56. FELA KUTI – ZOMBIE (1977)

Afrobeat, Funk

Whether portrayed as a fearless champion of the oppressed or as an unrepentant misogynistic control freak, Africa’s most maverick musician, Fela Kuti was, at 5’7″, perhaps a few inches too tall to be ascribed a Napoleonic complex, but possessed an ego of comparable stature to ‘Le Petit Caporal’. A true cultural revolutionary, the people’s ‘Black President’ spoke out against corruption in his native Nigeria, berated the system of apartheid in South Africa, enthusiastically espoused the use of marijuana (his classic ‘Expensive Shit’ album documents one of his frequent drug busts) and consulted his trusted spiritual guide (or ‘magician’) Professor Hindu, before making important decisions about his career. His turbulent life story, and in particular, the explosive chapter surrounding the release of his 1977 album ‘Zombie’, is unlike any other in the history of popular music. It is one which may sound fallacious, fantastical even, and which renders other celebrated tales of rock’n’roll rebellion and self-destruction virtually anaemic.

Kuti enrolled at Trinity College of Music in London in 1958, having initially come to England to study medicine. He was then musically active in Ghana from the mid-1960s onwards, but smitten with Black Panther politics, returned from a visit to LA in 1970, renamed his band Africa ’70 and built his own self-contained commune in a compound in Lagos, Nigeria, his native homeland. In Fela’s eyes it was an independent sovereign entity, which he christened the Kalakuta Republic (after the Black Hole Kolkata dungeon). The commune contained it’s own free health care clinic and vitally, his own home made recording studio. It was from there he launched a series of sonic attacks upon the iniquitous Nigerian regime, of which the most scathing was undoubtedly ‘Zombie’. In it, he mercilessly ridiculed the way the army’s soldiers blindly followed the orders of their superiors, upholding a crooked military junta, one over-dependent on massive oil revenues, which somehow never managed to filter their way through to ordinary Nigerians. [‘Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go/Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop/Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn/Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think’] Typically written in trademark pidgin English (he was fluent himself), Kuti was determined to ensure ordinary people could more easily grasp the political message of his records. On this occasion, he would face the severest of consequences. He had been on the hit list for some time, had been imprisoned, beaten and tortured before, but for the authorities, fearful of his growing popularity and influence, this was a step too far. Following the album’s release, over one thousand soldiers were sent to destroy Kalakuta, virtually razing it to the ground, and in the process, Kuti’s mother was thrown from a first floor window. She was to die later from injuries sustained during the military operation. With characteristic defiance, Kuti delivered her coffin to the door of the army barracks following her funeral. It was an action at once bizarre, yet somehow, given his capacity for brazenly outlandish gestures, not untypical of him. Indeed, Peter Culshaw has noted Fela’s ‘unerring ability to piss on his own parade’. For example, in the 1970s, he turned down the opportunity to record with Paul McCartney, fearing the ex-Beatle intended to ‘steal’ his music. In the early 1980s Motown courted him, offering a million dollar advance to a lucrative record contract, but after consulting with Professor Hindu, he turned them down. His reputation suffered too with his high profile polygamous wedding of 1978, when he wed twenty seven brides in a private ceremony. It alienated more Westernised sensibilities and won him few friends in his homeland far less internationally, but he always defended his decision with dogged conviction, and he had nothing but disdain for Western mores in any case.

