Fragmented Frequencies March 2015

Finding Fela: Music is the Weapon (Madman) is a 2014 documentary by Alex Gibney (Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr Hunter S Thompson). You’d think that an extensive telling of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, the legendary pioneer of Afrobeat, an incredible fusion between funk and traditional African music, is long overdue. After all between his radicalisation via the black panthers, beatings from the military, marriage to his 21 backup singers, time in jail for illegally taking currency overseas, declaration of his compound as a separate state and incendiary concerts, there’s a wealth of material.

The problem is that Gibney bases his film around the making of Fela the musical, a 2011 Broadway production, which is pretty much Fela karaoke despite the presence of New York’s Antibalas as the house band. There’s so much footage of their backstage angst about how to capture his spirit, that you can only assume that the financing came directly from this production and they were obligated to use a percentage of footage. Gibney uses this as a spine to explore the developments of Fela’s life, integrating archival material, and interviews with former managers, band members including Tony Allen, and Fela’s children – which is all quite fascinating. It’s those first person accounts, such as both managers saying that their lasting memory of Fela is watching him comb his hair, that bring the man to life. His children’s accounts are also telling. If you can stomach the stage show it’s a fascinating account of one of the truly iconic and inspiring musicians of our time.

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Fragmented Frequencies Nov 10 (a)

Rango

Since the late 80’s Nigerian bandleader Femi Kuti has struggled to his assert his own voice over the imposing din of his father’s legacy. He’s done so with a quiet grace, incredibly adept at treading a respectful line between honoring his father’s music and striking out for himself. He began by playing with his father in Egypt 80, however in 1986 he started his own group Positive Force. He’s since released a slew of albums which possess that driving repetitive Afrobeat groove, but also draws on more fusion elements from other genres, often the jazzier elements, taking the music into new realms. He’s collaborated with US hip hop artists like Mos Def and Common, been remixed by Ernest St Laurent and Faze Action and even had his voice as a DJ on Grand Theft Auto IV. His most recent work Africa for Africa (Shock) is due to drop any day now and he’ll be in town soon as part of of the third annual Australian World Music Expo, playing on the 21st of November alongside local Bollywood fanatics Bombay Royale.

It’s great timing because the appeal of Afrobeat seems to be at an all time high, what with numerous compilations and the reissuing of his father’s entire oeuvre via Knitting Factory (Planet Company here). The most recent is the classic Shuffering and Schmiling which has been combined with No Agreement, which means you not only get trumpet from Lester Bowie (Art Ensemble of Chicago), but is also a savage indictment on the religions peddled by Africa’s colonial masters.

Then there’s Fela! The musical, a Tony award winning broadway play currently tearing it up in the US. Even if it’s terrible at least the music will be good. In fact the soundtrack has just been released (again via Planet Company) and features a backing band of no less than New York Afrobeat fanatics Antibalas doing covers of Fela’s music. A film of the performance will be playing at the Nova on the 5th and 6th of February 2011 so I guess we find out then.

Paris based Gotan Project have been applying the fusion blowtorch to tango since the late 90′s, merging tango with elements of electronica, jazz, house and dub, with a distinctly folkloric Argentine flavour. It’s almost club based music with the exotic flavours more often than not falling between their rigid 4/4 beats. Earlier in the year they released Tango 3.0 with guests like Dr John on Hammond B3. Their first single was the super cool electro of La Gloria which features the legendary football commentator Victor Hugo Morales offering some commentary inspired by Marradonna’s second goal against England. ‘Gooooooooooooooooooooal.’ They’re on their way to Melbourne and playing the Forum on the 8th of December. If you’re curious to know how they sound live check out their double cd from 2008 set simply entitled Live.

On a sweeter and more experimental bent Japanese avant pop chanteuse Tujiko Noriko is returning to Australia, this time with her trio consisting of sound artists Lawrence English and John Chantler. They’ve previously released U (Room40) together and the rough live footage I’ve seen from their European dates has Noriko gorgeously intoning above English and Chantler’s dark synthetic drones, delaying her voice yet still singing sweetly. It’s what’s always been so interesting about Noriko, her desire to treat and layer her voice, creating these gorgeous vocal melodies over all kinds of instrumentation. Crazily enough it’s at the Empress on the 4th of December and you can pre book tickets. You better, it’s going to be squeezy.

