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Review – The Best of the Black President 2

The first in a series of Fela Kuti re-releases this year serves as a solid introduction to the afrobeat superstar's epic career.
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Fela Kuti’s star shows no sign of burning out any time soon. Quite the contrary, with a successful Broadway musical, upcoming documentary, and continued popularity of his music, the Nigerian afrobeat pioneer continues his posthumous uprising. The Best of the Black President 2 is just the first in an exciting spate of Fela re-releases scheduled for 2013.

Happy New Year, Fela!

2013 will be a big year for Fela Kuti.

Talking to Think Africa Press last July, Fela’s son Femi expressed his hope that plans for a museum about his father’s life and work would soon become reality in Nigeria. Sure enough, the Kalakuta Republic Museum in Lagos opened its doors for the first time last October. But only time will tell whether this will be a successful memorial.

Meanwhile, the relentless energy of the musical FELA! is still sweeping across international venues, with a new US tour due to start in February. On screen, Oscar winning filmmaker Alex Gibney will release the documentary Finding Fela which, in addition to Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen’s feature film of Fela’s life, should cause a revival through cinema reminiscent of Kevin MacDonald’s Marley and its musical stamp on 2012.

Perhaps by 2014 a new third world superstar will have risen?

Fela I’d like to know

I remember the first time I heard his name mentioned: overhearing a Fela Kuti vs. James Brown debate. Some will tell you Fela Kuti mixed traditional Yoruba rhythms with highlife and funk to create afrobeat. Others will tell you that he, and James Brown, should be credited with creating funk itself. The mere fact that 'Fela Kuti created funk' can be forwarded as a plausible argument is testament to what a revolutionary musician he was. Funk credentials aside, I was simply captivated by the strong, machine gun like syllables of his name: “Fe-La-Ku-Ti”.

And then came the impossible challenge of finding a suitably shallow end of Fela’s enormous catalogue in which I could dip my toes. Every ‘best of’ out there seemed to get slated by fans online (“a version of ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’ edited to a mere 10 minutes? Sacrilege!”). I decided to start with 1977’s famously controversial Zombie, plus an additional stab in the dark – a 1975 double album entitled Expensive Shit/He Miss Road.

Won over by the iconic cover image of Fela and 23 bare-chested wives (count them) punching the air from behind a barbed wire fence, Expensive Shit/He Miss Road remains my most played Fela Kuti release. I recommend it to every Fela newcomer I meet. “Fe-La-Ku-Ti”. His name alone evokes the quick paced percussion that makes afrobeat great. Within seconds of playing ‘Expensive Shit’ I knew I had arrived at the right place.

Best of the Black President 2

With both Expensive Shit/He Miss Road’s title tracks featuring on The Best of the Black President 2, I took an instant liking to this upcoming Fela compilation. It represents the first step of an intensive re-release programme from March to September 2013, initiated by Knitting Factory Records and Kalakuta Sunrise. If a one-track definition of afrobeat were possible, it might take the oppressive shape (like a brooding tropical storm cloud ready to burst) of the largely female backed 'Monkey Banana'. Fela’s power here is unheard – apparent only to an educated ear by his deliciously slick, off-microphone band direction.

The 12 unedited tracks stay true to a delicate balance between classic and rarity, with all bar 1992’s ‘Underground System’ focussing on Fela Kuti and the Africa 70’s 1972-1976 period. For Fela Kuti familiars, here’s the full list:

1) Everything Scatter, 2) Expensive Shit, 3) Underground System (Part 2), 4) Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am, 5) Monkey Banana, 6) Sorrow, Tears and Blood (extended version), 7) Black Man’s Cry, 8) Mr Follow Follow, 9) He Miss Road, 10) Yellow Fever, 11) Na Poi, 12) Colonial Mentality.

For Fela Kuti newcomers, The Best of the Black President 2 isn’t a bad first hook at all. A braver option could, however, be to hold on and invest in the re-release programme’s climax: the 26 CD Complete Works. Fela Kuti really is worth that much.

The Best of the Black President 2 is due for release on March 4.

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