Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Friday, June 18, 2010

“Fela: Kalakuta Notes” by John Collins (KIT Publishers)

I first encountered Fela in the early 1970’s when he was still using his birth surname, Fela Ransome-Kuti, on an album in which he was “presented” to Western audiences by former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. My previous exposure to modern African music at that time had been Olatunji’s “Drums of Passion” and South African hits by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela, and the rock-flavored fusion of Osibisa. To me, Fela sounded like an interesting variation on James Brown, but that’s as far as I was willing to commit.

About five or so years later, I was surprised to again encounter Fela, this time as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, on a white-label promo LP called “Upside Down”. This time, I was ready to be bowled over. There were two pieces on the album, one on each side, yet on the title track (the B-side was an instrumental) Fela took advantage of this expanded song format in creative ways that James Brown’s loosely-jointed Polydor jams never did.

John Collins’ “Fela: Kalakuta Notes” accomplishes many tasks, but one of them is to supply a well-reasoned analysis of how Fela’s music developed from roots in Ghanaian highlife music – much of Fela’s career was split between his native Nigeria and Ghana; what’s more, Nigerian highlife music has its ultimate origin in the music of highlife’s first home, Ghana - through the influences of jazz and James Brown, to an anti-colonial, re-Africanized, innovative force of uncommon power and vitality. Collins suggests that Fela added a crucial element of Nigerian-ness by building his arrangements around bass lines that replicate facets of melody played by Nigerian talking-drums. The fact that Fela’s backing vocals were sung by dancers, rather than trained studio vocalists, also added an essential element of tribal call-and-response to the mix. Collins also convincingly discusses Fela’s unique music theory in the most cerebral chapter of the otherwise easily readable book. (Fela would have been cognizant of music theory, as he was trained in Western classical music in England, a fact which I had not been aware of before.)

But musical analysis is only one, fairly small, aspect of this book, and not necessarily the most significant. John Collins is a trained ethnomusicologist, yes, but he is also a music historian and musician. In this latter role, he has spent many years in Ghanaian highlife bands (though he is a white Englishman by birth), played for a time in the 1970’s in Fela’s band, and even acted in Fela’s unfinished “Black President” movie. Subsequently, he had a level of access to the man, the musician, the controversial political figure, the egotist that could never be approached by any straightforward Fela biographer.

Rest assured that this is a no-holds-barred, warts-and-all look into the lifestyle of Fela the man and the incredibly curious environment in which he allowed himself to live, rather than a hagiographic treatment of a friend and mentor. Fela’s warts are quite gargantuan, extending to many different aspects of his life, to the point where one is tempted to put down the book in disgust in numerous places. Even by the levels of rock-star excess, Fela’s lifestyle was grotesque and (to me, at least) highly unappealing. As much as I admire Fela the musician and Fela the spokesman for the disadvantaged, exploited Nigerian populace, I find it difficult to whip up much enthusiasm for Fela the human being, after reading Collins’ diary entries from the period in which “Black President” was being filmed.

In addition to Collins’ researches and memories, he also gives us interviews with many people on the scene, some of them no longer with us. The book was originally completed in 2002, around the time the German label Wrasse was engaging in an extensive program of Fela reissues. However, the book went unpublished at the time. Collins has updated it to 2009, including a section on Afrobeat bands influenced by Fela’s music. This section should have been expanded with more detail, but I suppose in a sense it could be considered somewhat tangential to what Collins what was hoping to accomplish here. The primary focus of the book is Fela and his life, not what happened after his death in 1997.

So, in the end, we are left with a book that is part biography, part anecdotal history of aspects of the contemporary West African music scene, part memoir of Collins’ time with Fela, part expose, part musical analysis. Considering that it consists of only 159 oversize pages, many of which are partly or wholly devoted to a fascinating array of photographs, Collins has managed to pack quite a lot into a fairly small space. Now that American interest in Fela has increased exponentially, thanks to the hit Broadway musical, the time is right for a look at the “real” Fela, not just the force of nature represented on the theater stage.

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