FELA and AFRIKA 70 / “Colonial Mentality”
Eight minutes into Fela’s “Water No Get Enemy” (available on the MCA reissue Expensive Shit/He Miss Road), the Nigerian high priest of Afro Beat and his umpteen band members (it never actually was 70, was it?) reach such a frenzied level of deeply syncopated funk and soul that the voices, keys, bells, horns, skins, sticks, shakers, palms of hands, soles of feet and various other sound-making devices that they employ blend into an almost hallucinatory wall of beautiful noise. We’re not talking about music. No, this is something else. This is some whole ‘next level’ shit. We’re talking about a state of suspended sound-reality that only the greatest of the great funk musicians—meaning J.B. and P-Funk and no one else—could ever even hope to achieve. And that’s on a good night. As for Fela, he did it all the time.
Witness the blissful sloppiness (most assuredly intentional) of “Colonial Mentality” (available on the MCA reissue Opposite People/Sorrow, Tears And Blood), a tune Fela and his band cut two years after “Water.” Fela and his mighty music-makers ramble along for no less than seven minutes before getting around to the actual song. But what a ramble. The drums funk along in one direction, the guitar in another. We’re listening to (at least) two different grooves at once. (By American standards, at least. African musicians do this sort of thing on a regular basis, and I don’t think they’d think of the cross-rhythms as being either separate or different.) To my ears, the drums and the guitar are wholly independent, yet somehow harmonious. Listen closely to the guitar line—the drums fade. Listen to just the drums—the guitar fades. But try this: just lay back and let the drum-and-guitar groove(s) catch you. Actually, it’s not so much something you have to ‘try’ to do as much as it’s something you have to ‘not try’ to do. Listen too closely and you ruin the effect. It’s like floating—it only works when you stop trying to make it work. Meanwhile, the bass player and the organist have separate and interesting ideas of their own. There is a horn section blowing with the sort of willful all-over-the-placeness that would’ve gotten them cursed out, fined or fired from any band James Brown ever led. All the while, Fela is wreaking havoc on the tenor sax, coaxing out of that shiny metal tube some of the prettiest screeching, wailing, honking, squeaking, roaring and whispering you’ve ever heard. What a record. (And they haven’t even started singing yet!)
Although Fela was sometimes called ‘The African James Brown,’ his funk is nothing like James’ funk. James best music is dead-hard on the one, the band tighter than gnat-ass. Sometimes, listening to J.B., it’s hard to believe those are actual, separate musicians you’re hearing. They are so well-honed, so completely zoned in to the tune, to the groove, to each other and most of all, to J.B., that they sound like a single multi-headed, multi-handed machine-man. They’re just that precise, that exact, that perfect. Fela’s funk is never perfect. Then again, neither is P-Funk’s. But Fela’s funk is nothing like P-Funk’s either. From the freaked-out acid blues of early Funkadelic to the slightly disco-fied but still-stanky groove of late Funkadelic and from the bizarre country/folk/soul/pop mélange of early Parliament to the AOR/sci-fi/jazz-fusion mash-up of late Parliament, nothing P-Funk ever did incites pure aural bliss as do Fela’s stompers like “Lady,” “Gentleman” and “Africa-Centre Of The World.”
Much has been written about Fela’s politics, arrests, wives, dialectics, drug use, political defiance, death from AIDS, etc., etc., and all of it is fascinating. But what I find most fascinating about Fela is his talent as a musician. His compositional skills. His ability as a bandleader. His commanding vocals. His wit and humor—both musically and lyrically. His powerful tenor solos. His fertile imagination. Get to this: many of Fela’s better songs contain enough separately identifiable musical ideas that they could be reworked and split into three or more separate tunes. And yet, Fela wrote, recorded and performed scores of these sprawling epics. Take away all the rest—all of the extra-musical stuff that makes reading Fela’s biography such a ‘He did what?!’ experience—and you’re still left with one of the most brilliant and prolific musicians of the 20th century.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Didn't take no shit
Fela’s sound was the sound of his life, the fierceness of his living, taking the Nigerian government head-on: the same government that threw his mother out a window and killed her, the same government that burned his compound down to the ground, the same government whose soldiers raped his wives, the same government that jailed him over and over (over 200 arrests), that same government! Fela went straight at them. Man must be mad. Government go crazy, he go crazy back.
A song like “Coffin for Head Of State,” written to commemorate a singular event. Upon his mother’s death, Fela paraded the funeral to the government state house and deposited his mother’s coffin on the state grounds.
A song like “Zombie,” written to judge the soldiers who destroyed his compound, raped his women, beat him into jail, beat him in jail, and threatened to kill him once Fela was let out of jail. Fela called them “zombies.”
Mtume, the depth of Fela’s music comes from an unprecedented fierceness. To put it into perspective: when Marley got shot in Jamaica, he went into exile. But Fela returned to make the Nigerian government face his music time and time again. This was literally music that could get you killed!
Imagine what you had to do to keep a band together after they kill the leader’s mother, put the leader in jail, rape all the women in the compound, and burn everything down. (I know I’m repeating myself, but, folk, you got to understand, we’re dealing with a higher power here.) Undoubtedly, the most committed musician of the twentieth century. Period. No one else even comes close.
There is a documentary that is must viewing if you are at all interested in Fela: Fela Kuti – Music Is the Weapon. Given the complexity of Fela’s character, it is no surprise that the documentary is in both English and French, with each version including footage that is not in the other. Get to it, get to it if you really want to understand the power of Fela’s music.
One other thing I know for sure, the man was a shaman, a priest, had a connection to the spirit world, went there often and more oftener than any other musician in terms of transporting a whole village of people.
I had the privilege of seeing him a number of times. Once in Atlanta, he was preaching between songs and someone from the Nigerian community complained in Yoruba. Fela challenged the challenger. It got heated up in there. Finally Fela called his challengers cowards and sell-outs who ran to America and were too scared to go back to Nigeria and fight the government, and now all they wanted to do was make money, sing, dance, shake their asses and forget about the struggle. Well, Fela, he spit on them, called them all kinds of names, and preached even harder, and then when the band started up, they played even harder than hard. Man, you no get Grammy for this kind of shit!
That’s where “Colonial Mentality” comes from. It’s not just a song, it’s a condemnation of a condition. I believe that the songs had to be long and hypnotic 'cause Fela was bucking up his folk to confront colonialism and neo-colonialism, confront guns and death. If you knew you were going to get beat for playing such music, would you play it, would you listen to it, dance to it? Well, would you?
Fela’s music was trance music specifically designed to give us literal and spiritual backbone, as well as to teach us subversive ideas.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, July 9th, 2006 at 12:30 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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