MEMOS FROM A MUSIC FIEND
BY ALEJANDRO MAGAÑA
Fela Ransome Kuti and Africa 70: Expensive Shit
Just look at this album cover. Perhaps your eye first registers the barb wire, cut across horizontally in several lines across the frame of the image or maybe it’s the beautiful black women half-naked with breasts bared. To me, the thing to notice is THEIR SMILES. Those big beaming smiles of transcendence that complement the fists raised in the air. Those smiles collectively are a symbol that there is a freedom nobody can take away from you, that freedom first comes from within, and the strength to overcome oppression first comes from within. If you possess these things nobody and nothing can keep you down.
At this time, Fela Kuti, along with his bandmates and his family, lived in a compound in Nigeria where he also had a recording studio, that he declared the Kalakuta Republic. The police loved to mess with him because of his anti-imperialist, anti-military views and would often raid the place.
The story behind this particular record is pretty strange: In 1974, the police planted a joint on Fela to finally create a situation where they could arrest him. Fela quickly ate the joint but was still taken to custody so the police could wait for him to shit it out and test it for THC. The story goes that he somehow used another inmate’s feces and was eventually released. The cost of the entire debacle on all sides made this literally, an ‘expensive shit.’
Fela is the progenitor of a style of music called Afrobeat and this album is the perfect example of it. It moves your hips and makes you wanna dance. The title song will begin with a bright guitar lick, jazzy but also funky, then a piano vamping until the drums and bass start their driving rhythm, and suddenly horns come blasting in, swinging, playing the basic theme with Fela leading the charge on sax, maybe even soloing for a bit and then after a bit of vamping the chants, maybe a call and response, in Nigerian Pidgin which has bits of English mixed in its musical creole slang. (The way Fela leads the proceedings might make one think of James Brown and his remarkably tight bands, but you never saw JB whip out a horn and start tearing it up!).
These songs have an underlying, almost modal, jazz quality that lets the different players solo at various times with the chanted lyrics coming in intermittently as the constant rhythmic pulse keeps swinging. The songs are long and meditative but they never lose their vibrant thrust. Their power is a constantly swaying and undulating groove.
Ooo wee, THIS IS THE SHIT! This music is joyful no matter how serious the subject matter is!
It always has a hopeful brightness and will get any party vibe appropriately situated. All you gotta do is put some Fela on. It felt natural to listen to this today just to keep my summer vibe lust for life going. You can never go wrong with this.