This week on Sound Travels we'll be exploring one of the most important African musicians in the modern era: Fela Kuti. Fela was a truly unique individual and in many ways was perfectly situated to become the star that he ultimately became. He came from a family steeped in social activism and had the opportunity to study at the prestigious Trinity College in the UK. He had also been trained and gained experience in the musical styles of Nigeria as a working, touring musician and getting his chops by experience.
Others have written better biographies, so I'll leave it alone. But Fela has been in the spotlight for the past few years and the entire catalog of late singer, who was also the subject of a successful Bill T. Jones-directed Broadway play called Fela!, was reissued throughout by Knitting Factory Records. One of those releases was our feature today, and is also an excellent starting point for afrobeat and Fela neophytes, The '69 Los Angels Sessions.
On this release, which compiles the only U.S. recording session of Fela's only visit to the U.S., is an excellent 10-track release showcasing Fela's early afrobeat on a series of songs that are far shorter than the majority of his later work. Not that that makes them better, but perhaps a better starting point for you. The songs are quite polished and highlight his music in a lean light, getting right into the tightest parts of a technique that would be expaded in later compositions.
Jay Babcock's long feature on Fela Kuti, first published in Mean magazine, addresses the story of Fela's time in Los Angeles in 1969, a transformational period in his life. Babcock wrote:
The band got a regular gig playing at Citadel de Haiti, a struggling nightclub run by Bernie Hamilton (who would later feature in the Starsky & Hutch TV series) in a red brick building at 6666 Sunset Blvd.
"We played there for about five months, six nights in a week," remembers Tony Allen. "Bernie gave us a house and we played in his club. It was grooving, you know."
"Anyone that was anybody — Jim Brown, Melvin Van Peebles, H.B. Barnham, Esther Phillips — came to see Fela," says Sandra [Smith, Fela's LA girlfriend]. "It was all word of mouth."
Sandra was singing onstage with the band, who were playing a mixture of Fela's jazz compositions and his unique arrangements of contemporary soul favorites like "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." On his nights off from the Citadel, Fela would sit in around town at jazz gigs, or play private parties — including one where a drunk Frank Sinatra got in a heated exchange with Fela.
And here's what I played from that album today…
Fela Kuti "Viva Nigeria"
Fela Kuti "My Lady Frustration"
Fela Kuti "Lover"
Fela Kuti "Eko Ile"