By then he had invented an entirely new musical genre, Afrobeat, a dynamic fusion of jazz, funk and indigenous African music. His output was prolific. In 1977 alone he released eight LPs. If these generally amounted to two extended grooves, lasting around 25 minutes in total, then nevertheless that is still over three hours of recorded music, or two double albums worth in a year, and that’s an impressive return even by Sun Ra’s standards. Kuti released around 60 albums in total. On ‘Zombie’, the combination of acerbic political protest with an irresistibly contagious funk groove is scintillating. The James Brown influence is unmistakable; Fela gave JB and his band a royal welcome when they visited Nigeria in 1970, but later claimed that it was Brown who stole his music. In truth, the influence worked both ways. Here a series of directives from Fela (‘Attention! Quick March! Slow march! Left turn!…’) is each punctuated with the backing singers repeatedly atonal response: ‘Zombie!‘ The twin sax from Fela and Lekan Anomashaun unleashes a brass line which installs it’s ebullient patterns into one’s consciousness even as the nervy guitar itches it’s restless relentless rhythm. The flip ‘Mister Follow Follow’, while thematically the mirror of the title track [‘Some dey follow follow, dem close dem eye/Some dey follow follow, dem close dem mouth/Some dey follow follow, dem close dem ear…’] musically at least finds Fela & company in more reflective mood. The breezy sax playing and restrained tempo are still funky but the heightened state of agitation is missing. Nevertheless, it remains a splendid earful.

Despite the tragic aftermath of ‘Zombie’, Fela was at the height of his popularity. His next aim was to run for Nigerian President but his candidature was rejected, despite the collapse of the first military junta in 1979. His presidential ambitions resulted in the formation of a political party, named Movement of The People, a conscious nod to the influence of Bob Marley. Their political outlooks were somewhat synonymous, a vague Pan-African Socialism, and in many ways Fela is to African music as Bob Marley is to Jamaican music. Their lives paralleled one another in many ways, their influence incalculable, their deaths tragically premature. When time called for Fela, he remained true to the additional name he had taken, Anikulapo (‘one who carries death in his pocket’), refusing medical intervention as if he were holding the crucial card in a game of poker. The game was up, but his musical legacy is safe and secure, And ‘Zombie’ is the surest place to begin exploring. (JJ)

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38. THE IMPRESSIONS – THIS IS MY COUNTRY (1968) / (A) CURTIS MAYFIELD – CURTIS (1970)

Rhythm & Blues, Soul

curtisWhen a state of emergency was declared in Baltimore in April 2015, some might have been forgiven for imagining they had entered a nightmarish time warp. But this would have betrayed a political perspective deficient in its awareness of snowballing social inequalities in the USA today. For African-Americans in particular, the barriers to social and economic equality remain intact. For them, the wealth gap remains, along with persistently high unemployment rates – twice the level of white unemployment – a statistic depressingly similar to that of 1971. Too many go home to impoverished environs, nearly six in ten living in segregated neighbourhoods. It is clear that the effort to attain social and economic equality has some way to go.

These statistics would have made disheartening, if familiar reading to the late Curtis Mayfield. As a driving force in black music from the early ’60s through the mid-’70s, he was a seasoned documentor of the struggle of black Americans through his music and lyrics, which blended fluid, at times lush, melodic funk/soul with measured social commentary. Before launching a highly successful solo career, Mayfield was a member and later leader of Chicago-based vocal group The Impressions. Of all the mid-60 R&B vocal group heavyweights, their music, despite significantly lighter radio rotation, is arguably the most enduring. While the likes of The Temptations only began to produce socially conscious records around 1968-69, Mayfield and The Impressions had been consistent in doing so since the departure of original lead vocalist Jerry Butler in 1962. Paralleling the Civil Rights movement, it took different forms, but was invariably dignified and gently righteous, whether urging black Americans to ‘Keep On Pushin’ in their struggles, landscaping utopian visions which mirrored the more famous dreams of more famous others (‘People Get Ready’) or lending encouragement during times of uncertainty and setback (‘It’s Alright’, ‘We’re A Winner’).

But it would be amiss of me to suggest that the music of The Impressions was a polemical belligerent brew. In fact, for the most part, it was as sweet as sweet soul music could be, the lion’s share of the songs occupying  themselves with that most perennial of concerns; finding, keeping or losing the girl. A shrewd move, guaranteeing an audience sizeable enough to ensure the other message found its way into as many homes as possible. Despite great success, and perhaps due to complications with record company distribution, their reputation seems to have declined over the years, certainly by comparison to their more conspicuous Detroit-based contemporaries. For example, Big Sixteen*, a magnificent 1965 compilation of their early ABC singles (curiously placed at No. 51 in consecutive NME Top 100 Polls of 1974 and 1985) seems to have disappeared without trace from Greatest Albums lists. It would be tempting to reassert its rightful place in the canon, but the album has long since been unavailable and its inclusion here would not be in keeping with our aim to favour those albums that tend to drop beneath the radar.

