In 2002, the AIDS awareness non-profit Red Hot put out an album in tribute to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died of AIDS in 1997, despite his reputed belief that the disease was ‘an invention of the white man.’ The tribute album Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti featured a wide range of artists, including DJs (Mixmaster Mike), rappers (Dead Prez, Common, Talib Kweli, Gift of Gab, etc.), neo-soul singers (D’Angelo, Macy Gray, Sade, Meshell Ndegeocello, etc.), acclaimed jazz musicians (Roy Hargrove, Archie Shepp), NYC afrobeat bands (at the time there were not many more than these two: Antibalas and Yerba Buena) and African musical luminaries (Tony Allen, Femi Kuti, Manu Dibango, Cheikh Lô, Djelimady Tounkara, Baaba Maal, Kaouding Cissoko, Ray Lema, etc.) to rework Fela’s classics.
Red Hot just released a new album with the same concept, simply entitled Red Hot +Fela. A lot has happened for the Fela legacy in the last decade, including the re-issue of most of Fela’s catalog by Knitting Factory Records, the immense popularity of Fela! On Broadway, the proliferation of afrobeat bands in Brooklyn and throughout the world (examples: Japan and Brazil) and the growth of Felabrations to celebrate Fela’s birthday each October. As evidenced by the musical celebrity commentary around Fela’s 75th birthday this month, a wider range of American and international musicians are inspired by the Nigerian master than ever before. One wonders, what would Fela think of all the hoopla? Of these tribute albums?
In some ways, afrobeat is a tribute genre: it is impossible to play afrobeat without being in relationship to the work of the unquestionable originator, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Any contemporary afrobeat band worth listening to has spent a lot of time playing Fela’s music, internalizing the rhythmic and aesthetic details that differentiate afrobeat from other West African and American dance music styles. Despite this necessary emulation, afrobeat is not a traditional music in any sense; it was and remains popular music, recorded and performed for mass consumption, and fully (if complexly) enmeshed in a commodified system of distribution. The style arose from Fela’s musical experiences and vision, with influences from local percussion traditions, West-African highlife, African-American funk, soul and jazz, and radical politics. Innovation, improvisation and creativity are central to Fela’s afrobeat, and likewise, most afrobeat bands strive to define their own take on the style.
Which brings us back to the Red Hot tribute albums, and a subjective question/observation: Why do some approaches to covering Fela’s material really work as a tribute, while others seem to miss the point?
Despite the all-star cast on 2002’s The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti, only a few of the tracks really manage to do Fela’s music justice. Most seem overcrowded and meandering, without the kind of built-in form that makes Fela’s compositions great. Red Hot + Fela, on the other hand, features fewer international luminaries (notable exceptions: Angelique Kidjo, though only in a small cameo, Tony Allen, and the Kronos Quartet) and more indie-rockers, fringe rappers and experimental producers. But some of these tracks really work. Why? Because they engage with the arrangement of Fela’s music, while innovating within the form and outline of afrobeat as a genre.
Let’s get into some examples:
“Buy Africa,” a classic early Africa 70 song, is reworked by Congolese/Belgian rapper Baloji & L’Orchestre De La Katuba and the Washington D.C.-based Nigerian soul singer Kuku, in such a way that the integrity of the groove and Fela’s bluesy arrangement is honored, while elements of Congolese guitar styles and Yoruba dundun drumming are incorporated in innovative, respectful ways. Baloji also spits with M1 from Dead Prez over Tony Allen’s heavy drumming on Allen’s original composition, “Afrodisco Beat,” which has been re-worked as an afro-centric rap vehicle.
Another success is “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am,” from alt-rock giants My Morning Jacket, featuring Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. This is one of Fela’s few slow, sad, tender songs, and, although this song was also covered beautifully by Antibalas, Baaba Maal and more on the first Red Hot tribute, this version really captures the dreamy, resigned, almost-nostalgic feeling of Fela’s original. With horn melodies and spacey keyboard and guitar solos proceeding the ethereal vocals in classic afrobeat form, this version is actually longer than Fela’s studio recording; clocking in at 14 minutes, it is the longest cut on this album.
The version of “Lady,” Fela’s complex afro-centric/misogynistic hit, features Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, who often incorporates afrobeat rhythms and various African inspired polyphonic singing styles into her music. ?uestlove lays down a clean, studious take on Allen’s classic afrobeat drumming, while Beninois legend Angelique Kidjo and American rappeuse Akua Naru add aggressive verses to the track.
One of the most radically new interpretations on this album is “Sorrow Tears + Blood,” on which the acclaimed Kronos Quartet adapt the interlocking rhythm-section and horn parts of this Fela masterpiece into a classical string-quartet format, with a single shekere providing downbeats in certain sections. Fela’s lead horn lines are delivered by whistling in the intro and outro, echoed by violin. Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe from the indie-rock band TV on The Radio interpret the vocals with conviction. Using a completely different sonic palate and method, this pared-down, acoustic version effectively captures the tension of Fela’s original composition about police and army brutality against civilians.
Unfortunately, not every track on this album is as successful as these examples: Artists that do not engage with the arrangement or message of Fela’s compositions often seem too absorbed with their own style or aesthetic to really pay tribute to Agbami (‘The Weird One,’ as Fela was known). Techno, house and other electro approaches to Fela’s music seem to miss one of the major foundational points of afrobeat: the beat. It seems like a shame to use a simple heartbeat bass-drum and backbeat snare when engaging with music that has a very developed approach to syncopated groove. Examples of this squaring-the-round approach include the South African rapper/producer Spoek Mathambo’s take on “Yellow Fever,” and “Zombie,” which is unfortunate because his original work is remarkable. Also in this category is “No Buredi,” from Stuart Bogie’s band Superhuman Happiness, featuring the German/Nigerian songstress Nneka, BK/Sudanese indie-rockers Sinkane, and Amayo from Antibalas. Something joyful seems to get squashed out of these versions; although these artists approach the material with a great deal of creativity, they seem to miss the feeling of Fela’s music.
There are a few tracks on this album that barely seem to be informed by Fela’s music at all. The Austin, TX band Gender Infinity contributed a beautiful, melodic indie-pop song called “Highlife Time,” that, besides the title, has nothing to do with the marginal Fela imitation of Ghanaian highlife from the early Koola Lobitos days “Highlife Time.” Closing out the album is LA based, Prince-favorites KING, a vocal trio that sings Fela’s “Go Slow”, in pidgin English, in the style of an early 90’s soul song.
However, “ITT (International Thief Thief),” also from Superhuman Happiness, is a totally different story. This rocking version features another former-afrobeat-now-indie-dance-band Rubblebucket, and vocals that approach Fela’s own dynamic delivery from Sahr Ngaujah and Abena Koomson, stars of the original Fela! On Broadway. The music retains the essential elements of Fela’s masterful composition, using the horns to their full advantage while employing an experimental sound-palate of explosive rock guitars, backbeat drums and sudden cuts and drop-outs reminiscent of electronic music. This is the kind of creative, respectful and musically informed approach that is really in service of Fela’s music.
Who are we to judge? Nobody. We really want to raise questions rather than provide answers. On the whole, this is a very enjoyable album to listen to, and it continues to bring more attention and new listeners to Fela’s enormous body of work. Fela (or at least his music) lives!