Fela Kuti

Box Set, Vol. 1

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As time goes on, the Western world is gradually becoming aware of the great depth and complexity of African popular music. Compilations abound, and scenes from places like Lagos and Addis Ababa are finally getting some long-due respect. For all that that's been discovered, however, still only one man looms as a musical giant form the fog and mist of the Dark Continent: Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Fela invented a kind of music called Afrobeat, an off-the-cuff approbation that doesn't do the sound justice. While comparisons to James Brown abound, these really miss the point and diminish the man's accomplishments. If Fela can be compared to Western artists at all, it's names like Sun Ra and perhaps even Duke Ellington that one should reach for. While Fela's music always grooved, it wasn't just about shaking your ass, but going on a musical journey with the bandleader, a journey soaked in the call-and-response traditions of Africa and the blues, but also one where songs gathered in complexity and intensity, while the leader called arrangements off the top of his head and played his band and his audience like a giant horn of Roland only he would dare to manipulate. Of course, the music itself is only half the story. Fela was a political force as well, the unofficial leader of not only his country's poor, but maybe a continent's. This is no small feat in a region marred by decades of civil war, a region where political assassination was an acceptable tool of government. Fela was a constant thorn in the side of petty dictators and inefficient, bloated bureaucrats. He suffered for it. He was arrested. He was beaten. He played anyway. Someday, there will be a comprehensive and scholarly compilation of this man's work. Until then, this set and the others in the series will have to do. The strength of the music here cannot be denied. But the logic of its compilation is puzzling. The albums collected here did not come out consecutively. Instead, there are gaps of years, gaps that can be filled in by buying the other sets, but why not just put them in order? The albums do come with the original artwork, which is a treat and a window not only into a man's views, but a time and a place most of the world paid little attention to. As a bonus, the LP editions of these sets come with postcards, each a full color shot of one of Fela's wives. It's just another example of the haphazard nature of this set. While the music here is stunning and beyond quick comparison, one can't help thinking that the man deserves better. But then Fela himself moved to a logic all his own. He tells a story of how he came up with the lyrics for one of his songs by playing with the word "Democracy." First he noticed that "cracy" could easily become "crazy." From there it was a short hop to turn "Demo" into "Them Go." And there you have it. "Them Go Crazy." It makes sense. And maybe, by his own logic, a set like this makes a certain elusive sense. In any case, heaven's band has a brand new leader. And anyone who buys this set has a good chunk of the work by a major world artist. If music is important to you, not only as something to put on while you clean the house, but as a force for good, as a force for life, then this is something you owe to yourself.