[*It took me a long time to track down Big Sixteen, finally doing so at the immortal vinyl Valhalla that was Beanos in Croydon around 1992, but not before I had been introduced to The Impressions’ music a few years earlier, through the purchase of their 1965 People Get Ready LP, which I acquired – after a somewhat briefer excursion – to the late lamented John Smiths’ Bookstore in Byres Road. A veritable goldmine that shop. It always seemed to have the good stuff]

Mayfield’s output was prolific, but unlike some of his peers, Marvin Gaye for instance, he has no single universally recognised classic album, although Superfly and There’s No Place Like America Today often vie for the accolade of his most accomplished long player. But almost everything he put his hand to between 1964 and 1976, turned to gold.

The Impressions’ This Is My Country (1968) was the first release on Mayfield’s own Curtom label. It remains their finest studio album, featuring Curtis’ trademark falsetto and skilful if unobtrusive guitar work [self-taught, he utilised open tunings to create a unique sound and claims to have slept with the instrument, so that when the muse was upon him, he could wake up in the middle of the night and write], showcased most eloquently here on the gorgeous ballad ‘I’m Loving Nothing’. By contrast ‘Stay Close To Me’ comes on like a Northern Soul floor-filler, recalling The Isleys’ This Old Heart Of Mine’,  and ‘Fool For You’ is hard-hitting brassy blues, characteristic of Ray Charles. Curtis is in control throughout and pulls the (heart) strings more confidently than ever on the achingly tender ’It’s So Unusual’ which also features some melancholic brass dispersed with dazzling effect following an unexpected momentary pause in the rhythm. ‘You Want Somebody Else’ is even better – the couplet “But my love is still true, for only you” may indeed sound banal but when Curtis drips the honey as sublimely as this, it reminds me why I was given a pair of ears in the first place.

The album is bookended by the two ‘message’ songs, first of all ‘They Don’t Know’ where with familiar restraint, Curtis laments the recent assassination of MLK:

“Another friend has gone / And I feel so insecure  / Brother if you feel this way  / You’re not by yourself  / We have lost another leader  / Lord how much must we endure  / If you feel this way  / You’re not by yourself”

It is street smart R&B, and although perhaps not all of the lyrics date very well (“Every brother is a leader /  Every sister is a breeder”) the song’s loose earthy arrangement, replete with organ, strings, guitar and horns is a winning combination.

On the closing title track, the call to action is rousing. One can feel chests simultaneously bursting with pride and righteous indignation:

“Some people think we don’t have the right  / To say it’s my country  / Before they give in, they’d rather fuss and fight  / Than say it’s my country  / I’ve paid three hundred years or more  / Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back  / This is my country”

Along with People Get Ready, This Is My Country is The Impressions’ crowning glory. Times were changing fast and less than two years later, Mayfield had left the group, embarking on a solo career that would take him in new directions and bring him unprecedented success. On his first solo outing Curtis (1970) he delivers the record he always wanted to make, a self-penned socio-political concept album (don’t worry, this isn’t prog rock!), a clear precursor to What’s Going On. An edited version of its most celebrated track, the nine minute uptown funk classic ‘Move On Up’, was a huge success in the UK, but strangely failed to chart back home, its aspirational message ignored by the public, who paradoxically lapped up the equally lengthy, blitzkrieg of pent-up venom that was the album’s opener, ‘Don’t Worry If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go’. And how about that opening line?

