Jazz Plus/Worldbeat Edition: Fela Kuti, unrelentingly musical


With the possible exception of Bob Marley, no international musician rivals the global impact of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, bandleader, activist and principal figure in the emergence and evolution of the majestic music known as Afrobeat. Kuti’s powerful work merged African rhythms with funk and soul influences, while his fiery lyrics constantly attacked the injustice and hypocrisy he considered endemic among those ruling his homeland (Nigeria).

Fela paid the ultimate price for his views, from imprisonment and beatings to the horrendous death of his mother (whom Nigerian authorities killed while in the process of destroying his home). But he never relented in either his attacks on corruption at home or imperialist control from abroad. Meanwhile he continued to make remarkable, exciting music throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, until his passing in 1997. More than one million people attended his funeral in Lagos.

Fortunately, for those who either weren’t around during his glory years or haven’t heard much or any of his material, Kuti’s entire catalog (more than 50 albums) is being repackaged. The latest in the series, “The Return of the Black President 2 – Deluxe Edition (Knitting Factory)” will be released Feb. 2. The series includes extensive commentaries on various tracks by noted Afrobeat historian Chris May, and the newest release contains a foreword from urban contemporary artist Akon.

Kuti’s tunes were lengthy and sprawling, as pulsating rhythms framed his dynamic chants and vocals, with rhythm keyboard or sax solos carefully interspersed within the musical wave. Written descriptions don’t really do these compositions justice, because when you hear them it’s impossible to not be hooked by the combination of percussive might, instrumental fury and lyrical zeal.

The menu ranges from an early (1975) classic “Everything Scatter,” to gems like “Yellow Fever” (written in protest to early incidences of Nigerian women bleaching their skin) and the spectacular “Sorrow Tears and Blood,” his ode to the vicious crushing of the 1976 Soweto rebellion. There’s also music from his final days, some of which was undeniably affected by illness. But “Underground System (Part 2),” has its good moments, though I wouldn’t favorably compare it to such epics as “Zombie,” “International Thief Thief (I.T.T.),” “Black President,” or even “Expensive Shit,” another cut on this compilation.

Those who purchase the deluxe edition will get another bonus, a DVD of Fela’s 1984 Glastonbury concert, which devotees insist ranks among his greatest. Granted, it is extremely difficult to decide with a performer of this magnitude what should go on any single or double-disc release, but “The Best Of The Black President 2” does a fine job of gathering essentials from his vast catalog.

With the Broadway hit musical “Fela!” now on tour (coming to Nashville later this year), this set should get everyone even more excited about the show’s arrival.

Bonus cuts

Creole Choir of Cuba “Santiman” (Real World)

CreoleThe Creole Choir’s second Real World disc (available Feb. 12) offers stunning harmonies and soaring vocals, with moving performances that should overcome the resistance of even the most adamant listener regarding non-English singing. They’re performing mostly vintage tunes passed down the generational ladder in both Haitian Creole and Spanish. Highlights include Teresita Romero Miranda’s emphatic lead on “Fey Oh Di Nou” (“Oh Leaves Tell Us”), Fidel Romero Miranda’s decisive performance on the protest tune “Pale, Pale,” (“Talk Talk”) and the combined prowess of both Mirandas’ on the lament “Pou Ki Ayiti Kriye” (Why Does Haiti Cry”). Marvelous group and individual vocal offerings.

Spiro “Kaleidophonica” (Real World)

spiroThe term “worldbeat” isn’t quite applicable for the newest release from Spiro, available Feb. 13. They’re a British quartet that emphasizes cohesion over every other musical value. Producer Simon Emmerson (Afro Celt Sound System) gets peak performances in the studio, though the group’s sound is completely ensemble centered, without any jazz (improvisatory) elements. Still, the blend of violin, mandolin, accordion and guitar results in pieces with haunting, beautiful melodies that cleverly manage to be both repetitive and compelling. These songs are intricate, sometimes overly long, and definitely aimed at listeners who prefer instrumental acumen to rhythmic intensity. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy on “Kaleidophonica,” so long as you don’t mind the absence of flair or energy.

Various Artists “Vintage France” (Putamayo)

franceFrance’s “Chanson” style, a romantic, elastic, often delightful one, gets the spotlight on this newest Putamayo collection, which is available Feb. 26. There are sultry vocalists Juliette Greco and Madeleine Peyroux (the songs “La Valse Brune” and “La Javanise”), plus several selections that reflect the nation’s jazz legacy. These include “Nany” from blind octogenarian accordion player Norbert Slama (who once accompanied Josephine Baker) and “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg,” a workout piece featuring Dutch harmonica ace Martijn Luttmer. Another strong number is guitarist Raphael Bas’ superb version of “Confessin.” Some may prefer the lush, less robust material to more animated numbers, but the set contains enough variety to satisfy any French music fan’s requests.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story inadvertently ran a photo that was not Fela Kuti. ArtsNash apologizes for the mistake.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on ArtNowNashville.com among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.


  1. Rikki Stein says:

    Hi Ron,

    Thanks for the great Fela piece and glad to know that you enjoyed BOBP2. I was Fela’s friend and manager and am responsible for putting this compilation together. However, without wishing to embarrass you, sorry to tell you that the photograph used is not Fela. It’s his son Femi! Best of the best. Rikki Stein