Knitting Factory Records recently posted a whopping 47 Fela Kuti albums to Bandcamp, ranging from his early recordings with the Koola Lobitos group in the 1960s, through three decades of work and multiple band incarnations, including Africa 70 and Egypt 80. While Kuti might be well-known to some, there’s a lot to digest here, so we asked a handful of Fela-loving artists and selectors to pick out some of their favorite tunes and highlights from the massive catalog of the legendary Afrobeat pioneer.
Da Lata describe their sound as Afro-Brazilian-with-a-touch-of-London. They released the Fabiola album last year and are set to release a collection of remixes shortly.
“Growing up in provincial England Fela’s music was hard to come by. The 1981 Black President compilation featuring “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” was the first Fela music I bought, because it had a U.K. release, and it blew my world apart. Later on this would become a huge tune on the dance floor when I was DJing Talkin’ Loud at The Fridge with Gilles Peterson in the early nineties. I often describe this as pure African hip hop; a groove so low-down and dirty and an attitude so mighty and righteous.”
– Patrick Forge / Da Lata
Osunlade runs the Yoruba Records label, working with and releasing music with artists like Roy Ayers, Nkemdi, Salif Keita, and Cesária Évora. Watch out for a new solo record later this year.
“The groove and horn solo on this one are amazing, the vocals are impeccable and Tony Allens’ drum cadence is one to be reckoned with – not to mention the guitar licks!”
Wally Clark / Gummy Soul
Hip hop producer Wally Clark runs the Gummy Soul label and is a big Fela Kuti fan, he occasionally yells out “Egbe Mi O” to relieve stress.
“This was the first Fela song I ever heard. A cute Ethiopian girl named Papi was playing it in an antique store in Atlanta. I asked her about it, and she said that she didn’t know who it was, but that she would burn me a copy. For years I didn’t know who created this new groove I’d never heard, I just thought it was some obscure African record. I made a beat with it, and planned on giving it to her, but I never saw her again. I was pleasantly surprised when I started getting into Fela, and discovered the song I had only known as Song For Papi.”
MetaL MetaL is the forthcoming album from Metá Metá out of Sao Paolo. Their album features the amazing drumming of Tony Allen, once a member of the Fela Kuti band.
“I was caught by the horn section on this one right from the beginning, but I could never have imagined what was about to come. The epic ending, with Fela inviting everyone to come and sing is amazing, it’s like a trance.”
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Leo was the saxophonist in a band led by Tony Allen and would go on to play with Fela Kuti.
“On Confusion the whole side of the LP is like an intro – it is mystical, dark and groundbreaking.”
Todd Simon (of the Decoders)
Trumpeter/arranger/producer Todd Simon is no stranger to the music of Fela Kuti. He was in Antibalas from 2000-2002, performed in FELA! the musical, and continues to incorporate African music in his projects.
“This was always a treat to perform with Antibalas; the horn melody is so vibrant, empowering and uplifting. Fela’s music really has a way to fill up your soul and take you to a stronger place.”
With horns blazing and drums firing, The Liberators, a ten piece band from Sydney, Australia, wear their love for Fela proudly on their sleeves.
“One hell of an arrangement! Set-up so when the beat drops in, all you will do is dance. Punchy horn lines and forever exciting layers of rhythm. Incredible band!”
Ariya Astrobeat Arkestra
A UK-based 9 piece band with a forward thinking cosmic tinge to their take on Afrobeat.
“The way it flips from minor to major 3 minutes in gets me everytime. The thing about Fela’s music is that you can spend forever analysing it in order to try to replicate it, but in the end the thing that makes it special is unlearnable. It’s his spirit that drives the music and that can only come from the man himself…”
Tall Black Guy
TBG’s 8 Miles to Moenart was one of the best independent soul and hip records of 2013, and he just released the latest in his Mini Therapy Chops series.
“This song was my first introduction to Fela, I heard it via a friend who played it to me back in 2004. Around this time I was just starting to listen and experiment with other genres outside of soul music. Very dope tune.”
