Album Shuffle 005: Fela Ransome Kuti & The Afrika 70, GENTLEMAN

EMI · 1973

I'm afraid there's going to be a lot of "OH OF COURSE NOW I FINALLY GET IT" in the course of this blog; especially since I'm limiting my music talk to stuff I haven't heard/paid attention to previously, I'm mostly going to be featuring stuff I haven't previously gotten, and my self-image as a perceptive, sensitive, and thoughtful music-absorber requires me to at least go through the motions of understanding what I hear.

Which would frankly be a better introductory paragraph to saying thumbs down Fela Kuti you suck, but I'm neither that iconoclastic nor that stupid. Oh of course now I finally get it. Partially, at least.

I'd been avoiding Fela Kuti's music for a while, telling myself that it was on the principle of ignoring the elephant in the room while I rooted around for the lesser-known treasures. (Similarly, I've heard less Bob Marley than U-Roy, Lee Perry, or Burning Spear.) But really it was because when I first tried to get into him I couldn't focus; the music just slid past my brain, funky and sweet and hard-charging but going on for too long for me to take it in; after about four minutes my attention would wander and it could have been anything playing. What was the good of that? So I left Fela alone, resenting him slightly for not being more pop.

But today, it was precisely the length and structure that grabbed me. For reasons which I won't bother to go into here, I've spent a lot of time listening to very long songs; in fact for a while I was listening to nothing but songs which took up an entire side of a vinyl record. So I've become used to a certain ebb-and-flow in my long, "unstructured" jams. Start slow, build, crescendo, break, return, build, crescendo, fade. You know how it works as well as I.

But Fela jarred me out of my assumptions by kicking off "Gentleman" with a handful of bars of wicked funk, then cutting the band out entirely while he improvises, hard, for nearly four minutes all alone on the sax. Then, just after I'd given up hope and was settling in for a session of Anthony Braxton without the skronk, Tony Allen drops a beat; and the full-band funk that blows in behind him is all the sweeter and sweatier for having held off for so long. It's still eight minutes before a vocal line comes in (apart from the shouts Fela gave himself as encouragement during the solo), and the lyric — I no be gentleman at all, I be Africa man original — plays havoc with colonial assumptions and the aesthetics of civilization.

(Which you could say the same thing about James Brown and George Clinton but you'd sound like a dick, so why insist on interpreting Fela Kuti through the cultural-studies fog? Knee-jerk response to "non-Western" culture? (Non-Western in quotes obviously because of Fela's deep indebtedness to Westerners like James Brown, Pharoah Sanders, etc.) (But this week of stupid Vampire Weekend arguments has left me gun-shy about deploying the discourse of race and privilege.))

The two songs which make up the second side, "Fefe Na Efe" and "Igbe," are more classically structured as jams; the former, in its deconstruction of an Ashanti proverb about women holding their breasts when they run, is groovier and closer to the American funk I know; the latter rocks harder and left me feeling exhausted but in a good way, exhilarated.

I have, like any good music nerd, a lot more Fela Kuti, and I'm feeling much less intimidated about diving into it now. I'm looking forward to placing this in the context of a career. It sounds like a major highlight, but is it? Stay tuned.

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