Thursday, October 26, 2006

CD: The Underground Spiritual Game by Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti: The Underground Spiritual Game
Released by: Quannum Projects
Re-mixed by: Chief XCel

Fela Kuti has always been an unwieldy, yet entrancing artist. A combination of Malcom X and James Brown with a little bit of Ellington thrown in, Kuti has been recognized as the creator of what is now known as the Afrobeat sub-genre in World Music (a label that neatly side-steps the protest aspect of his music). Rhythmic, pulsing, simultaneously laid back and energetic, a typical song will feature an instrumental section, Kuti’s explication of whatever the song is about (African women dropping their culture in order to adopt European airs in the song “Lady,” for example), followed by a call and response section, and ending with another instrumental section. These affairs can last anywhere from 8 minutes to a full half-hour.

It is this last that makes Kuti such a challenge to introduce to the un-initiated. Having been raised on your typical three to four minute pop song, anything lasting longer than six minutes tends to lose your average Western music listener.

Enter Blackalicious’ resident DJ/Producer, Chief Xcel.

What Xcel brings to the table, beyond an unprecedented talent for beats, is an obvious admiration for Kuti’s work, and a desire to ensure the further propagation of Kuti’s legacy. And so, he does as much as possible to keep any discernible fingerprints off of Underground, while at the same time putting the spotlight on the individual elements that make Kuti noteworthy, listenable, and, ultimately, vital.

Starting with pre-firebrand era “Ololufe Mi,” a song intended to seduce, Xcel leads the listener on an abbreviated journey through the many facets of Kuti’s music. “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am,” the song immediately following, introduces the rabble-rousing characteristic Kuti later became notorious for.

When cat sleep
Rat go bite him tail
Wait and fight

-- from, “Trouble Sleep…”

Using pidgin English as the language for his lyrics (the better to appeal to a wider African audience), Kuti then goes on to describe several different examples of African people being oppressed, always finishing with an admonition that the insurgents’ time will eventually come. The juxtaposition between song and lyric creates a pleasant and smirking tension that nicely accentuates the head-bobbing that is surely taking place.

This is then followed up by a perfect example of Xcel’s wisdom. “Look and Laugh” (a song castigating a reluctant audience who talk big, but don’t take action) is taken from a daunting 30m47s, to a neophyte friendly 4m18s.

Underground continues like this through the phases of Kuti’s career, Xcel keeping the majority of the songs’ length under six minutes. And then, after building up our stamina, he delivers the piece de resistance: “Africa Center of the World,” Kuti’s 17minute celebration for his people to take pride in where they come from, and encouragement to the rest of the globe to “set [one’s] mind to Africa.”

This is music to live by, and this album is a must for Kuti devotees and neophytes alike. Kudos to Xcel for work well done, ultimate props to Kuti, Africa’s answer to Bob Dylan.

--thebeigeone, 499 words.


Friday, October 06, 2006

The Music Industry

In early September I went to see Devo with a group of friends, and acquaintances. While having dinner beforehand, I was talking with a friend about a compilation project she was undertaking and mentioned that I may have a couple of songs that would fit the profile. She asked if she could borrow the CDs in question, in order to burn the songs onto her computer and I said sure; which was when a person in our party shot us a look that could’ve killed us with its intensity.

It turned out that the person formerly worked as an A&R rep for a now-defunct major label. He claimed that the label went under due to music piracy. I found it difficult to muster much in the way of sympathy, as cool as the guy was.

Frankly, the music industry has no entity but itself to blame for its current woes.

Looked at in the abstract, it’s easy to argue that their product really hasn’t changed all that much since its inception, and that the industry has become complacent since the universal acceptance of the CD format.

The nature of its complacency is in the assumption that if they kept a lid on any technological advancement, people would still buy their product, at whatever prices they chose, ad infinitum.

The real folly in this line of thinking comes shining through when you take a good look at DVDs…It is not uncommon to walk into a grocery store these days, and be able to purchase a recent movie, of usually decent caliber, in the letterbox format, and with a few extras thrown in for the measly amount of $10. Meanwhile, new CDs are still in the $15 - $18 range. When you realize that production costs on CDs aren’t really a match for the average movie budget, one has to wonder why the prices are kept at such a high amount.

The industry would have us believe that this is due to piracy, as if the movie industry does not have this to contend with either.

Admittedly, due to site restrictions, this is a rather shallow treatment of the very real problem that exists for both industries. However, it seems that if the music industry would like to survive the coming times (there’s no real solution to piracy, in this day and age), they should re-think its fatal dependence on a pricing scheme that alienates the average fan of music.

Buying new music has always been a gamble, and it is not an exaggeration to postulate that a CD containing an average of 8 – 12 songs, maybe a third of those songs will have a lasting impact on the listener. Outside of material fetishists like myself, I can’t think of many who are willing to take that bet. Even for an artist they admire. Better to copy from someone who is willing to spend that money.

--the beige one, 484 words.