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)



Psychedelic Folk

BALAKLAVA“In peace sons bury their fathers,
In war fathers bury their sons,
Love is silent at the edge of the universe,
Waiting to come in'” (‘Translucent Carriages’)

Balaklava was the second album by Pearls Before Swine, and their second to be released on New York’s legendary ESP, the label responsible for The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra and other uncompromising free jazz recordings of the mid-1960s, as well as oddball counter-cultural rock albums by the likes of The Fugs and The Godz, to whose music I was introduced through a resounding commendation in the original Perfect Collection.

The very first time I heard the music of Pearls Before Swine I knew it was what I had been waiting for my whole life. I had a complete set of albums by The Velvet Underground, Love, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Tim Buckley et al. But something was missing. I never knew what that something was until I encountered Balaklava.

Pearls Before Swine were different. Once fittingly described as “a madman saint leading the asylum band during the rainy season”, Tom Rapp, the band’s leader, songwriter and only permanent member, enjoyed little popular success despite a catalogue of wonderful psych-folk albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps his quivering voice and heavily pronounced lisp – charmingly honest to some – provided an obstacle to commercial credibility. Or his lyrics, so rich in strange Biblical and Blakean imagery, may have alienated others. Whatever the case, success eluded the band during their career. Recognition came late – too late for pop stardom – but a quietly flourishing audience of fans including a number of musicians, resulted in a tribute album, and concert invitations began to flood in during the late 1990s, by which time Rapp was working as a Civil Rights lawyer in Florida.

Their debut offering, One Nation Underground, was initially recorded as a demo and sent to ESP, who promptly signed the band and rush released the album. On first hearing, it’s Dylanesque protest folk – along with song titles like ‘Drop Out’ and tunes as immediate as ‘Uncle John’ – may seem to have captured the zeitgeist well, but the album sleeve featuring the macabre painting The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, hinted at something more portentous. At this stage the band had not yet ‘turned on’ – indeed Rapp identifies the strongest intoxicant favoured by the fledgling Swine to have been Winston cigarettes! Although it was the only Swine album to sell fairly well (around 200,000) the band claim to have received very little royalties and this may have accentuated a darker worldview which while not quite dystopian, stood in stark contrast to the vacuous euphoria of the ‘flower power’ generation.

Balaklava which appeared a year later, received Rolling Stone magazine’s dreaded [], it’s lowest possible rating. But in the 1960s Rolling Stone frequently got it badly wrong. Once again the album featured some apocalyptic artwork, this time Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death, and presented a uniquely harrowing vision of the horrors of war, delineated by Rapp’s (Winston inspired!) hallucinatory and surrealistic poetry.

The album is bookended by two historical recordings: the first, by Trumpeter Landfrey, who sounded the bugle at the beginning of the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ at the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War; after the second, a barely audible recording of the voice of Florence Nightingale, we hear a tape loop of the whole album rewind to the beginning, surely a commentary on the perennially rapacious nature of the human species, forever embroiled in military conflict, captured at the precise moment when the ugly truth about America’s involvement Vietnam was gradually emerging.

‘Transluscent Carriages’ the most explicitly anti-war song, is shrouded in mystery, Rapp’s ghostly utterances over a plaintive acoustic guitar line, tastefully embellished by atmospheric clavinette. The lyrics to the opening verse are indicative of the album’s sombre mood:

“The translucent carriages
Drawing morning in
Dawn inside their pockets
Like a whisper on the wind.”

‘Images of April’ has a simple swooning bass line but replete with birdsong, flutes, echoed voice, and introducing the intriguing ‘swinehorn’ of Lane Lederer, is the archetype for the album’s peculiar sound.

