Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 2/23/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #706:

Fela Kuti – Coffin For Head Of State

To celebrate the unprecedented and paradigm-shifting revolutions going on in North Africa – who would have thought, huh? – we give you another African freedom fighter. Fela’s albums from the 1970s onward typically feature a couple of sidelong vamps: this has the sprawling title track – the most murderous song he ever wrote – and the equally hypnotic, intense Unknown Soldier. By the time he released this in 1980, he’d been imprisoned, tortured and beaten within an inch of his life and seen his nightclub burned to the ground. And still he didn’t give up. And as revolutionary a personality as he was, he was every bit as revolutionary as a musician: he basically invented Afrobeat. For anyone who thinks that Vampire Weekend has anything to do with Africa, we recommend a thorough immersion in this deliriously defiant, funky stuff. Here’s a random torrent; for those who prefer something better than a lousy overcompressed mp3 off the web, or want to investigate his extensive and pretty extraordinary back catalog, Knitting Factory Records are reissuing the entire thing from the late 60s onward in bits and spurts.

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February 23, 2011 Posted by | funk music, lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Fela – The Original Broadway Cast Recording

If all the songs featured in the musical were played at their original length, this would be a five-hour box set. That the shortened versions here are worth hearing at all is an achievement. That they’re as fiery, and fun, and as true to the originals as they are, given the constraints of their use in a Broadway show, is nothing short of extraordinary. The original soundtrack to Fela, the most important Broadway show of our time (and arguably the most relevant Broadway show ever) more than lives up to its hype. For fans of world music, this album (just out on Knitting Factory Records) is essential; diehard Fela fans will not be disappointed. The band is killer, which is no surprise since the musicians have been drawn from the collective that started this whole thing, the western world’s best Afrobeat conglomerate, Antibalas. The percussion clatters, the bass slinks, the horns punch and soar. As the show’s star singer, Sahr Ngaujah does a mighty good Fela impersonation, although during the album’s occasional spoken interludes, he comes across far more lucidly and articulately than Fela ever did. Ngaujah eschews any attempt at projecting Fela’s defiant, dangerously stoned vibe: for whatever reason, he sounds a lot like Linton Kwesi Johnson – which is actually not a bad thing at all.

Reducing Fela’s endless, often interminable vamps down to a manageable essence of sometimes as little as three minutes minimizes their original intent – to keep a bunch of stoned dancers on their feet for hours at a time – but the added focus is actually welcome, especially as the musical plays up their importance as revolutionary anthems. The longest number, BID (Breaking It Down) clocks in at just under seven minutes. It’s awfully nice to see the scathing, richly lyrical, double entendre-laden Expensive Shit included here, poop jokes and all, in just under four. Most of the arrangements hew closely to the originals, although a few, notably Zombie and a tense, suspenseful Coffin for Head of State, are somewhat stripped down. The backup singers’ harmonies, most impressive during a lushly arranged and ecstatically delivered Trouble Sleep, are spot-on. Unfortunately, most of the women in the cast come across as dancers who can sing a little rather than singers who can also dance – they share the cookie-cutter, over-the-top, fussily melismatic corporate vocal style that’s been de rigeur since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis destroyed what was left of black pop in the 1980s. Which is only a problem because the supporting cast get more time out in front of the band than they ever would have if the real Fela was running the show.

But when the group is cooking, Ngaujah is intoning “o-rig-in-al,” wagging his finger at the corrupt bourgeoisie or railing against their thugs, it is a historic occasion: both in terms of Fela’s role as a freedom fighter, and the somewhat improbable success of his music as mass-marketed theatre product. May the triumph of Fela on Broadway be an inspiration and a lesson to producers everywhere: the audience that has embraced this musical, and similarly edgy music, has been vastly underestimated for decades.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Complete Fela Catalog To Be Reissued for the First Time in North America

Great news for Afrobeat fans – to coincide with the new musical FELA! opening on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on November 23, Knitting Factory Records will not only be reissuing the entire Fela catalog on cd in digipacks with reduced images of the original artwork, they’ll also be reissuing the albums on vinyl as well over the next eighteen months. What’s more, they’ll also be reissuing the entire extant catalog of Koola Lobitos, Fela’s 1960s high-life band.

The first of the releases is the greatest-hits compilation The Best of the Black President, originally compiled in 1999 (you can hear the whole thing on last.fm). While it makes a fine introduction to the iconic Nigerian freedom fighter/bandleader, it’s necessarily flawed by the constraints of trying to cram as much essential Fela as possible into one package. It simply isn’t possible. Fela Kuti’s genius was to package revolution as sexually charged thirty-minute dance vamps – for Fela, a short song clocked in at about eight or nine minutes, so the concept of editing these frequently album-long jams down to something approximating their essence is simply a lost cause. While The Best of the Black President does contain full-length versions of the iconic Zombie and Sorrow Tears and Blood, the edited or truncated segments from most of the other revolutionary anthems here – including his signature song Coffin for Head of State – work as dance grooves and little more. To resonate at full power, these numbers need to be heard – and under ideal circumstances – danced to in their entirety. Which makes the pending reissue of the full Fela catalog something to salivate over: fans will be able to pick and choose from the original releases.

It may also come as a shock to discover that the Fela musical actually seems as if it might be worth seeing: a listen to some of the original cast recordings reveals that the musicians (that’s right, a real Afrobeat band, not just a synthesizer and a cd with live vocals) and the actors seem up to the challenge: they’ve actually taken their subject seriously. This isn’t the same guys who played in the pit (or on the soundtrack) for the Abba musical shifting gears and trying their hand at psychedelic Nigerian funk. It looks like they’re trying to be the real deal.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment