On Red Hot + Riot's Tribute to the Black President
By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com
AIDS killed Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat legend. The Ransome-Kuti family made the unprecedented decision to announce the cause of death.
The Red Hot organization has been at the forefront of the cultural battle to call attention to AIDS and educate the general public about AIDS, particularly those whose plight the media have been ignoring.
The fund-raising recording project, Red Hot + Riot, that featured a plethora of musical and entertainment talent was structured around interpretations of Fela’s music. This album is billed as a tribute to the great songs of Fela.
It combines contemporary musicians across the African Diaspora - The United Kingdon, Urban America, Brazil, Cuba, Europe and Africa - including Tony Allen, the legendary drummer and former Fela's band member. In short, a cross-section of some of the most creative musicians in the world.
The combinations are not just musical, but also symbolic of how people need to work together to achieve the positive life force embodied in Fela's music and spirit.
But covering Fela’s music is like giving a toothpick to a whale. No one can cover the music, you can try and channel part of the music, catch a feather from the spirit wings as the music flies by.
Fela's sister, Wunmi, is up first doing an energetic cover of “Zombie.” A singer and dancer of boundless energy, I like Wunmi’s attitude a whole lot.
As a dance tune, Bugz’ computer beats work for what they are, but it’s not Afrobeat even though that is precisely what they attempt to duplicate.
The London-based collective of Bugz In The Attic is in the forefront of programmed dance music and their arrangement of "Zombie" is a good case for what they do even though there is no way computers can get the same sound as an organic Fela-led orchestra.
Up next, Chicago’s second-favorite son (that’s not a dis, just a recognition of reality), Common, drops a thoughtful verse on a severely truncated version of "Tears and Sorrow."
Up in the mix are two heavyweights but the cut is so short you hardly recognize their contributions: Meshell Ndegeocello and West African guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.
One big, big problem with these kinds of projects is that inevitably some of the talent gets short-changed when the final product is released.
Produced by D’Angelo and Femi Kuti, “Water No Get Enemy” features trumpeter Roy Hardgrove and guitarist Nile Rogers. D’Angelo is on lead vocals plus Rhodes keyboard. That’s Fela’s son, Femi, on saxophone and vocals (sounding like his father) and Ms. Macy Gray sweetening up the chorus.
The second part includes former members of Fela’s band and dancers (some of whom were also his wives). Again, I like what they do, unfortunately it does not quite measure up to the original nor does it strike out in its own direction so comparisons are inevitable.
“Shuffering + Shmiling” works probably the best of all the tracks because, thanks to the rappers, it goes it’s own way.
Talib Kweli is on point as he drops wisdom in keeping with the critique of organized religion that was the original intent of this song.
Dead Prez rise to the occasion and keep the flow moving in a powerful upward direction. This is a beautiful interpretation of Fela’s music rather than an attempt to imitate the unduplicable.
We close with a edited version of Fela performing “Shuffering And Shmiling.” Immediately it is obvious that organic funk has a different texture than computer-generated beats and the sound of modern recording techniques, not to mention the content, the science Fela spews, how he takes his time and bills his case starting with a statement that it is not our fault that we were born into our conditions, and then he takes it out from there.
Fela’s father was a preacher. Fela was a preacher. But their messages could not be more different. “Shuffering And Shmiling” is the kind of song behind which friends might fall out with each other. Fela teeth sharp but he no bite tongue.
There can be no freedom of speech if we are not speaking our truths, sharing our realities, introducing our dreams to each other and the world.
Red Hot + Riot is released by MCA Records (2002). It's available at many music outlets.
The companion to the album, the film Red Hot + Riot: Encounters with AIDS in Africa is available with a donation to The Red Hot Organisation here.
Red Hot's You Tube channel features videos from the film: www.youtube.com/user/redhotorg
Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.
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