Celebrate Fela

New reissues and a local festival revisit Africa’s musical revolutionary

The studio, a cramped, communal space, is cloaked in smoke. Tape is rolling. The intro is counted off and a guitarist spins an insistent eight-note pattern that swells, envelopes, soothes, excites. The singers smile, settle themselves, begin to move. They can’t not move. The drummer finds his balance, bears down on his kit. The crack of wood on a closed high-hat slices through the room. At the eighth measure, the voices mass. Their words are heavily-accented, but the message will be understood all too well.

In the booth, a dim overhead lamp casts faint shadows of soft, jagged soundproofing material across the beaming face of the bandleader, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He’s about to piss off some very powerful people.

The year was 1979, the studio was located on Kuti’s private Kalakuta compound in Lagos, Nigeria, and the song he recorded was called “I.T.T.” — that is, “International Thief, Thief.” Not quite the ode to global telecommunications hegemony that shareholders of the corporate behemoth may have yearned for.

“Motherfuckers,” mutters Kuti, as a crowd voices its assent. “Yeah! Yeah!” A nerve has been fingered, abraded, burned to the root.

The call and response that follows — a mixture of Yoruba and agreeably broken English — is spellbinding: “Long time ago/African man would not they carry shit/Before them come for suss away as slaves/Now look’ere man that him they carry shits/How for them culture to carry shit/During the time them come colonize us/Them come teach us to carry shit ...”

British colonialists, you see, conscripted their African subjects to haul carts heaped with excrement through urban centers for disposal. This, needless to say, went rather against the Nigerian grain. Kuti’s astute transposition and attribution of those indignities to the fetid morass of late ’70s African politics was a masterstroke — “I.T.T.” is as seminal a recording as Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” or the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” Its astonishing power resonates decades later, long after the events that engendered its creation faded into the acrid mists of ignominy.

Though he died of AIDS compliations in 1997, Fela Kuti’s work lives on — through his records, over 40 of which are now available on CD as part of a gargantuan two-year reissue campaign; through his son Femi Kuti, whose second CD, Fight to Win, is out this month (Femi also appears in concert at the Variety Playhouse Oct. 29). And on a more limited scale, through “Celebrate Fela!” a mostly free, six-day series held at Grant Park’s Arts Exchange Oct. 15-20.

Kuti was one of the leading artists of his day, revered throughout West Africa, and respected by cadres of fervent admirers throughout Japan, Europe and North America. Born into relative privilege in 1938, educated in London in the late ’50s, radicalized on a trip to the States in 1969, Kuti was already regarded as a titan by the time of “I.T.T.,” on a compositional par with James Brown, Sun Ra, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis.

In Nigeria, the government of Olusegun Obasanjo accorded Kuti a rather different status: He was seen as a threat to national stability, a militantly anti-colonial demagogue hell-bent on disrupting and ultimately usurping established authority. Kuti was frequently arrested, jailed and beaten. His insanely propulsive 1976 smash, “Zombie,” made mockery of the Nigerian state police machine, nearly causing a popular uprising in the process. Kuti suffered dreadful assaults in the wake of the album.

He came back harder.

The genius of Kuti’s art — he more or less invented Afro-Beat, an exhilarating, polyrhythmic-antiphonal fusion of Yoruba traditionalism, hard American funk and improvisational jazz — lies in its absolute assurance. It’s a persevering sound, compelling, confident, utterly fecund. Later cross-cultural hybrids — those fronted by the likes of David Byrne, Brian Eno, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel — are impotent in comparison. In Kuti’s hands, Afro-Beat became a weapon against state oppression, corruption, petty duplicities, cultural banalities. It was a muezzin clarion amplified across a continent, a call for African pride, sovereignty, self-reliance.

His bands — Koola Lobitos in the early ’60s, the genuinely awe-inspiring Africa 70 and the less fiery but still formidable Egypt 80 — were willing and exuberant extensions of Kuti’s psyche. It’s perhaps too simple to describe Africa 70 as having an instrumental base derived from a fusion of Sun Ra’s rightly esteemed Arkestra and James Brown’s maniacal late-’60s ensemble, but as a point of reference, one could do worse.

When he recorded “I.T.T.,” Fela was 41 and had well over 40 albums to his credit. Most were issued on EMI Nigeria, then licensed for European release to Pathe Marconi or Phillips. (There were, of course, myriad exceptions. A definitive discographic accounting is likely impossible.) The first exposure most Americans had to Kuti’s music was through Ginger Baker’s 1971 post-Blind Faith solo album, Stratavarious, on which the Black President — as he was already known throughout Nigeria — sang and played keyboards. Few of his own releases received distribution in the U.S., and were thus highly prized imports. Bill Laswell made an effort to re-introduce Kuti to American audiences in the mid-’80s, but the bulk of his astonishing catalog remained unknown to the majority of record buyers.

With Fela Kuti’s untimely death, and then the rise of Femi Kuti as a powerful recording artist in his own right, there was at last an impetus for a comprehensive reissue series. Concurrent with the release of Femi’s MCA/Universal debut, Shoki Shoki, the mega-label licensed several dozen of Fela’s albums from the French Barclay imprint, and with early 2000’s superlative 2-CD The Best Best of Fela Kuti compilation, the floodgates were opened. Twenty albums on 10 CDs last year. Twenty-four more this year, on 15 CDs.

MCA’s efforts are extraordinary, almost heroic, considering the intellectually depressed state of the marketplace. In an age where limpid alterna-dross, wearying rap-metal metastizations, adenoidal “protest” rock and other aesthetic scourges are valued, it’s safe to assume that the label took a certain risk in launching the campaign. Fela’s albums typically feature two songs, extended jams that often spiral beyond the 15-minute mark. MCA has thoughtfully packaged most of their CDs as two-fers, and many are highly recommended.

For insight into Kuti’s early years, try the recent Koola Lobitos 1964-1968/The ‘69 L.A. Sessions CD. Most Fela enthusiasts would agree that his early/mid-’70s work is beyond essential — any of these will satisfy: Shuffering and Shmiling/No Agreement, Confusion/Gentleman, Expensive Shit/He Miss Road, Yellow Fever/Na Poi, Shakara/London Scene, Everything Scatter/Noise for Vendor Mouth, Open and Close/Afrodisiac, Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles. Of his later work, seek out the following: Original Sufferhead/I.T.T., Opposite People/Sorrow Tears and Blood, V.I.P./Authority Stealing and Beasts of No Nation/O.D.O.O.

“Celebrate Fela!“‘s nightly activities include a Fela birthday party (Oct. 15, 7 p.m.), an open mic (Oct. 16, 6 p.m.), a seminar on global health outreach (Oct. 17, 6 p.m.), a panel discussion (Oct. 18, 6 p.m.), a party featuring local political candidates (Oct. 19, 5 p.m.) and a closing concert featuring African-born local reggae artist Shola Lewis (Oct. 20, 10 p.m., $10).

At a time when issues of globalization and Third-World strife are more relevant than ever, now’s a particularly good time to actively engage Fela’s legacy. But do yourself a favor and also experience Fela’s rapturous, thoroughly revolutionary music firsthand. If you’ve an iota of delectation, you will be changed.

“Celebrate Fela!” runs Oct. 15-20 at the Arts Exchange, 750 Kalb St. SE. 404-221-3125. fela17@juno.com.??