June 18, 2024

Fela Kuti
London Scene & ‘Live! With Ginger Baker’

PARTISAN RECORDS 5th Nov 2021 (London Scene) & 19th Nov (Live!)

It is fifty years since these two albums were released and they are both getting vinyl reissues with natty colours and splatters. Vinyl suits Fela Kuti well, since the intense beats mean that a break to flip the record every twenty minutes or so might just save anyone old enough to remember the original releases from a cardiac incident. For anyone younger or anyone not familiar with Fela Kuti, this is seriously funky stuff, played in extended tracks and your feet will be moving not long after you pop the albums on.

These two mark the real start of Fela Kuti’s career. Up to this point he’d been playing local Nigerian dance beats (try the ’69 LA Sessions CD) but he brought Tony Allen into the band and things took off. Allen is the star of the music here and is recognised as the inventor of Afrobeat. Of course it would have been nothing without the overwhelming personality of Fela and his ability to harness the writhing musical beast but the contrast between 1969 and 1971 shows what the magic drumming ingredient was. Let’s also factor in the Ginger Baker factor. Sticking his name on any release, post-Cream, inevitably drew interest.

In point of fact, Ginger Baker doesn’t make the music better and it is more of a curiosity in hearing the effect he has. Always more a jazz drummer than a rock one, he helped Kuti get gigs round London and turned up to Abbey Road sessions, becoming excited enough to take a Landrover down to Nigeria to jam with Fela shortly after. His impact on ‘Egbe Mi O’ (on both the albums) is mostly to add a heavier, sort of rock sound. It isn’t like percussion was lacking, with five percussionists on ‘London Scene’ before Baker turned up, and the groove is big on the non-Baker tracks, with ‘Mr Who Are You’ a notable stand-out. Similarly on ‘Live!’, ‘Let’s Start’ and ‘Black Man’s Cry’ funk and rock like crazy with bubbly cross-rhythms. Baker gets a drum workout on ‘Ye Ye De Smell’ on ‘Live!’ and a twenty-five minute drum duet from 1978 on the supplemental material added. You may end up only listening to that duet once or twice. The combination of those hypnotic beats and the charismatic presence of Fela’s vocals is definitely addictive.

If you don’t know Fela Kuti, these are mostly 10 minute-plus jams with horns, keys and tonnes of congas and other drums creating an irresistible beat. If you do know him, these are re-mastered and both albums are Fela Kuti and Tony Allen inventing at the outset of their very best work together and are a very fine place to start your investigations. Be warned – you’ll want more.

Check out our review of Fela’s son and grandson’s album: Femi & Made Kuti: https://www.vanguard-online.co.uk/femi-kuti-made-kuti-legacy-father-son-take-afrobeat-onwards/

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