.

Where Kind of Blue is universally acclaimed and allegedly one of the bestselling jazz albums of all time, On The Corner was hated by mainstream jazz critics and fans alike and was one of the worst selling albums ever released by Miles Davis. Forty years later, though, there has been a much more favourable reappraisal, even if the common or garden jazz fan still hates the album. Perhaps I have more of an open mind because I am neither a jazz fan nor a Miles Davis fan, and in any case I have a very eclectic approach to music. If it fits in with my aesthetic, regardless of where it comes from or how different it is to the mainstream, I will like it.

Kind of Blue is not going to induce me to buy more Miles Davis albums. On The Corner makes me want to find everything Davis released between 1972 and 1975 when this new approach was being fully explored. No more introspective, "proper" jazz tunes. No more running the changes on standards and wowing audiences with the prowess of a jazz soloist expressing himself at length while the rhythm section vamps behind him. No more orthodoxy. All of this was replaced by the deranged fury of fat funk bass, clattering poly-rhythmic percussion and the absence of a recognisable tune. Glorious!

Somewhere during the past ten years I had the opportunity to listen to Bitches Brew (1970) for the first time ever and was quite impressed. The tunes made sense and the furious pace of some of them, and John McLaughlin's guitar did make this jazz sound more like a bastard child of rock. Although the album took jazz somewhere it had not been before it is still almost orthodox compared to On The Corner.

The first great thing about the album is that the opening cut and title track "On the Corner" just starts in the middle of nowhere and "Mr Freedom X", the final cut, ends in the same way. There is no opening theme from which improvisation flows and there is no neat resolution. The album arrives and departs in thin air. This must be something like the state of the universe before the big bang: once there was nothing and then there was something and who knows how it happened. Or how it will terminate.

This big bang theory of mine is not so farfetched. Apparently Davis wanted to combine street music with space music, whatever that might have meant, and I guess this urban space was what he came up with. As I understand it, On The Corner was built, like Frankenstein's monster from various parts to form a monstrous whole, in that improvisational jams were fitted together in a cut and paste fashion, on top of the groove, to make up the "compositions" on the album. The sum of these parts absolutely makes more sense, probably, than the individual parts would have made. The interpolated blasts, squalls and wafts of guitar, keyboards and horns could and would only have significance amidst the sitar drones and rhythmical maelstrom that ties the album together.

In my iTunes library On The Corner follows straight after Kind of Blue and the transition is shocking. There is a small gap (the silence before the storm) after the fade out of the tasteful, doleful final notes of "Flamenco Sketches" and before the aural assault that is "On the corner" and the tracks that follow. One cannot believe that we are dealing with the same band leader, albeit a totally different band. The cool sounds of Kind of Blue, no matter how great an album it is supposed to be, just do not lodge in my consciousness in the same way the rock jazz funk raga sounds of On The Corner does. The latter is a gut reaction enjoyment whilst the former is an intellectual appreciation. The tracks from the earlier album could easily be separated from the parent body and played individually or as part of a selection of similar tunes. It would make no sense whatsoever to separate the tracks from On The Corner or to attempt to make them fit on a compilation of Miles Davis tunes. The impact derives from the whole suite played in sequence.

I guess nobody is going to write a book about the making of On The Corner or spend too much time on it in any biography of Miles Davis but that would be a crying shame. Davis may have recorded many landmark albums that will always feature in a Top Ten of jazz albums but to my ears much of his Fifties and early Sixties output is a tad anodyne and not that much different from the much derided cool jazz movement. Maybe it is because I am not a musician and cannot appreciate the infinite subtle variations that Davis and the various instrumentalists can weave. Music that goes in the one ear and out the other is just about meaningless to me. If it does not grab my attention it probably does not deserve my attention. Bitches Brew serves up something that does demand close attention and On The Corner absolutely shook me when I first heard it and not many records do that these days.

I've said previously that owning Kind of Blue would not make me go out and search out other Miles Davis product and it was fortuitous that I got my hands on Sketches of Spain and On The Corner (as MP3 tracks) so soon after I bought the Kind of Blue CD. Now I am quite convinced I should search out more of the Seventies output of the Davis electric funk jazz ensembles, such as the live albums Live-Evil, Agharta and Pangaea, which may replicate the type of funky, hard edged electronic jazz of On The Corner.








Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Eden Brent

Valiant Swart went to Mississippi and New Orleans to discover the roots of the blues and along the way he discovered Eden Brent playing amazing blues and boogie woogie piano in a bar in the heart of the Crescent City. She featured in his television programme about his pilgrimage and was invited to perform at the Aardklop Festival in Potchefstroom.

In 2003 she released Something Cool, with the track "South Africa" that celebrated her visit to this country. It is a great bluesy, jazzy old-timey pop album that came to my attention because Carina 'Katvrou' Laubscher sent me a copy. Before that I had never heard of Eden Brent and never expected to hear of her again. She seemed a novelty act of sorts; a White woman pounding a piano and shouting gutsy songs on the topic of the traditional blues tropes. As far as I was concerned she would probably be stuck in bars all over the States performing to drunks and blues parasites to ever diminishing returns.

Anyhow, now I not only own Something Cool but also Mississippi Number One, a 2008 release of more of the same, yet every bit as good as the earlier album, if not better. It is once again a pleasure to make the acquaintance of Ms Brent.

Recently I made the effort and spend the money to buy Hugh Laurie's Let Them Talk album, a set of songs seated in territory not a million miles away from Eden Brent's 'hood. She hails from Mississippi and Laurie's influences appear to be early jazz and blues with the N'Orleans touch, with an earnest Englishman's application to a style he had to learn whereas Brent no doubt lived it. This is the difference between the two albums: Laurie, for all his apparent love for the genre and the material, does come across as earnest, mostly simply trying not to fuck up. Eden Brent clearly revels in this music and the connection she has with it. Some of the songs are introspective and some are rollicking; all are great fun.

Some of the songs were written by Eden Brent, some by her late mother Carole, and some are standards. All of it is seamlessly, uniformly excellent. From novelty tunes like "Fried Chicken" to the serious concerns of "Afraid To Let Go", "Close The Door" and "All Over Me." Brent plays and sings with powerful authority and fluency. She is a real deal and should be a big deal.

She IS the Mississippi Number One.