The previous box sets in this series,containing 6 or 7 of Fela Kuti's albums, were compiled by people as varied as Erykah Badu, Ginger Baker (who actually recorded with Fela) and Brian Eno, so not only is Elba following some illustrious musicians, his choices were limited to around 16 albums all told as the others had already been featured on previous iterations in the series.
For those of you unfamiliar with Fela's extensive catalogue it can be somewhat daunting however, and I'd avoid the compilations that contain edits of his finest tunes as they only present a snapshot of what's going on whereas the full versions allow the listener to luxuriate in the whole experience. Albums containing just one track lasting 20+ minutes over two sides are not uncommon.
Fela was noted for his political lyrics challenging not only Nigeria's colonial rulers but also those who replaced them. This led him into many direct confrontations with the army and police. He, his family and his musicians were attacked, brutalised, and jailed, with the army burning down his base, breaking his leg, throwing his mother out of a second story window, raping his wives, and detering his record label from releasing his music.
Against this background Fela could also be lyrically playful and his music was meant to be danceable and sure was. His drummer for four of the six albums here is the legendary Tony Allen, a man who is often credited with inventing Afrobeat, plus Fela's extensive bands, be it Africa 70, or Egypt 80 were always the hottest ticket in town when they passed through. Just check out YouTube for his and what turned out to be Africa 70s last performance in Berlin in 1978 and you'll get the idea.
Anyway Elba has been very savvy with his more limited choices and deserves credit for that. He has chosen 1972's Open and Close which is one of the earliest records made with Africa 70 and still shows traces of Fela's roots in Jazz and Hi-Life but with a more persistent groove. Stalemate, I Go Shout Plenty, and Opposite People which were all recorded around the time, in 1976-77 when his compound was burnt down etc, all of which were sat on by his record label for a while but, unlike Zombie or Expensive Shit (the two albums I would start with if I was wondering where to begin) these albums, though still political, represent a more unfinished version of what might have been as they were recorded at an incredibly traumatic time.
By the time Africa 70 had dissolved and Fela had assembled Egypt 80. Elba's next choice is Music Of Many Colours, recorded in 1980, a collaboration with jazz vibes player and singer Roy Ayers and his band. Ayers takes the lead vocal on 2000 Blacks Got To Be Free, with Fela taking the lead on Africa Centre Of The World. Fela purists might complain but the two tracks, coming in at 36 minutes, are a blast and well worth a listen.
Elba's final choice is Fela and Egypt 80 Live in Amsterdam. It's a very fine document of the live power of Fela and Egypt 80. For added oompf it's co-produced by Fela and Dennis Bovell. The 37 minute opening track Movement Of The People is an absolute stormer and it just doesn't let up through the other two tracks. Some say that Egypt 80 didn't reach the heights of Africa 70, and yes Fela's powers did wane after years of physical attacks by the authorities and the onset of AIDs which eventually led to his death in 1997, but this really is a great document of a band at the height of its powers.
So, yes, most of the music here is as good as it gets, and even in its weaker moments, is still greater than most, so five stars for that and congratulations to Idris Elba for his interesting, diligent choices.
However.....6 albums on 7 pieces of vinyl with a booklet and a poster for £120 when you can buy The Complete Works Of Fela Kuti, 50 albums on 29 CDs, with a booklet describing the genesis of each album plus a DVD about Fela for around £76 on line in the UK? Well, I can't really see the point of investing in the vinyl box. Feels more like one for fetishists.
That said, Fela's music is as wonderful as any I've ever heard. Dig in!
Fela Kuti BOx Set 6 out now. Thank you Fela for wearing that suit.