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FELA and AFRIKA 70 “Colonial Mentality”

By Mtume ya Salaam 


Eight minutes into Fela’s “Water No Get Enemy” (available on the MCA reissue Expensive Shit/He Miss Road), the Nigerian high priest of Afro Beat and his umpteen band members (it never actually was 70, was it?) reach such a frenzied level of deeply syncopated funk and soul that the voices, keys, bells, horns, skins, sticks, shakers, palms of hands, soles of feet and various other sound-making devices that they employ blend into an almost hallucinatory wall of beautiful noise.


We’re not talking about music. No, this is something else. This is some whole ‘next level’ shit. We’re talking about a state of suspended sound-reality that only the greatest of the great funk musicians—meaning J.B. and P-Funk and no one else—could ever even hope to achieve. And that’s on a good night. As for Fela, he did it all the time.

Witness the blissful sloppiness (most assuredly intentional) of “Colonial Mentality” (available on the MCA reissue
Opposite People/Sorrow, Tears And Blood), a tune Fela and his band cut two years after “Water.” Fela and his mighty music-makers ramble along for no less than seven minutes before getting around to the actual song. But what a ramble.


The drums funk along in one direction, the guitar in another. We’re listening to (at least) two different grooves at once. (By American standards, at least. African musicians do this sort of thing on a regular basis, and I don’t think they’d think of the cross-rhythms as being either separate or different.)


To my ears, the drums and the guitar are wholly independent, yet somehow harmonious. Listen closely to the guitar line—the drums fade. Listen to just the drums—the guitar fades. But try this: just lay back and let the drum-and-guitar groove(s) catch you. Actually, it’s not so much something you have to ‘try’ to do as much as it’s something you have to ‘not try’ to do.


Listen too closely and you ruin the effect. It’s like floating—it only works when you stop trying to make it work.


In front of his Kalakuta Republic surrounded by his wives and followers


Meanwhile, the bass player and the organist have separate and interesting ideas of their own. There is a horn section blowing with the sort of willful all-over-the-placeness that would’ve gotten them cursed out, fined or fired from any band James Brown ever led.


All the while, Fela is wreaking havoc on the tenor sax, coaxing out of that shiny metal tube some of the prettiest screeching, wailing, honking, squeaking, roaring and whispering you’ve ever heard. What a record. (And they haven’t even started singing yet!)

Although Fela was sometimes called ‘The African James Brown,’ his funk is nothing like James’ funk. James best music is dead-hard on the one, the band tighter than gnat-ass.


Sometimes, listening to J.B., it’s hard to believe those are actual, separate musicians you’re hearing. They are so well-honed, so completely zoned in to the tune, to the groove, to each other and most of all, to J.B., that they sound like a single multi-headed, multi-handed machine-man.


They’re just that precise, that exact, that perfect. Fela’s funk is never perfect. Then again, neither is P-Funk’s. But Fela’s funk is nothing like P-Funk’s either. From the freaked-out acid blues of early Funkadelic to the slightly disco-fied but still-stanky groove of late Funkadelic and from the bizarre country/folk/soul/pop mélange of early Parliament to the AOR/sci-fi/jazz-fusion mash-up of late Parliament, nothing P-Funk ever did incites pure aural bliss as do Fela’s stompers like “Lady,” “Gentleman” and “Africa-Centre Of The World.”

Much has been written about Fela’s politics, arrests, wives, dialectics, drug use, political defiance, death from AIDS, etc., etc., and all of it is fascinating. But what I find most fascinating about Fela is his talent as a musician. His compositional skills.


His ability as a bandleader. His commanding vocals. His wit and humor—both musically and lyrically. His powerful tenor solos. His fertile imagination. Get to this: many of Fela’s better songs contain enough separately identifiable musical ideas that they could be reworked and split into three or more separate tunes.


And yet, Fela wrote, recorded and performed scores of these sprawling epics. Take away all the rest—all of the extra-musical stuff that makes reading Fela’s biography such a ‘He did what?!’ experience—and you’re still left with one of the most brilliant and prolific musicians of the 20th century.


With thanks to www.kalamu.com/bol where this piece was originally posted.


Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer, voracious reader, dedicated father, professional truck driver and degenerate poker player whose homeowner’s insurance policy has a separate rider for ‘music CDs,’ ‘vinyl record albums,’ and ’stereo equipment.’ He lives in New Orleans and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

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