Fela Anikulapo Kuti would have been 76 today. The Nigerian master-musician died of AIDS in 1997, but his legacy is on the rise. Both of his sons, Femi and Seun Kuti, enjoy international fame, and thanks to the Afrobeat revival led by bands such as Antibalas (not to mention the Fela! on Broadway show) many people have became aware of the legend for the first time. Of course, for anyone who’s dipped a toe into the ultra-voluminous Kuti catalog knows, the sheer amount of music that Fela recorded during his career is mind-boggling. So, to pay tribute to Fela, we’ve decided to point your attention to five lesser-known Fela tunes that may have slipped through your musical net! This a non-chronological selection, jumping between the legendary Africa 70 with Tony Allen behind the drums, and the less dynamic but more orchestral Egypt 80 of the later years.
1) “Ikoyi Mentality vs. Mushin Mentality” is a straightforward social critique of different class ideals in Lagos society. Released in 1971, this lesser-known track features the Africa 70 at its best! Check out the great dialogue between Fela’s organ and the horn melodies.
2) Fela recorded two songs with very similar themes and lyrics, “Confusion” the B side from 1975’s hit “Gentleman,” with the great Tony Allen and Africa 70. Be patient through the lengthy ambient organ and drum intro/outro, and you will be hit with very heavy grooves and catchy melodies!
3) “C.B.B. (Confusion Break Bones),” the B side of “O.D.O.O.,” is from 1989, with Egypt 80. Both songs are about the notorious dangers of traffic in Lagos, taking traffic as a microcosmic metaphor for the confusion and disorder in Nigerian society in general. The slow, loping 6/8 rhythm is a rarity in Fela’s catalogue, shared only with a few other songs (“Monday Morning in Lagos,” and “Observation Is No Crime.”), and the percussion solo draws on traditional music more than most Fela compositions.
4) “Original Sufferhead,” released in 1982 with “I.T.T.,” is arguably one of Fela’s masterworks, tying together musical and political themes from across his career. Egypt 80 has a very live feel here, clearly directed by Fela’s shouted commands and rolling organ. He breaks down the four basic needs of humanity as “water, light, food, house,” and discusses how the Nigerian state fails to deliver these basic needs.
5) “Coffin For Head of State,” released in 1980 with “Unknown Soldier,” has such a gorgeous bass line. The song is one of Fela’s very poignant, very angry responses to the attack on the Kalakuta Republic that resulted in the death of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. The band here is still Africa 70, though the toned down, simplistic style of the rhythm section predates the Egypt 80 sound.