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Back in the spotlight: Fela Kuti.

Great Grooves

New CD reissue series spotlights Afro-beat innovator Fela Kuti

By Greg Cahill

HE'S BEEN CALLED Africa's James Brown. At a time when Afro-beat continues to drench Paris dance floors in throbbing beats and hypnotic rhythms, often in the hands of white Europeans, it's easy to forget the origins of this influential sound. Yet it's almost impossible to overstate the impact and importance of Nigerian producer, arranger, musician, saxophonist, political radical, and outlaw Fela Ransome Anikulapo-Kuti in the global music village, the All Music Guide has opined, noting that "[Fela] was all that, as well as showman par excellence, inventor of Afro-beat, an unredeemable sexist, and a moody megalomaniac."

Indeed, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea has heralded Fela's music as "a bottomless pit of groove."

While most Americans were introduced to the '70s world-beat craze by the ebullient high life of fellow Nigerian King Sunny Ade (a much tamer musician), it was Fela who first concocted the unique blend of jazz, funk, high life, and traditional African rhythms and melodies that continues to electrify the European pop music scene.

Repeated jailings of this musician-cum-civil-rights-activist by a repressive Nigerian regime, upset by Fela's calling attention to missing oil money and other improprieties, kept Fela out of the limelight stateside until the mid-'80s. Indeed, Fela never let the authorities off the hook. For his efforts, he was hounded, jailed, harassed, and nearly killed. In 1977, his compound was attacked by 1,000 soldiers; his 82-year-old mother was thrown from a window, suffering injuries that later would prove fatal.

Over the years, like Bob Marley, Fela became a cultural rebel and an outspoken voice for the have-nots.

Complications from AIDS finally silenced this masterful innovator in 1997.

Now a new and highly ambitious CD-reissue program promises to give Fela his due.

On Feb. 1, MCA Records launched this in-depth reissue campaign with the release of a newly compiled two-CD set, The Best Best of Fela Kuti. Through May, the label will issue 20 original albums of Afro-beat's greatest grooves on 10 CDs, a virtually unprecedented African music retrospective spanning 17 years.

The CDs coincide with the release of Shoki Shoki, the label debut by Femi Kuti and Positive Force, featuring Fela's oldest son, and with a U.S. tour that brought the band to San Francisco earlier this month.

For the uninitiated, the Best Best certainly offers a groove-laden overview of Fela's musical ideas and political convictions. Dig deeper with the just issued V.I.P./Authority Stealing, two long, live tracks recorded in Berlin and featuring that phenomenal Afrika 70 band--a high-water mark in Afro-beat.

Though, frankly, you really can't go wrong with any of these recordings. A press release from the United Democratic Front of Nigeria on the occasion of Fela's death noted: "Those who knew you well were insistent that you could never compromise with the evil you had fought all your life. Even though made weak by time and fate, you remained strong in will and never abandoned your goal of a free, democratic, socialist Africa."

These remarkable discs bear rhythmic testimony to his musical power.

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From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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