Even better is ‘I Saw The World’. Warren Smith’s string arrangements provide a panoramic sweep somehow reminiscent of the theme tune to the classic 1960s French children’s TV series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (or is that just the augmentation of the sound of sea spray?), while the ghostly atmosphere evoked by the distinctive percussive arrangements sound like they come from the depths of The Black Ark. A strange marriage indeed, but listen and you may hear what I hear…
‘Lepers and Roses’, Rapp’s take on the Orpheus myth, is equally gorgeous . The lyrics may be inscrutable:

“In fields where Susan sings/The leopard brings/Yesterday/In upon a string/And all your dead rainbows/Begin to stain/The lace on your raincoat/So leave the blind/Roses behind/You’

..but the music is drunk on its own beauty. A dreamer’s dream…the songs on the album are less conventional narrative or story and more mood pieces. Rapp once clarified his approach to songwriting in an interview with Goldmine:

“My sense of writing a song was that you started with a mood or a feeling and you just chipped away everything that wasn’t that feeling and in the end you’d have something that had crystallized it somehow’

Despite this concentration on mood and atmosphere, the album has its flaws. Although there is a delicately judged cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, there is at least one mis-step along the way, the plodding sub-Donovan (sub-sub-Dylan) folk of ‘There Was A Man’. But, the old gramophone production of ‘Guardian Angels, is exquisite. Here Rapp once again resurrects the voice of the ancient prophets:

‘All of the pain in the world is outside your bed/In the shapes of phantom men tapping your window with rhythms of dread/And all of the silver rosaries hung on the door/Will not drive them away they are going to stay.’

Rapp and a new set of Pearls went onto release four albums for Reprise, two of which at least (These Things Too and The Use of Ashes) are the equal of Balaklava. His influence is slight and could be detected in the likes of Bill Fay (another much under-appreciated songwriter) but it has been left to long-time devotees such as Damon & Naomi (of Galaxie 500 fame) and Flying Saucer Attack to rekindle a flame which never so much burnt out as was ever adequately ignited in the first place. But, still that flame flickers for the chosen few – those seduced by the sounds and visions of an authentic lost prophet.(JJ)


Jazz, New Thing!

It begins with a jaw-dropping celebratory blast of sax that snowballs into a technicolour avalanche of horns and percussive instruments, filling out every inch of the sound until breaking point – a joyous burst of spiritual energy loud enough to raise the dead from their tombs. It then retreats into a restrained and breezy tonal blues (with more than a subtle nod to ‘A Love Supreme’) featuring tropical split reeds and bells which shuffle the rhythm along gently, while vocalist Leon Thomas first sings, then as if possessed by some supernatural force, yodels (!) his hymn of praise, until once again, the momentum catapults the song forward towards its brain-scrambling cacophonous heart, which is as dense and aggressive as anything on ‘Trane’s ‘Ascension’. And we’re not even half way in yet! Welcome to Pharaoh Sanders’ ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’. The awe-inspiring 32 minute masterpiece is brim full of pregnant passages suddenly bursting ecstatically into feverish and tumultuous tenor saturnalia.

Farrell Sanders, a protege of Sun Ra – who gave him his lordly title – made a series of blinding free jazz albums on the Impulse! label in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Along with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane and others, this expressiveness became known as the ‘New Thing’. ‘Karma’ with TCHAMP taking up 90% of the playing time, is surely Sanders’ most perfectly realised moment. We hear his progression from the ‘Nubian Space Jazz’ of ‘Tauhid’ gilding his fresh canvass with brazenly psychedelic colours and textures.
In 1969 the hippie dream was over and heading for the horror of Altamont. The kids were faced with an extended conflict in Vietnam, and in pondering these existential crises crept back into their bedrooms where the excesses of ‘prog rock’ began to ferment ominously. Of course, once upon a time jazz and rock were very comfortable bedfellows; rarely today is that fusion apparent. ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Happy Sad’ ‘Trout Mask Replica’,’The Soft Machine’; all of these effortlessly incorporated their jazz influences into the rock idiom. This unhappy divorce was exacerbated by the growth and development of electronic music, which has been far more accommodating of jazz influences and this has resulted in a seismic shift in the amount of serious exposure afforded by rock fans to jazz, and even to the classic Impulse! records of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of which would once have been embedded as staple entries in any serious rock and soul LP collection. From the perspective of the rock fan, with only a passing interest in jazz, here is a good place to start. Somewhere on The Stooges debut album is a bass line lifted from Sanders’ ‘Upper and Lower Egypt’ and that influence would be worn more openly on Side 2 of Fun House with its free jazz given a blistering punk makeover borrowing heavily from Ayler, Coltrane, Sanders and ‘The New Thing’. (JJ)