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Fela Kuti
The Best Of The Black President 2 Richie Troughton , March 6th, 2013 08:39

With almost 50 (fifty!) of Fela Kuti's albums set to be reissued in three batches throughout this year, a new generation is being given the chance to discover the Nigerian Afrobeat innovator's music. Fifteen years on from his death, interest in the star has been revived lately, thanks in part to the musical telling the story of his life, Fela!. The latest touring edition of the show is set to star Destiny's Child member Michelle Williams as Fela's African-American lover, Sandra Isadore. Jay Z, beau of another DC member, Beyonce, is one of the musical's producers. The show, which features a full live band, had a run at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre in 2011 and is set to tour the States this year. The Best Of The Black President 2 provides a hit-laden taster.

For those unable to keep up with such a rapid-fire reissue schedule, this compilation features twelve choice cuts over two discs, and clocks in just short of 160 minutes (the maximum possible runtime for the format, impressively). The deluxe edition set also features a DVD of Kuti's 1984 appearance at Glastonbury, during which a huge group of musicians and scantily clad dancers of the Egypt 80 group fill the floor of the Pyramid Stage for a colourful, energetic and spellbinding performance. "I see many wrongs in Nigeria," sings Kuti on show opener 'Confusion BB (Break Bone)'. The face-painted frontman conducts his musicians as he incites the whole crowd of fascinated onlookers into singing along and dancing as they enjoy the spectacle in its own right, despite the heavy political subject matter.

As leader of Africa 70 and numerous other big band ensembles, Kuti's Afrobeat music provided a platform for many talented musicians - drummer Tony Allen among the best known of them - while he also collaborated with the likes of Ginger Baker (on the soon to be re-released Fela With Ginger Baker Live!). The roots of this new music were envisaged while studying at Trinity College of Music, after Kuti originally arrived in London in 1958 to study medicine. He put the final pieces of the puzzle together in Ghana in the late '60s, and he coined the term Afrobeat for the music he would become synonymous with worldwide. Here, opener 'Everything Scatter', from 1975, launches straight into the powerful, lively, repetitive rhythms that were trademark of Kuti's sound, a pioneering fusion of R&B, soul, funk, highlife, Caribbean rhythms and jazz. Second track 'Expensive Shit', takes six head-spinning minutes to build up before Kuti comes in with his trademark pidgin English lyrics, leading a call-and-response chorus on police attempts to bust him for possession of weed.

Under the military regime in Nigeria throughout the 1970s and '80s, Kuti and his supporters were regularly targeted, harassed, beaten and brutalised. Kuti revealed his plight through his music and was loved by many who saw the truth behind his unfair treatment. After he died on 2nd August 1997, more than one million people mourned as they turned out for his funeral in Lagos to pay their respects.

Kuti stood up for marginalised people everywhere, with brutal regimes across Africa and beyond providing inspiration for his songs, as well as issues closer to home in his native Nigeria. On 'Yellow Fever' he speaks out against the practice of skin-bleaching in Nigerian women, while 'Sorrow, Tears & Blood', which ends the first disc, was inspired by the South African regime's quashing of the Soweto uprising in 1976. The version included here is an extended, 16-minute cut, with cool keys and shakers dominating the music as tight guitar licks wind up and down, before the brass section soars upward as Kuti sings, "We no want die / We no want wound".

The second track from Kuti's 27th full-length Zombie, released in 1977, 'Mr Follow Follow' attacks the "zombies" of the Nigerian military who disengaged from compassion and empathy to be able to get on with the job in hand. "My brothers, make you no follow book-o / Look am use your sense". Following the album's release, the military retaliated by laying siege to Kuti's Kalakuta Republic, a commune he had enshrined himself within to stand apart from the way the country was being run at the time. Kuti's mother was killed in the fallout.

After these events, with the community destroyed, Kuti moved to the Crossroads Hotel and the following year married 27 women, many of whom were in his groups as dancers and singers (he would later adopt a system of 12 simultaneous wives). While Kuti lived a party lifestyle, his constant abuse at the hands of authorities who saw him as a threat led to more than 200 arrests. On the Hammond-led 'He Miss Road', Kuti begs travelers not to come to him with their trouble, as he was attracting much of his own. He also sings about the assassination of his friend Thomas Sankara, the Burkina Faso revolutionary leader, on 'Underground System (Part 2)'. "African leaders them start to fear the underground system in their lives, corruption and disruption… mismanagement," he cries, as the music builds to a frenzy.

"Despite everything they threw at him, Fela's music and his message never lost their way," writes Senegalese-American R&B/hip-hop artist Akon in his liner notes. "He was always real and he was always with the people. That's why we love him and miss him all the more."

The first volume of Black President was released in 2000, to coincide with the last major reissue campaign of Kuti's music, and featured the seminal likes of 'Zombie', 'Lady' and 'Rofrofo Fight'. This second set is no less essential or timeless, and his songs have lost none of their potency in the intervening years since they were first recorded. The Fela! musical has been such a success that a definitive documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gidney is in the works, along with a feature film of Kuti's life. Back home in Nigeria, the Kalakuta site has recently been turned into a museum in recognition of Kuti's international significance. His songs, too, have once again become anthems. Protesters of the Occupy Nigeria movement, during recent national protests against the government doubling the price of petrol, discovered that the message of these 30-year old songs still rings true today.

With so much more of his music set to emerge over the coming months, The Best Of The Black President 2 serves as a crucial glimpse for beginners into the African icon's work. The live DVD, meanwhile, provides an unforgettable chance to see the "beautiful son of Africa" in action, spreading his message of "hope and peace among all peoples."

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