In its own way, this is a kind of grail; a live recording by the great Fela Kuti captured live mere months after his release from prison in 1986. After serving two years on a trumped-up charge of "currency trafficking," he was reluctantly released by the Nigerian government in April due to considerable pressure by Amnesty International. This show took place at Detroit's historic Fox Theater in November. The recording is the first release of "new" Fela material in nearly 20 years. The three CDs clock in at a bit under two-and-a-half hours – the show could have easily fit on two discs – and an audience recording by Bob Tegan.
This album was a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit with the people and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic (a commune that Fela had established in Nigeria), during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Kuti was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Kuti's studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed.
The Best of the Black President is simply a stellar collection that bests any two-disc collection out there as it represents the continued evolution of Fela Kuti's music from the 1960s through the 1990s. Compiled by son Femi, many tracks are edits of the originals – "Gentleman," "Water Get No Enemy," "O.D.O.O." – whose power is not reduced. Still others are second-halfs – like "ITT," "Coffin for Head of State," "No Agreement," "Army Arrangement," and "Shuffering and Schmiling." Still others, such as "Zombie," "Sorrow Tears and Blood," "Shakara" and "Roforofo Fight," are presented in their original form.
This meeting of the minds and bands of Afro-funk creator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and American vibist and R&B/jazz innovator Roy Ayers is a collaboration that shouldn't work on the surface. Fela's music was raw, in your face politically and socially, and musically driven by the same spirit as James Brown's JBs. At the time of this recording in 1979, Ayers had moved out of jazz entirely and become an R&B superstar firmly entrenched in the disco world. Ayers' social concerns – on record – were primarily cosmological in nature. So how did these guys pull off one of the most badass jam gigs of all time, with one track led by each man and each taking a full side of a vinyl album? On hand were Fela's 14-piece orchestra and an outrageous chorus made up of seven of his wives and five male voices.
It's hard to go wrong with Fela Kuti's work from the 1970s, and LIVE!, which features the Afrobeat innovator backed by his powerhouse band Africa '70 and ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker, is no exception. Like all of Fela's recordings from the era, LIVE! consists of just a few tracks, each of which approximates or exceeds the ten minute mark. Yet the arrangements are so dynamic on these tracks, the criss-crossing polyrhythms so absorbing, and Fela's incantatory vocals so entrancing that the long running times never seem a factor. Every cut crackles from beginning to end with its mixture of funk, jazz, and traditional Nigerian music, underscoring once again Fela's revolutionary, indelible contribution to world music.