Did someone secretly script Fela Kuti’s life? At times it feels like a lost Tarantino movie: Polygamy. Murder. Police antagonism. And, of course, music. It’s the music that sent Motown reps to Nigeria in the early ‘70s seeking a potential recording contract. It was a Fela performance in the early 1970s that caused Paul McCartney to announce he had witnessed “the best band I've ever seen live”. And even the great showman himself, James Brown, apparently “picked up a lot from Fela” when the soulman toured Nigeria in 1970 – according to Tony Allen, Fela's drummer.
Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti (to give him his birth name) is best known as the pioneer of afrobeat, the musical alchemy made up of traditional African influences, highlife (more of this later), jazz and funk, all wrapped up in waves of percussion and often clocking in at over 20 minutes per track. Much has been written about afrobeat and it’s this period of Fela’s life that gets the most airtime. But how did Fela get there? What was his inspiration? Well, it’s time to put on your gloves and pick up your chisel, because our musical archeology lesson begins with this three-disc collection.
‘Fela Ransome Kuti And His Koola Lobitos’ is a massive compilation made up of early singles and recordings – some from the studio, some live. It charts the journey Fela made from unknown to star and provides a fascinating insight into how afrobeat came to pass. JK Braimah, a friend of Fela’s in London during the late 1950s, told journalist Peter Culshaw that the musician was “as square as they come. He didn't smoke cigarettes, let alone grass”. By the mid ‘70s, however, Fela was prodigious dope smoker – and then some. Did his music journey follow a similar path of discovery? In a word: yes.
Perhaps indicating just how much Fela’s influence has spread from the shores of Africa, this CD project began its life on the other side of the world. Back in the early noughties Toshiya Endo, a professor of chemistry at Japan’s Ngoya University, started up a website called African Music Home Page. Toshiya began noticing that the page getting the most love was a Fela Kuti discography. It wasn’t long before information on ultra-rare Koola Lobitos tracks started to pile up; the Lobitos being the band Fela played with in the years after his studies at Trinity School of Music in London in the late 1950s. It seemed logical to take advantage of this and compile all these early recordings – dug up by music historians, record collectors and fans – onto one CD. “Many of these recordings… we thought to be lost forever and certainly were all but lost to the most fervent Fela enthusiasts,” explains Michael E Veal, Yale’s Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, in the press release.
So, this is good news for Fela fans. Especially as the tracks were dutifully cleaned up using modern sound-recording trickery. But be warned. Like a lot of ‘before they were famous’ albums, ‘Fela Ransome Kuti And His Koola Lobitos’ is a rough-and-ready affair (though it isn’t fair to think of this as their David Bowie ‘Laughing Gnome’ – the band did have plenty of success during this period, and these tracks are, well, good). Listening to the early singles like ‘Bonfo’ and ‘Fere’, they sound like they could be recorded in the 1930s not the 1960s - clearly recording studios in Nigeria at that time weren’t up to Abbey Road standards, but in some ways this adds to the charm.
These early tracks ride the highlife wave – the style of music popular at West African dances at the time – and are a bit manic in places. Saxes stab in rudely at every opportunity and don’t really give the vocals much space to breathe. It’s quite a different vibe to the tracks Fela became known for in the following decade. As we move through the ‘60s, though, you start to hear different influences creep in: soul, James Brown, rumba. The vibe is good. The potential is there. The later tracks are practically afrobeat in all but name.
Fela and his band famously changed their name to Africa 70 following a trip to the USA in 1969. And it’s from this point that the new sound, the hits and the infamy began to come thick and fast. ‘Fela Ransome Kuti And His Koola Lobitos’ is an amazing historical record. But perhaps more so, it is a fascinating example of a young musician trying on different coats before finding one that fits.
Words: Joe Heaney
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