Album Review: Fela Kuti – Live!

The addition of Ginger Baker makes this slab of Afrobeat a bit more “beat” than “Afro”.

  • Genre: Afrobeat
  • Country: Nigeria
  • Release date: August 30, 1971 (reissued 2012)
  • Label: Regal Zonophone (reissued on vinyl by Knitting Factory Records)
  • Format: 12” vinyl
  • Catalog number: KFR-003


  • Fela Kuti – Hammond organ, percussion, vocals
  • Ginger Baker – drums (tracks 1, 3, 4), percussion, vocals
  • Tunde Williams – trumpet
  • Eddie Faychum – trumpet
  • Igo Chiko – tenor saxophone
  • Lekan Animashaun – baritone saxophone
  • Peter Animashaun – guitars
  • Maurice Ekpo – bass
  • Tony Allen – drums (tracks 2, 3, 4), percussion
  • Henry Koffi – percussion
  • Friday Jumbo – percussion
  • Akwesi Korranting – percussion
  • Tony Abayomi – percussion
  • Isaac Olaleye – percussion



Let’s Start



Black Man’s Cry



Ye Ye De Smell 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up



Egbe Mi O (Carry Me, I Want to Die) 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up


Total running time:


One of the most important musicians that your average American has never heard of, Fela Kuti and the genre of Afrobeat that he created revolutionized African music and nearly sparked revolutions in Africa itself, propelling Kuti into the role of a political prophet (and presidential candidate) for a generation of disaffected Nigerians. While his political ambitions never panned out, his groundbreaking music made him a star nearly everywhere in the world except the United States, which has long been almost completely unreceptive to most things made outside the Anglosphere. This album, given a hard rock edge by the drumming talents of former Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker, and simpler in its arrangements and composition than later Fela Kuti albums, can be a bridge for Americans to the incredible musical world of West Africa, where the forms and styles of black American music have returned to their ancestral lands and re-integrated into African musical traditions, emerging transformed and renewed. Fela Kuti stood on the vanguard of this African musical renaissance, and this record captures his Afrobeat project in its earliest, most vital stages.

Afrobeat as a genre, like many of the greatest musical movements of the 20th century, was an international hybrid: a mixture of the existing West African style of highlife music (which itself came from the collision of indigenous African musics with European styles, and appealed to Ghana’s emerging bourgeoisie) with the funk music (most notably the music of James Brown, who Fela Kuti saw both as an inspiration and as a target to surpass) he encountered while visiting the United States in the late 1960s, and his own classical and jazz training he received at London’s Trinity Conservatory of Music. Kuti honed his new sound in Los Angeles throughout 1969 and mingled with many of the leading lights of the Black Power movement, and after being hounded out of the country by the INS, returned to Nigeria with a bold new artistic and political vision.

Into this musical environment stepped Ginger Baker, looking for a new musical direction after the collapse of his previous project Ginger Baker’s Air Force in a downward spiral of drug abuse and personal animosity. He had known Kuti for several years and traveled with him to Nigeria to experience African music and learn about the African roots of jazz music, which had largely displaced the blues-rock of his early career as his primary musical interest. He moved into Kuti’s Kalakuta compound, and recorded a number of albums with him, most notably his solo album Stratavarious (1972) and this album with Kuti’s Africa 70 ensemble, recorded at the UK’s famous Abbey Road studio with a live audience.

With a total of seven percussionists, two drummers and five people on hand percussion, this is as rhythm-heavy as Afrobeat has ever gotten. The call-and-response vocal workouts and lengthy jazz-based lead improvisations of later Fela songs like “Zombie” and “Opposite People” are largely absent here, the majority of the music being carried by interlocking patterns of drums and percussion backed up by guitar ostinatos. Each song establishes a basic rhythmic pulse and rhythmic and melodic elements are added and removed in layers as the song progresses. The formula would be perfected later on, but here it’s in a rougher, more stripped-down form—the horns don’t weave counterpoint lines over and against each other like in later Fela material, but instead largely stick together, playing unison themes to kick off each track and occasionally interjecting with sharp jabs. The bass is rather subdued, usually playing a very basic line that continues throughout the entire song (surely Mr. Ekpo must get bored playing the same line for eleven minutes?).


The Black President Fela Anikulapo Kuti himself, with some of his many, many wives.

Even at this early stage in their career, Africa 70 are a hell of a band. Despite having up to fourteen members on stage simultaneously, the band has the tightness and perfect synchronicity you would expect from a trio or quartet, not the slightly loose timing of a big band or orchestra. The album was recorded live but there are no readily apparent mistakes—everybody is 100% on point 100% of the time. They jam like a jazz band, groove like a funk band, and pound with the overwhelming power of a psychedelic rock band. Inherited from traditional West African music is the polyrhythm, a way of layering different but coinciding rhythms atop one another to create rhythmic textures in the same way Western classical music uses polyphonic counterpoint and dense arrangements of many melodic instruments to produce harmonic textures. Rhythm is not just a simple beat but an expansive backdrop that envelops the whole stage, advances and recedes, shuffles components in and out. The huge size of the ensemble and extreme degree of coordination needed to make it work together limit its flexibility, though—Africa 70 don’t go for the sort of sudden key, tempo, and meter changes a small jazz band might throw in. Once they lock into a groove, they’re committed for the entire duration of the song. Luckily, Fela’s not the sort of bandleader to take his group in a boring direction.