The first Womadelaide acts have been announced and whilst Afro Celt Sound System and lush Indian beat maker Nitin Sawney might be getting the most attention, some lesser known artists feel a little more exiting. Firstly there’s Hanggai, a bunch of ex Beijing punks now peddling a gentle traditional folk music with Mongolian throat singing and horse hair fiddle. They released their debut album Introducing on World Circuit (Fuse) a couple of years back, which mixed their traditional music with subtle flourishes of electric guitar and banjo. Beautiful. Secondly Rango, a Sudanese Egyptian ensemble play one of the only three balafon or Rango’s left in existence. They released Bride of Zar (30IPS/ Planet Company) earlier in the year, a spirit cleansing Nubian trance music, with heavy percussion creating a joyful rattling textural hypnotic stomp. More acts to be announced.

Finally I’ve regretfully discovered the passing of English composer and field recorder David Fanshawe in July. Best known for African Sanctus, his mind numbingly bizarre mix of African tribal recordings and English chorals, he left a legacy of pristine field recordings of Africa, the Middle East, and Pacific as well as a lasting effect on the tribes he visited. He was 68 and a true eccentric. Fragmented Frequencies will miss you David.

Fragmented Frequencies May 2010

Rare groove as a political statement is the holy grail. These days DJ’s are feverishly scouring the globe in search of obscure funk and bizarre hybrids from the 60’s – 70’s, to bring to Western ears, the more exotic the better. Panama, Nigeria, Ethiopia, it’s a history lesson via the dance-floor. Here’s a few of the classiest more recent efforts.

“They wanted the kids to be afraid. But they weren’t afraid,” begins the liner notes to Brazilian Guitar Fuzz Bananas (Tropicalia in Furs/ Fuse). They’re talking about rebellious music that was born from deep within a military dictatorship, where dissent came less from the lyrics, and more from the unique structures, booming drums and abrasive fuzz guitars. “You can just imagine the scene,” the notes continue, “a DJ hears something he likes and plays it on air, he quickly realises he messed up big time. The music though powerful is just too deep for his listeners.” It’s an urgent political statement, a funk call to arms, unity in the face of adversity. None of these artists went on to any great acclaim. In fact the majority of the tunes collected here were released as promo 45’s between 1967 and 1976 and if the band got some traction an album might’ve followed. Highlights include the opener Tema De Batman a loose cover of the Batman theme, featuring a way out psychedelic Brazilian Batman going to Mars to rescue Robin. It’s totally off it’s chops. A freak oddity. Then there’s Serguei, known as the Brazilian Iggy Pop who’s garage rock tune Ourico features him rasping about becoming a hedgehog.

Nigeria Afrobeat Special: The New Explosive Sound in 1970’s Nigeria (Soundway/ Fuse) should be subtitled ‘what Fela did to the Nigerian music scene in the 1970’s.’ It’s a document of highlife and dance bands struggling to cope with Afrobeat, the latest musical craze, and attempting to integrate it into their own styles. Fittingly it begins with the folks who wreaked this carnage, Fela Kuti & Africa 70, and their 1971 45 version of Who’re You? It’s relatively early Fela, still finding his style, repetitive vocals and taut instrumentation, not to mention modest running time of 8.35 that owes much to US funk music. Easily overlooked in his vast repertoire it’s without doubt the most explosive and commanding piece here. The remainder of the album is fascinating, but there’s one real nugget. It comes from Sunny Ade’s guitarist, Bob Ohiri, who with his Uhuru Sounds offer a genius hybrid: Psychedelic Afrobeat. Their tune Ariwo Yaa, with grinding sax and some pretty incredible stereo mixing almost sounds like two separate tunes crammed into one. It’s truly unique. Ohiri apparently only recorded this one solo effort in 1976. If the remainder of his album is anything like this monster then it’s the holy grail. As a whole this collection is a really curious mixture of restraint and bluster, a mash of styles. Some tracks you’d hesitate to label Afrobeat. Whilst the movement began with Fela, others with differing priorities and obsessions also took up the fight.

