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.



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