Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 31: Fela Kuti, "Gentleman"

Artist: Fela Kuti
Album: Gentleman
Year: 1973
Label: Creole

To those who love music, the name Fela Kuti holds an extremely high, if not mythical place in the history of music. Generally thought as the man who brought African music to the world, as well as founding the genre of "Afrobeat," Fela released more than thirty albums in just over fifteen years. Though there is not one "bad" album Fela ever released, his 1973 release, Gentleman, contains perhaps is most significant work, and can be seen as the record that launched him to international recognition.

Writing about Gentleman is essentially all about one song. The title track fills one entire side of the vinyl, clocking in at nearly fifteen minutes. While this is, by no means, a song which should be significant for its length alone, the content found within that time span is unparalleled. "Gentleman" is Afrobeat perfection, from instrumentation to lyrical content. The b-side of Gentleman contains a pair of brilliant jazz-fusion numbers, but they are largely overshadowed by the a-side of the record. "Gentleman" is one of the most infectious grooves ever recorded. The song embodies everything it means to play "Afrobeat" and Africa 70 prove that they were (and are) one of the finest bands ever assembled. Pulling influences from jazz, funk, blues, and even a bit of psychedelia, Africa 70 have been cited as influences to everyone from Talking Heads to Jay-Z.

Hailing from Nigeria, Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti had already made a name for himself, earning the titles of "Father Africa" and "Black President." As a bandleader, organ player, prophet, vocalist, Fela was undeniably talented. However, Gentleman marks Fela's debut on tenor saxophone. When former sax player, Igo Chico left Africa 70, Fela swore that he himself would fill the void. Learning the sax in just a few short months, Fela sounds as if he'd been playing for years. To make this point even stronger, "Gentleman" opens with a wandering sax solo, that is eventually picked up on by drummer Tony Allen, and catapulted into the groove. A tight and talented mixture of African drums, horns, bass, and the peerless drumming of Allen prove that Africa 70 were as amazing as any other band in history.

The lyrics of "Gentleman" are simple lyrics, and this further personifies everything that Fela sought to accomplish with his music. The lyrics were perfect for group "call and response" and were words that every African could fully understand. Rising up strong against the post-colonial powers that were still set in British ways, Fela proudly asserts, "I am not a gentleman like that/I be Africa man original." Pushing the point further, Fela rattles off a list of the "odd" clothing that he sees his countrymen wearing; clothes which are clearly unsuitable for the African heat. His message is just as strong and pointed as that of Malcolm X and other civil rights leaders when they spoke out against things like conking their hair and styles of dress. "Gentleman" is a song of rebellion and pride that is unrivaled even by songs of similar stature from Bob Marley or Bob Dylan.

A few times in each generation, an artist comes along and turns the music world on its head. Bringing new ideas and spinning old forms into something fresh, these artists are the element that extend the progression of music. In 1973, Fela Kuti and his band, Africa 70, forever changed what it meant to "groove." Combining aesthetics of blues, jazz, and rock, along with the traditional African sounds, Fela and his brilliant band birthed the genre that we now refer to as "Afrobeat." Releasing more than thirty amazing records in less than twenty years, the Fela Kuti catalog is nothing short of astounding in both size as well as substance. Fela Kuti truly never recorded a "bad" record, but he truly outdid himself with his unsurpassed 1973 release, Gentleman.

Standout tracks: "Gentleman," "Fefe Naa Efe," and "Igbe." (Yes, that is the entire record)

No comments: