Thursday, January 27, 2011

January 27: Fela Kuti, "Gentleman"

Artist: Fela Kuti
Song: "Gentleman"
Album: Gentleman
Year: 1973

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Though in most cases, it requires a handful of artists or bands to properly give a complete definition of a given genre, there are one or two styles of music that both begin and end with a single group or individual.  While many other artists may have attempted to duplicate the mood and style being played, in these few elite instances, the core artist in question is so far beyond their peers that the comparison simply holds no water.  Though it is perhaps the most rare occurrence in all musical trends, one can easily understand the concept and how accurate it is when one considers the only artist able to be truly called a player of "afro-beat" music, the late great Fela Kuti.  The way in which his music seems to soar in directions previous unheard, as well as the undertones to all of his compositions, Fela is beyond an icon, and his activism and personality outside of the musical arena only adds to his legendary status.  Releasing a massive amount of music over nearly two decades, his playing influenced countless genres around the world, and the complexity of his arrangements is often so far beyond that of anything else from the era that it simply defies description.  Though it is almost impossible to find a "bad" song anywhere in his catalog, there is simply no other track in Fela Kuti's career that defines his sound, as well as the "afro-beat" style in general than one finds in his 1973 masterpiece, "Gentleman."

While the opening section of "Gentleman" may seem like little more than a funky, uniquely beautiful saxophone progression, the truth of the matter is, this is in fact Fela playing, and he had only picked up the instrument a few months earlier.  When the bands' previous sax player, Igo Chico, left the group, Fela decided that instead of finding a replacement, he would learn the instrument himself, and his performance throughout "Gentleman" is all the more breathtaking with this knowledge.  When his sound blends together with trumpet player Tunde Williams, there is something amazingly powerful about the combination that cannot be found anywhere else in music history.  The deep groove is made even more clear through the simple guitar playing, and it is also this element that gives the song an amazing amount of movement.  However, still standing today as one of the greatest musical pairings in history, there is simply no overlooking the fact that the most important element to all of Fela Kuti's music was the presence of drumming legend, Tony Allen.  Switching tempos and bringing some of the most uniquely complex fills ever recorded, there is no question that while Fela may have been the spirit of the band, Allen was its soul.  Throughout "Gentleman," the instruments blend together in a manner previously unheard, and this upbeat, almost jazzy sound is the very definition of "afro-beat," and it never sounded as majestic as it does on this song.

Along with being one of the greatest composers of his generation, Fela Kuti also made his name as one of its most magnetic vocalists.  Much of his music was inspired by the struggles he saw around him, and this, combine with his activism, led to some of the most controversial, unapologetic lyrics ever recorded.  Within all of his vocals, there is an energy and allure similar to that of a preacher, and this is exactly what Fela was trying to do; to pull the listener into the song and inspire change within.  Yet even with this element, there is a soft touch to his vocal work, and even almost four decades later, his work on "Gentleman" remains just as moving.  It is within his vocal work that one can fully understand his mission to make his music accessible to all, as the lyrics beg for "call and response," and are written in simple terms that anyone could understand.  Sending a strong message to take pride in themselves, as well as a shot at the post-colonial English powers, when Fela sings, "...I am not a gentleman like that, I be Africa man original...," one can feel the pride in self he is attempting to instill in others.  Fela furthers this idea of self-identity when he rattles off a list of clothing that he sees others wearing that are clearly part of this English influence, and not the "true" dress that should be worn.  These seemingly subtle, yet powerful statements of self-pride help to give the song a rebellious, yet oddly upbeat feel, and the words, and the commanding way in which Fela delivers them, is what makes "Gentleman" such an extraordinary moment in music history.

It is truly impossible to fully capture just how unique and important Fela Kuti was to the overall development of music across the globe, as there has simply never been another artist that was capable of creating music with the same skill and spirit that one finds in his songs.  Due to this fact, one can argue that Fela stands as both the beginning and end of the "afro-beat" style, and those who claim this title in their music, while perhaps close, should be referred to by some different title.  Regardless, there are few personalities in music history that come close to that of Fela Kuti, and on "Gentleman," one can quickly understand why he retains such a revered status.  The way in which he blended together the bright brass sounds with the deep groove and found a way to fuse this together with a "native" sound is simply stunning, and the resulting product remains a true moment of musical genius.  Not only can this be heard in the various instruments, but the catchy hook that the band creates is second to none, and even those unfamiliar with such sounds cannot help but be drawn in by the infectious groove and progression deployed throughout "Gentleman."  Taking all of this and placing on top of it the almost scathing, scolding lyrics from Fela, there are simply not enough words one can say about this monumental achievement, and there is perhaps no other song in history that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated than one finds in Fela Kuti's 1973 masterpiece, "Gentleman."

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