The first CDs in Fela's catalog were reissued on Tuesday, February… (Femi Onsunla / Urban Images )
His sound is unmistakable: insistent, trance-like rhythms spiraling out of songs that sometimes run longer than 20 minutes; a biting and fluid horn section that could put James Brown's backing band to shame; and a confrontational, uncompromising political message that went beyond the experiences of Western protest singers and culminated with a government siege on his home, imprisonment and even an attempted presidential campaign in his native Nigeria.
These are the hallmarks of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a pioneer in the hybrid of African music, jazz, funk and soul he called "Afrobeat," which made him a global superstar in the 1970s. But now, several years after his 1997 death from AIDS-related complications, this revolutionary musician is amid an improbable resurgence in American pop culture.
While his influence has long rippled through the world music scene with sons Seun and Femi Kuti and a variety of modern Afrobeat ensembles, he is now the subject of "Fela!" a hit Broadway musical backed by high-wattage producers Jay-Z and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. And after many of Fela's albums languished out of print for years, New York's Knitting Factory Records began on Tuesday releasing remastered editions of his entire catalog in a reissue series.
Consisting of nine albums recorded from 1969 to '74, the first batch of CDs offers a fascinating snapshot of Fela's developing musical voice.
Starting with his debut, "The '69 L.A. Sessions," Fela and his first ensemble, Koola Lobitos, are steeped in Africa's "Highlife" sound, a bright and jazzy style far lighter than that of the bandleader's later work. But even in these early years, Fela's developing social consciousness is on display as he speaks out for African unity on "Viva Nigeria."
While every Fela record has elements to treasure, two releases in this batch could be considered excellent starting points for new listeners. The 1971 album "Live With Ginger Baker" was a transparent but still invigorating attempt by Fela's record company to cross over with Western rock audiences by giving the former Cream drummer equal billing, and the dual-album release "Confusion / Gentleman" is widely considered one of Fela's finest statements.
Opening with a spacey duet between Fela on keyboards and powerhouse drummer Tony Allen that sounds like an outtake from Miles Davis' electric period, the title track is a mercilessly funky, 25-minute journey. Yet even as Fela decries Nigeria's post-colonial plight in a mix of pidgin English and West African Yoruba, the song never loses track of its central mission to move bodies as well as minds.
Spanning a period when Fela's criticism of the Nigerian government would become more pointed (with dangerous consequences), the next Fela reissues ranging from 1974-77 are scheduled for release May 4.
Perhaps seeking to provide further context to this ongoing Fela-palooza, the rare-groove and hip-hop label Now-Again explores Fela's broad influence with "Black Man's Cry: The Inspiration of Fela Kuti," coming out Tuesday. Sumptuously packaged like a hardcover book, the album collects rare and previously unreleased recordings by artists from Fela's heyday and after who followed in his footsteps around the world.
Nigerian organist Segun Bucknor, a fixture on the nation's '70s music scene, could have just as easily been an influence on Fela with the ominously funky "Adebo." In a nod toward the global reach of Fela's music, Trinidad's Lever Brothers Gay Flamingos transform a medley of Fela's "Egbe Mi O" and "Black Man's Cry" into a sparkling orchestra of steel drum polyrhythms.
Equally rewarding is the album's examination of Fela Kuti's influence on Colombian cumbia sounds on "Shacalao," Lisandro Meza's rumbling, accordion-flecked take on Fela's "Shakara (Oloje)." The Afro-Colombian connection is also explored on Phirpo Y Sus Caribes' "Comencemos," which adds fuzzed-out guitar to a cover of the Fela and Ginger Baker collaboration "Let's Start."
But perhaps the most telling inclusions here are from contemporary bands such as New York City's Daktaris and the Germany-based Karl Hector and the Malcouns, who contribute the deeply funky original, "Toure Samar."
Apart from advances in recording quality in some cases, the sound and spirit of these tracks are indistinguishable from recordings made nearly 40 years ago. Although 2010 might be the year of Fela, these reissues prove his music remains utterly timeless.