1977’s Shuffering and Shmiling really highlights the genius of Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. It clocks in at 21minutes, a typically energetic Afrobeat groove, chugging funky bass, stabbing horns with an extended Fela sax solo at the beginning that actually predicts the coming vocal melody. When it finally does come at about the nine minute mark it’s Fela the schoolmaster, reverend perhaps, taking us into his confidence and teaching us a lesson. He’s very much aware of his audience leading us into ‘any goddamn church or any goddamn mosque.’ On the cover he poses a question ‘Why Not African Religion,’ and this is the central premise of one his angriest and most provocative songs. It’s a denouncement of the religions of Nigeria’s previous colonial masters, Christianity and Islam, touching upon the violence at the time that was occurring between Nigerian Christians and Muslims. Fela believed that this had little to do with Africa and had little do with the life of working Nigerians. Whilst Fela had ridiculed his government, religion is of course a different matter, questioning why people needed to suffer on earth to find happiness in heaven whilst the clergy who peddles these beliefs live in opulence. Fela of course was never afraid of a little social critique.
The genius however is that it really is an incredible song, everything works from its melodies, to its groove to its sentiment. It’s also the one song that kids pick up on thanks to it’s repeated Amen’s from his back up singers, not realising the deeper context. Though that’s probably true of much of Fela’s music where the message can be obscured by his pidgin English and mischievous wordplays masking the anger and despair at the heart of his message.
No Agreement, another 1977 release is another example of Fela at the peak of his powers. Charging funk with sax and organ solos. The guitar riff itself is the kind of taut repetitive style Jb’s funk and everything just bounces off it. The brass is particularly potent thanks to the inclusion of Lester Bowie (Art Ensemble of Chicago) who spent three months living with and sitting in with Fela. It’s really interesting about seven minutes in it seems to stop, turn on its head and start up again. It’s a really weird technique but it really works at building the dynamic. Over the throbbing groove the sax and trumpet solos come closer to free-jazz than ever before. He begins singing at about 11 minutes in and as you can imagine it’s Fela letting us know that he’s in the fight for the long haul. ‘No agreement today No agreement tomorrow,” he offers before his backup singers pick up the mantra. Great short sharp horns stabs too.
The album ends with a rare instrumental called Dog eat Dog, and it’s a taut slab of Afro funk, kind of relaxed 5 minute workout where you can hear Fela (as also on No Agreement), counting out the tempo changes to the band. It’s a great tune and it caps off an inspired pairing of two of his more provocative political agitations from a time when the band were at their peak. This is some of the best music he made.
Bob Baker Fish