Revisiting the Big Fela
Nigerian Afrobeat legend and activist Fela Kuti, who died of AIDS in 1997, was a genius at crafting politically charged songs that even the most milquetoast of the Western world would find pleasant, despite the fact that the message was often a critique of this cross-section of people who lived at the expense of others. Essentially, Kuti’s blend of jazz, funk, Yoruba folk music, polyrhythmic percussion, and catchy call-and-response chants is an infectious and brilliant means for delivering his political message. On RED HOT + FELA, its second record dedicated to Kuti, the Red Hot Organization, responsible for more than twenty years of important compilations to fund AIDS awareness, offers up a dependable, eclectic array of talent who offer their own sometimes faithful and often interpretive renditions of some of Kuti’s most important works.
On “Lady,” tUnE-yArDs, ?uestlove, Akua Naru and Angelique Kidjo display a tighter, more bottom-heavy version of the jazz-infused, Afrobeat original. ?uest’s drums are more pronounced. Naru displays her spitfire rhymes. Kidjo, the quintessential African singer, adds flavor to the piece. Also, it should be no surprise that Merill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs is on at least two tracks on this compilation. Her lo-fi, worldbeat pop owes much to Kuti, and she adds a lot to the songs on which she contributes.
“No Buredi (No Bread)” by Nneka, Sinkane, Amayo, and Superhuman Happiness, brings a compact ’80s synth-funk to a classic, progressive Kuti song. The screaming lead guitar and vocoder, combined with the “Computer Blue” drum machine and shiny synth patches, render “Buredi” a candidate for inclusion on the Purple Rain soundtrack. It’s as energetic as the original, but the drum machine makes this right at home as part of a DJ’s tool chest.
The centerpiece of the compilation is “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am,” which My Morning Jacket and guests Garbus and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard render gorgeously with a faithfulness to the original. It might not be a familiar song, but its horn part is so good that even if a listener has never heard it before, it seems so very recognizable. Buttressed with a laid-back rhythm section, some beautiful, atmospheric lead guitar expressions and the familiar vocalizations of Jim James, “Trouble Sleep” is simply a comfortable experience. The song’s meditative—almost sacred—quality is an antidote to the rushed intensity the modern world demands.
There are also some solid songs featuring the Kronos Quartet, members of TV on the Radio, and Childish Gambino (a.k.a Donald Glover). The compilation closes with “Go Slow,” performed by KING, a solid comedown after the sociopolitical, emotional adventure of RED HOT + FELA. Like many covers, the songs included in this compilation do not always offer the same impact as the originals. However, the interpretations are worth the attention.