So the Fela reissue juggernaught rolls on and we’ve got the 1976 Upside Down album. It came at a time during a brief lull in harassment from the Nigerian government and the music benefits dramatically. It’s incredibly tight, punchy, with squalling sax and relentless energy. Perhaps most interesting is the presence of Sandra Akanke Iszadore on vocals, the women who introduced Fela to black consciousness and the Black Panthers during his formative year in the US. It’s quite incredible hearing another voice at the helm of Fela’s weapon Africa 70, very unusual, yet she sounds quite amazing, totally primed and commanding with lyrics penned by Fela, comparing the chaotic nature of Africa with the more organized systems in the West. “Everything Upside Down/ Disorganize,” she repeats over and over. It’s upbeat urgent and taut, a really unique tune in his oeuvre.
Go Slow picks up on the disorganization at the heart of 1970’s Lagos where the oil boom sent people flocking to a city without the infrastructure to cope. Go Slow is about the infamous traffic jams where you could apparently spend as long as a day ensnared in traffic. Musically it’s really interesting, perhaps modeled on a traffic jam, beginning plodding before picking up tempo and then frustratingly slowing right down when it should be building before finding a comfortable canter, it’s another 14 minute piece, the equivalent of a three minute pop song for Fela and it has him equating being stuck in a jam like being in jail. It’s a tune with a really nice almost sultry groove, the kind of tune that just weaves in and out and allows the listener to just float along with it.
In 1979 US funk soul vibraphonist Roy Ayers toured Nigeria. He opened for Fela and clearly they enjoyed each others company enough to record an album together. It’s pretty wacky stuff, Ayers sleazy sexy soul vibe with Fela’s militant ethos. 2000 Black is an almost spoken word afro funk workout with Ayers delivering a serious message that by the year 2000 “all blacks got to be free,” and to ‘”hink about your future and don’t forget your past.” However it’s with his sultry bedroom voice which comes across as a little weird, particularly with it’s cheeky wah wah guitar accompaniment. In fact it could almost pass for a regular Roy Ayers track, aside for the occasional horn stabs and call and response backing vocals.
Africa Centre of the World, Fela’s contribution is a more traditionally Afrobeat orientated tune, yet the inclusion of Ayers vibraphone is nothing short of glorious, trickling across the rigid beats like liquid. It’s what Ayers does best and here melding with Fela it’s one of those joyous musical combinations/ accidents/ inspirations that you can only dream about, particularly about five minutes into this 18 minute opus where Ayers starts soloing. Though he continued to play with Fela occasionally in the US, you almost wish Ayers had stayed on to join Africa 70 as the tune no longer feels so Felacentric, it’s clear there’s another power in the room.
The combination of these two albums is no an accident. Though four years apart they both represent Fela opening up his music to outside forces, both of whom he appears to have felt an enormous feeling of trust and affinity with. Though he seems to have maintained his vision and musical approach, aside from Ayers 2000 Black, the outside influences have pushed the music into different realms, dramatically changing its context and meaning, but perhaps more importantly creating some really unique diversity within Fela’s expansive oeuvre that also happen to be great tunes .
Bob Baker Fish