Back to Peru Vo.2 (Vampisoul/ Fuse) is about how music travels and is skewed by Chinese whispers across time and place. It bills itself as ‘the most complete compilation of Peruvian underground 1964 – 74,’ at thirty four tracks over two discs. The diversity suggests that Peru enjoyed a rich and vibrant music scene across the decade, very clearly inspired by the psychedelic rock, pop, soul, funk and jazz emanating from the UK and US, yet also taking a few steps of their own. It’s a rare groovers delight. If you’re after skewed psych soul reminiscent of Iron Butterfly, or raw slabs of steaming funk complete with that super cool and highly distinctive South American fuzz guitar, or even Latin garage rock stompers you’ll find them here. You can hear the Hendrix influence on tracks as diverse as Los Datsun’s urban funk monster En El Sol, or more overtly, bordering on homage on Pax’s Sittin on My Head, which is the way Jimi would’ve sounded had he been born in Peru. Then there’s a few curve-balls like Monik’s Maybe I Know, a bubble-gum do wop girl band that sound like they’ve stepped straight out of the UK in the fifties. While we expect Latin funk freak-outs like the urgent opener Cacique from Cacique or even some of the raw garage rock offerings, the sheer diversity of styles and approaches here lends a feeling of greater scope, like it’s a deeper more complex assessment of the time as a whole.

Fela Ransome – Kuti and Africa 70 with Ginger Baker – Live (Knitting Factory/ Planet Company)

In the late 60’s, early 70’s Fela Kuti and band recorded a number of albums at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios, one of which Cream drummer Ginger Baker guested on. Baker and Kuti enjoyed a lasting and fruitful friendship, with Baker traveling to to Lagos cross country (See the amazing doco Ginger Baker In Africa for a document of that journey) in 1969 to help Fela set up Nigeria’s first sixteen track studio funded by EMI. Whilst in Nigeria he and Fela collaborated regularly, and the fruits of this can be heard on this disc. Originally released in 1971, this reissue has even kindly thrown in a 16 and a half minute drum solo from Ginger Baker and Tony Allen at the 1978 Berlin Jazz Festival.

The album proper which was recorded at said 16 track studio begins with Baker filling Tony Allen’s seat on Let’s Start, kind’ve the equivalent of Ice-T’s L.G.B.N.A.F for it’s day, a call for sex with Kuti singing in his native Yoruba and explaining himself in English. The remainder of the album is one of the funkiest and most groove orientated works in Kuti’s extensive oeuvre, almost aggressively rhythmic due to the two incredible percussionists, possibly the two best in operation at the time interlocking and weaving around each other. Then of course there’s the congas and clave to add to the mix. The horns are impossibly sharp and stabbing and Kuti’s keyboard solos are inspired and mesmerizing. Between songs Kuti also indulges in English banter, ‘I wrote this song especially for Ginger, he doesn’t smell, he takes his bath,” on the opening to Ye Ye De Smell, which according to the liner notes from Kuti’s biographer is a colorful way of saying you reap what you sow. Perhaps most interesting is Kuti’s vocals. These are early days where he hadn’t fully developed his distinctive style and as a result he indulges in a kind of scat mixed with Yoruba, keeping things simple, leaving extended silences and even preempting horn lines, doing call and response with the instrumentation.

Of course Ginger Baker is heavily featured, not just on the final piece at the Berlin Jazz festival but also in an exhilarating extended percussion solo with Allen smack bang in the middle of Ye Ye De Smell. If you like percussion, you’re in heaven as these two together are nothing short of awe inspiring. The final piece is simply a duo recording, Baker and Allen alone, two drums and a sixteen and a half minute onslaught that sends the German’s wild.

Most Fela Kuti albums are something special, yet the presence of Baker really hardens up the groove offering a more relentless and driving feel that somehow makes the music feel more urgent, raw and passionate.

Bob Baker Fish