As the guest of honor in this session, Ginger Baker appears on three of the four tracks—solo on “Let’s Start”, and as a duet with Africa 70’s own Tony Allen on “Ye Ye De Smell” and “Egbe Mi O” (the drums on “Black Man’s Cry” are handled by Tony Allen alone). His style is more muscular than Allen’s, displaying his roots in rock music with his signature “loping” tom fills and bursts of double bass drumming that would inspire a generation of hard rock and metal drummers, but still managing to swing like a true jazzman. Tony Allen is more subtle and restrained, playing in a more traditional jazz idiom, relying more on his cymbals and less on the shells, and employing a lighter touch than Baker, who is always eager to beat the hell out of his kit. Both are excellent, but I must admit to preferring Allen’s approach—Baker can be a bit overbearing at times.

Fela’s distinctive Hammond timbre is in full flower here—he sounds nothing like a typical Western organist, employing largely monophonic leads that sound almost like an electric piano rather than an organ. He is often backed by a single guitar, which plays in a more rock-oriented, less distinctive style than the tenor and rhythm guitar duo of his later records. Less developed is his voice, which, though quite powerful, is still rough and a bit ragged at this stage. He doesn’t sing many distinctive melodies, nor does he have the chorus to do call and response with. The lyrics are delivered in Nigerian pidgin English (with some Yoruba sprinkled here and there), and to my American ears, they are mostly impossible to understand.

Considering the stature of Abbey Road Studios and the albums that have been recorded there, the sound quality here is kind of disappointing. It’s very heavy in the midrange and many of the fine details of the hand percussionists get washed while the drums dominate everything, especially when Baker and Allen play together. One nice thing, though, is that in the tracks with both drummers, they are clearly separated, Baker on the left side and Allen on the right, and their kits have slightly different drum tones (Baker’s is a bit boomier and darker than Allen’s). The Knitting Factory vinyl reissue is good quality, but the digital download version included with it suffers terribly from dynamic range compression, with “Black Man’s Cry” having a ReplayGain value of -8.75 dB and the others not much less.

The two tracks on the first side, “Let’s Start” and “Black Man’s Cry”, are simple (by Fela’s standards), mid-paced numbers that serve as hors d’oeuvres for the pummeling twin drum attacks to follow. “Let’s Start” is the better of the two, riding on a rolling Ginger Baker drum line, and featuring some neat call and response between the two trumpet players. Fela’s piano-like organ features heavily in the middle section of the song. “Black Man’s Cry” doesn’t pack quite the same punch and Fela’s tuneless singing wears a little towards the end, but is still quite good. Igo Chiko puts in a nicely swinging sax solo at around 2:30 and Tony Allen doesn’t overshadow the percussionists quite as much as Ginger Baker does.

“Ye Ye De Smell”, which kicks off the second side, is where things really get cooking. As far as I can tell from Fela’s description and the overall mood of the music, the song is about some sort of dispute between friends (“it’s a kind of friendship thing…when your friend…is doing something a friend doesn’t do, then he smells”), and the music matches, blasting off at lightning speed with more power and violence than the previous two. Now both Baker and Allen are on drums, and the way they weave their drum lines around one another is quite astonishing. The melodic themes established by the horn section and Fela’s vocal interjections are stronger than on previous cuts. As the track progresses, a “battle” of sorts starts between the left and right sides of the Africa 70 group, with Ginger Baker and the sax player on the left trading blows with one of the trumpets and Tony Allen on the right. Chiko’s Coltrane-like sax trills and harsh overblows exude confidence and a touch of menace. A brief interlude led by Fela that restates the main melodic theme clears the way for a brutal drum showdown between Ginger Baker and Tony Allen. They really go all-out here, each trying to outdo the other in beating his respective drum kit into splinters. The interaction between the two, and with the martial hand drumming accompanying them, makes this far more interesting than your typical drum wankfest, as ideas and flourishes bounce between them. Just as Baker seems to have subdued his rival with waves of savage double bass kicks that would be the envy of almost any metal drummer, Fela’s organ leads the band back in with a reprise of all the previous melodies, and the two drummers reconcile and work in concert instead of in opposition, bringing the piece to a thrilling conclusion.

The second of the tracks on side B, “Egbe Mi O”, is more uplifting, sounding much like an extended James Brown jam, but with a much grander rhythmic foundation. The interaction between Baker and Allen is sublime; at times they seem to merge into one unit, as if the drums were played by a giant octopus with eight drum sticks. The melodies here are the strongest of the record, most notably a sing-songy theme that is first introduced by Fela on organ about halfway through. The organ solo that follows is his best playing on the album, not that technical but very distinctive in timbre and phrasing—there was no one who could play the Hammond like this before him. The last four minutes of the album reprise the theme introduced on organ earlier, sung first by Fela and then the whole band, and finally the studio audience, louder and louder, as everyone present is whipped into an ecstatic frenzy and the drummers surge forwards. Finally the horns jump in, blasting away in triumphant jubilation and returning the music to the piece’s first chord to close the record.

This record is essential for any lover of jazz, funk, soul, psychedelic rock, or similar improvisational music. Newcomers to West African music should give this album several listens to become habituated to the complex, multilayered polyrhythms. It will be an investment that will pay off in access to a wealth of music unaffected by the slow and steady calcification American popular music has undergone in these past few decades. Rock music’s days were already numbered in 1971, and jazz already starting its death spiral towards becoming the smart person’s waiting room music, but Africa’s musical rise was just beginning, and it was Fela Kuti who led the way.

Rating: 86%

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