Thursday, March 5, 2015

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Review: Fela Kuti Live in Detroit

Music met politics when Fela Kuti and the Egypt 80 were let loose on Motor City back in 1986.
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On November 7, 1986, Fela Kuti played live in Detroit as part of his first international tour with the Egypt 80. He had tried two years previously but the plan had been foiled by a dubious arrest over ‘currency trafficking’ and his subsequent imprisonment. His freedom came only after an Amnesty International campaign for his release. Fela’s international tour then became an opportunity, as Amnesty saw it, to expose human rights abuses in Nigeria through Fela’s music.

Several bootleg recordings were made of the Detroit gig. This release by Knitting Factory Records was the best quality.

Most valuably captured in the recording is Fela Kuti the activist, displayed through his pre-song musings. “Me goin’ my own way, my own business”, says Fela of his arrest. The crowd whoop as he performs a piece of visual comedy lost to the listener. “Don’t do shit, don’t do nothing… next thing I know I’m in prison man, just like that. In my country, things happen just like that. Just like when you watching television or something… they take power man, just like that.”

Western style democracy, according to Fela doesn’t work in Nigeria – “democracy? dem-a-crazy!”. “White man ruled us for many years, we have constant electricity.” But then things change, ‘Just Like That’. ‘Just Like That’ is probably the catchiest song on this release, and carries a powerful warning of how unpredictable Fela’s Nigeria has become. Each member of the Egypt 80 has their moment in the spotlight as Fela Kuti the bandleader dictates the pace. Half an hour of energy, then, just like that, it all ends.

‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense’ displays a slower, jazzier style of afrobeat, strongly reminiscent of Fela’s better known ‘Water Get No Enemy’. “Culture, tradition, Western democracy, African dem-o-crazy, corrupt university, corrupt school, corrupt teacher” – at a later point in the concert, Fela takes the crowd through the stages of knowledge as it filters down from a colonial past to the streets of Nigeria. Also featured on the album are ‘Beasts Of No Nation’ (“I’m talking about leaders who act like animals”) and ‘Confusion Breaks Bones’, two reflections of Fela’s time in prison.

Live in Detroit is due for release on May 14.

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