With more than 40 albums to his name, Fela Kuti was a prolific and productive artist during his lifetime, not to mention a legendary one as well. In Nigeria, he was a superstar, an immense figure loved by the people and loathed by the country’s leadership. Yet during his prime he was still fairly unknown in North America and Europe. This isn’t to say he didn’t have his fans, but it was only in later years that his talent and vision would truly become as widely appreciated outside of West Africa. Still, he was an artist appreciated by other artists, his influence apparent in the music of Talking Heads, modern Afrobeat collective Antibalas and indie rockers TV on the Radio. But that only tells part of the story.
Now-Again Records, a label with a history of compiling some great collections of underground gems culled from the archives, has put together a 15-track set of songs by artists strongly influenced by Kuti, titled Black Man’s Cry: The Inspiration of Fela Kuti. The set features a range of artists from across the globe, ranging from Fela’s home country of Nigeria, to neighboring Ghana, Colombia and the United States. However, unlike Fela’s expansive jams, most of the tracks here stay well under five minutes long, with one notable exception being Lever Brothers Gay Flamingoes’ “Egbi Mi O/Black Man’s Cry,” which stretches beyond nine minutes.
Cumbia Moderna de Soledad’s “Shacalao” recalls Kuti’s chanting sing-speak, over a hypnotic Latin rhythm, while Dan Satch and His Atomic 8 Dance Band’s “Woman Pin Down” translates Afrobeat’s funky rhythms into a jazzy rock song with plenty of energy and vigor. Bola Johnson’s “Hot Pants” is a low-fidelity groove with some fiery vocals that, probably not coincidentally, recall one of Kuti’s North American contemporaries-James Brown. Some of the more recent contributions, meanwhile, show off an interesting evolution of Afrobeat’s rhythms. Daktaris’ “Up Side Down” takes on a deeper funk sound, while Karl Hector and the Malcouns’ “Toure Samar” veers into some stunning psychedelic territory. And The Whitefield Brothers’ “Lullaby for Lagos” closes the album with a dose of beautiful, yet no less funky, jazz-funk.
As time marches on, it’s increasingly apparent just how wide Fela Kuti’s influence on pop music is. From Afrobeat to funk to cumbia, jazz, hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll, there are few genres that the Nigerian legend’s music hasn’t touched in some form or another. And Black Man’s Cry merely provides further evidence of that, while lining up 15 tracks that groove well enough on their own.
Various Artists – Nigeria Special Vol. 2
Fela Kuti – Black President: The Best of Fela Kuti
Daktaris – Soul Explosion
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.