“Sisters! Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers! Don’t worry, If there’s a Hell below, we’re all gonna go!”

proclaims Mayfield over amplified fuzz-funk guitar and echo-laden infernal screaming, as he anticipates the tempest brewing in American inner cities, reproaching those responsible for the fragile state of race relations. This theme is explored more subtly on ‘The Other Side Of Town’ where Mayfield’s innate sensitivity to the plight of the downtrodden is laid bare:

“I’m from the other side of town  / Out of bounds  / To anybody who don’t live around  / I never learned to share  / Or how to care  / I never had no teachings  / About being fair”

But here and elsewhere on the album, the augmentation of harp and harpsichord lends to the proceedings a sweeping expansive sound which is simply irresistible. And the closer, ‘Give It Up’, Mayfield’s heartbreaking confessional, would melt the hardest of hearts

“All concern and the trusts that never happened with us  / The walk of embraces and the love of our faces  / It never happened you see and I’m so sorry”

On Curtis, Mayfield blends in everything from full orchestrations, exquisite balladry to experimental funk, ably abetted by arrangers Riely Hampton and Gary Slabo. He would go onto even greater success with his soundtrack for Blaxploitation classic Superfly,  but Curtis was his album, the one where he flaunted his talent most liberally.

And what of his influence? Well, it wasn’t only black teenagers in Chicago who were taken with The Impressions’ gospel and blues-tinged harmonising, and their influence was not restricted to young R&B wannabes. They made regular visits to play the Kingston dance halls, and their influence is clearly discernible in the rocksteady sound of late 1960s Jamaican music. A production line of eager JA vocal groups would record cover versions of Mayfield-penned classics. Among them, a young Bob Marley would have been listening intently and it is no exaggeration to say that without Mayfield, Cash and Gooden, then there would have been no Marley, Tosh and Livingston. At the very least, it is indisputable that The Wailers’ sound would have evolved into something quite radically different. Later reggae acts such as The Congos would add a third vocalist (Watty Burnett) in a bid to replicate The Impressions’ sound. Further afield, a young Belfast boy christened Ivan was similarly smitten; one doesn’t need to look very far to hear how The Impressions shaped his sound (try Crazy Love from Moondance or Gypsy Queen from His Band & The Street Choir for starters). Mayfield’s socially conscious lyrics undoubtedly cleared the path for eighties / nineties urban hip-hop / rap acts concerned more with the brutal realities of inner-city life. His legacy in soul music endures today, the voice of Pharrell Williams for example, a carefully studied imitation.

However, his legacy is also a social one. In response to criticism of the subject matter of his music for Superfly, Mayfield famously quipped “I don’t see why people are complaining about the subject of these films. The way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the streets. The music and movies of today are the conditions that exist. You change music and movies by changing the conditions. His compassion for people caught up in poverty was matched by his hope for a brighter future for all. As Gaetana Caldwell-Smith in her Obituary in ‘Socialist Action’ notes: “Mayfield inspired three generations of musicians to infuse their work with his idea of the meaning of soul. He wrote and composed with the aim toward getting people to think about themselves in relation to the world around them, to make this planet a better place for everyone.  He had personal obstacles to overcome, his own crosses to carry: raised by his mother and pastor grandmother in poverty, he became hard-nosed enough as a record producer to ensure he retained songwriting and production credits in a world where most other artists were being ripped off by record companies. More significantly, in his later life Curtis had been a quadriplegic since 1990, after being felled by a lighting rig which collapsed on him at a concert in New York, crushing his spine. But in addition to being a beacon for black Americans he became an inspiration to the disabled as well. After his accident, he remarkably found he could still sing, using gravity’s pull on his chest and lungs as he lay flat. His death in 1999, at the age of 57 was attributed to complications related to diabetes as a result of his accident. Music lost one of its greatest voices, poor black Americans one of their greatest champions. At his funeral, The Rev. Fred Taylor of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said, “Curtis Mayfield’s music told us that despite all odds, we are here and we will continue to fight until we become equal partners in the social fabric of this country.” Baltimore, Chicago, America and the world today need a few more prophets and peacemakers like him. But there will only ever be one Curtis Mayfield. (JJ)