The Paris DJs
Djouls and the rest of the Paris DJs crew keep a steady stream of tunes flowing to Bandcamp, many with a tropical and Afrobeat flavor.
“The first Fela album I owned, in the early ’90s. The funkiest thing I’d ever heard at the time.”
Gerald runs the awesome archivist Jazzman label, wheels and deals tough-to-find tunes, and knows a thing or two about Afrobeat.
“Fela at his absolute best: resolute, angry, uncompromising. The artistic triumph of bitterness, anger and resentment chiseled into hard Afrobeat epitomises the unique character that is Fela, and all that he is about.”
Siji first learned about Fela Kuti as a child, watching TV in Nigeria sometime in the mid ’70’s. Watch out for his forthcoming album, and his documentary about the elder statesmen of Nigerian music.
“This was composed and recorded shortly after the public ransacking of his commune, “The Kalakuta Republic,” during which his mother was thrown out of a window and critically injured. She eventually died of injuries sustained during the attack and the song was his direct condemnation of the attack as well as his accusation of the brutal military regime upon which he laid blame for her demise. It’s a stirring and poignant piece and highly evocative of the turbulent times many Nigerians including myself found ourselves living through. It also eloquently captures the antics of the military authorities, widespread corruption in the nation and the pious nature of some the country’s religious leaders.”
Crawford is a hotly tipped, up-and-coming soul musician from Los Angeles, CA. Watch out for his The Awakening album this May.
“Fela is one of my heroes not only in music but as a man. He stood firmly for what he believed was right, and fought until death to liberate his/my people using one of the most powerful weapons known to man: music.”
Steve Haney (of Jungle Fire)
Jungle Fire combine their love for Ray Camacho, Enrique Lynch, Ray Barretto, James Brown, Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango to create a melting pot of afro-cuban rhythms, break-beats and 70′s inspired funk.
“I discovered Fela Kuti’s music through my older brother who saw him in the 80’s. That provoked my interest to buy Fela Kuti & The Africa 70 Live With Ginger Baker. A few years back Jungle Fire discovered the same song covered by Phirpo Y Su Caribe, which then led us to record our version Comencemos – a pure explosion of sound!”
Moni is a designer at Bandcamp and a fan of all things Fela.
“As a lover of music and a (former) Lagosian, Fela played a big role in my musical upbringing. With such a vast discography it’s difficult to choose just one tune, particularly with the stellar selections from the other artists. The instrumental Palm Wine Sound is a wonderfully relaxed groove that’s often overlooked. It provides a fantastic counterpoint to the fire for which Fela is best known.”
More about Fela
Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on 15 October 1938 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, Kuti was sent to London at the end of the 1950s to study medicine. Thankfully (at least for music fans worldwide), he chose to drop medicine and moved his studies to the Trinity College of Music. In London he formed Koola Lobitos, a band that would fuse jazz with African highlife music. In 1963, Kuti moved back to Nigeria. Now married with three sons (one of whom was Femi Kuti, who still enjoys a successful music career), he re-formed Koola Lobitos and worked at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1967, Kuti moved to Ghana and began to experiment with his sound and developed a percussion and horn heavy mash of Yoruba influences, along with highlife, funk, jazz, soul, rock, and Latin music which he called Afrobeat. Two years later Kuti took his band to Los Angeles, CA, where he discovered the Black Power movement – an experience that would heavily influence his sound and political outlook. Kuti returned to Nigeria and throughout the 1970s and ’80s he would release a constant stream of records that voiced his opposition to the government. Tracks like “Zombie” (a comment on the Nigerian military), “V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power)” and “I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief)” would send Kuti to jail, see him beaten, his studio and performance space burned down, and even lead to the death of his mother who was pushed from a burning building by soldiers. He remained musically and politically active up through the late 1980s, releasing the Beasts of No Nation album in 1989 which features a horned and fang-toothed Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pieter Willem Botha on the cover. Fela Kuti died of AIDS-related complications on August 2, 1997, at the age of 58, in Lagos, Nigeria, and it was estimated that 1 million people attended his funeral procession.