Classics Revisited: Fela Kuti, "the Best of the Black President"

One of the most virulent agitators in the annals of popular music--he was regularly beaten and jailed by oppressive military regimes in Nigeria for speaking out against their oppression--Fela Kuti never ceased to use his music as a vehicle to mock and criticize his adversaries (sample song title: "Coffin for Head of State"). And he did it with a groove, a serious, undulating funk he called Afrobeat.

Knitting Factory Records is undertaking the mammoth effort of reissuing 45 albums from the Fela catalogue, starting with this overview, the Best of the Black President, a 2-CD retrospective along with a DVD that includes portions of a documentary and filmed appearances at international festivalss

Fela favored gargantuan bands that interlocked percussion, bass, guitar lines and rugged horn sections in recorded pieces that usually exceeded 10 minutes. As a rule, they begin with an extended instrumental intro, featuring solos on electric piano and Fela's muscular tenor saxophone, followed by call-and-response chants (with female backing vocals) and Fela's politicized rants. Not much a singer, the Black President's vocal excursions can become tedious to Western ears, but there's no denying the power of the ensemble's collective energy and rhythmic propulsion.

Fela died in 1997 as one of the most loved and revered figures on the international music scene. Over the years, his recordings have fallen in and out of print, and many of them were plagued by substandard masters. The Knitting Factory initiative features loving remasters that permit much of the music's detail to emerge. Forty-five re-released titles surely excites Fela aficionados, but even the most casual world-music fan should own at least the smattering that's available in the Best of the Black President.


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